The alignment to educate children in El Paso

Last week I participated in the first of three Urban Education Study Tours sponsored by the national organization, Grantmakers for Education. The tour participants include nearly 50 place-based and national foundation staff from across the country. Each is committed to supporting systemic advancements in the urban K-16 learning environments. These tours give everyone a chance to learn how communities collaborating are leveraging their resources to create better outcomes for children. The visit to El Paso, Texas, was a phenomenal experience for a host of reasons. 

First, El Paso is the U.S. border town with Juarez, Mexico. It’s one of the areas at the center of our nation’s immigration debate. It is also the second most impoverished congressional district in the United States. For years the largely Latino community was overlooked as a potential center for excellence in educational outcomes from the K-12 through the college level for all the usual suspect reasons: poverty, language barriers and racial stereotypes. Well, that’s all changed now.

A unique partnership was forged among the leadership of the El Paso Community College, El Paso Independent School District and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). The bi-product of this alliance is an innovative and student-friendly educational system that is full of rigor and producing some amazing outcomes. Consider these facts:

  • Early College High School students are completing enough college credits by their junior year of high school to earn their Associate’s Degree from the El Paso Community College; and
  • UTEP admits these students while they are still completing high school and allows them to attend credit-worthy classes so by the time they actually graduate from high school, they only need one or two years to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Another “aha” moment occurred during our discussion of graduation rates. The purest way to measure “graduation rates” is to take the number of freshmen entering any school (high school, community college or university) and divide it by the number of students from that initial group who graduate four years later. This method, however, fails to account for the reality of students’ mobility and provides little space for educational innovation.

For example, a high school student leaves his/her high school in the 11th grade to attend a school in a different district or charter school. The student would be recorded as a drop out in the first school and not accounted for in the second school because he/she did not start there as a freshman. The scenario repeats at the community college level. If Maria attends community college but transfers to a university before earning enough credits for an Associate’s Degree, she is counted as an incomplete or dropout at the community college. When she graduates from the university she is not included in the graduation rate because she did not began as a freshman.

The El Paso educational coalition has designed a creative method for addressing this challenge. First, the community college and the university administrators and professors have worked to align their curriculums. As a result, UTEP keeps track of each student’s progress. Whenever a student achieves enough credits to earn an Associate’s Degree, UTEP notifies El Paso Community College and the degree is awarded. This is huge! It increases the number of citizens with degrees. It provides students with a greater sense of accomplishment and motivation to continue their education. 

Another major collaboration is the creation of a uniform application process. The students complete one application for EPCC and UTEP. Students keep their same ID number when they transfer between schools. This enables everyone, including the school district, community college and UTEP, to track student progress and wrap supports around students who experience academic or social challenges in their quest for higher education. And here’s something else they’ve done that might make you fall out of your chair: They bring together professors from the schools to agree on the books for classes so they do not change every semester. Where were these folks when I was in college? I’m sorry, I digress.

Now lest you think the folks in El Paso are “creaming” the students who were going to make it anyway or just granting meaningless degrees, consider this:

  • UTEP has the highest level (21%) of disadvantaged students enrolled in their institution when compared to all other universities in the state. The state average is only 14%;
  • More than 90% of UTEP graduates who apply to law school are accepted, compared to 66% nationally;
  • Of those 33% are enrolled in the 15 top law school in the U.S.,  compared to 5% nationally;
  • UTEP ranked second among all U.S. universities after UCLA in the number of Mexican-American graduates who are successfully admitted to U.S. medical schools;
  • In 2010-11, the number of UTEP students who applied for financial aid was 18,852;
  • The average family income of financial aid applicants is $31,915; and
  • The number of financial aid applicants with family income of $20,000 or less is 8,777 or 46%.

Early college high schools are not new. In fact, many such as Mott Middle College have been initiated in Detroit and across the region. But El Paso has taken the concept to a whole new level by creating an almost seamless alignment for students between the school district, community college and university.

What would it take to create that level of alignment for children in our region? I welcome your thoughts! 

-- Henry McClendon is a program officer with The Skillman Foundation.