Students in the Connally Independent School District will have a chance to earn a college degree while in high school through the district’s new partnership with Texas State Technical College.

Connally ISD and TSTC are teaming up to create a state-approved early college high school called Connally Career Tech.

Through the program, students will be able to earn up to 60 hours of college credit or even complete associate’s degrees in one of TSTC’s technical programs while they work on their high school diplomas.

Students will not have to pay for tuition, fees or textbooks for the program. The students will be housed in the vacant former Connally Intermediate School and also will take some classes and labs at TSTC.

“We want them in the college atmosphere, we want them on the college campus,” said June Burrow, director of Connally Career Tech. “They’re taking college-level courses and we want them to understand that: ‘You’re a college student now in addition to being a high school student.’ That’s what’s best for these kids, if we’re really going to prepare them to enter the workforce.”

It is the latest example of high schools and colleges partnering on initiatives to expand students’ higher-education opportunities.

TSTC has had an early college high school with Rapoport Academy since 2007, and the college also is involved with the Waco ISD-based Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy to offer local students a chance to earn certificates in fields like welding and electronics and robotics.

McLennan Community College is a partner in a college transition program targeting La Vega ISD students, and both colleges are in talks to partner with Waco ISD on a health care academy that would allow high school students to earn certificates for careers as nursing assistants and pharmacy technicians.

“There has been a resurgence in Texas around the conversation of career and technology education and preparing students to go to work and not just survive high school or the first week of class at a college or university,” TSTC Waco’s Vice Provost Adam Hutchison said. “I think that is a very important conversation for us all to be having with students at the high school level so that they can see a more complete picture of their future, because for some of our students college is not on their radar screen at all.”

Connally ISD will start the program with this year’s eighth- and ninth-grade students, who will be high school freshmen and sophomores in the fall.

Students have to apply for the program, which will accept only 100 students per grade level.

The Texas Education Agency formally approved the arrangement last month, and the district’s board of trustees has voted to set aside about $200,000 to fund the initiative beginning this fall, Superintendent Wes Holt said.

The early college high school model is different from the dual-credit program most local schools offer to allow students to earn college credits.

Students can begin taking dual-credit classes in 11th grade and are limited to three dual-credit classes per semester, while students in an early college high school program can begin earning college credits as freshmen.

Also, schools cannot pass on any costs for tuition, textbooks or fees to early college high school students, but dual-credit students could be subject to paying some of those expenses.

Laura Gaines, the TEA’s program coordinator for the Early College High School initiative, said the model also is geared more toward helping at-risk or economically disadvantaged students obtain a college education, though school districts can offer it to all student populations.

“When students can complete their high school diploma and their associate’s degree at the same time, that’s been shown to be more effective,” Gaines said.

“(College expenses) are typically things that can be considered roadblocks to students going on to college and being able to complete college, so by absorbing those costs on behalf of the kids, that’s another way that they’re able to be more successful in completing that degree.”

About 95 percent of Connally ISD’s eighth-graders are considered economically disadvantaged, Burrow said.

Gaines said research has shown that while fewer students who start at community or technical college actually finish their associate’s degrees, those who began earning college credits in high schools are more likely to graduate from college.

And the colleges benefit by having incoming students who are more prepared for rigorous college coursework and who do not need remedial courses, Gaines said.

The TEA normally receives about 50 applications from school districts each year seeking to form early college high schools, but the agency had 75 applications in 2011 and 112 in 2013.

Submissions were suspended in 2012 when the agency revised the application process.

Matthew Polk, superintendent for Rapoport Academy, said he has found that the early college high school program has helped the charter school’s students become more focused in both their high school and college coursework and in planning their steps toward enrolling in a college or university.

All students at Rapoport’s Meyer High School participate in the program.

Students have graduated with as few as six hours and as many as 80 college credit hours, Polk said.

“Our goal is to provide a really rigorous college preparatory education for all students, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so for us it was a natural fit to do an early college high school program,” Polk said. “Giving them that opportunity to see success at the college level while in high school is just a great opportunity.”

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