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FBISD’s First Early College Cohort Among the Class of 2023

(FORT BEND ISD) - Fort Bend ISD has just graduated more than 6,000 students and among the graduates were members of the district’s first cohort of Early College High School and Pathways in Technology students.

These students earned their associate degrees from Houston Community College, thus receiving a college degree before getting their high school diplomas.

Both the ECHS and P-TECH programs combine high school and college instruction and offer students the chance to accumulate up to 60 hours of college credits.

The ECHS model at Marshall High School offers students the chance to earn an Associate of Arts degree in Multidisciplinary Studies, which they can transfer to a state public college or university. This program increases college readiness, providing rigorous instruction and coursework as well as academic and social support.

Marshall ECHS graduate Mary Awofodu noticed exponential improvements academically and personally. Now she is ready to take on college work in California, hoping to pursue a career in law. As an eighth grader, she admits that she hesitated when she heard about the ECHS opportunity because she believed she couldn’t keep up with college work in high school.

“But when you see smart people and you really want to hang out with them and get to know them, it also pushes you to get to their level,” Awofodu said.

She moved to the U.S. from Nigeria when she was nine years old in 2014 and was separated from her family for some time. She struggled in school and was placed in English as a Second Language classes in order to catch up to her peers. It was during this time that she learned that ECHS was a high school option, and she decided to apply.

“The challenges that came with applying as an international student taught me resilience, determination, and faith, and for that, I am thankful,” she said. “Not only have I seen growth within myself as, but I’ve also seen growth within my peers. Sometimes I forget that I’m leaving high school with over 60 college credits.”

Marshall High School Principal Dr. Ogechi Uwaga-Sanders is certain that the first graduates of the ECHS programs are destined for great things. She’s seen the students blossom from freshmen into confident graduates. She was able to observe the students’ growth first-hand as they overcame the struggles most students don’t face until college. They built an emotional support network for one another and organized their own study groups.

“Just to see them mature into truly young adults, it’s just really awesome,” Sanders said. “I knew the impact would be great but just to see it play out with the kids and the level of maturity that they grew into has been amazing.”

While the ECHS program prepares students for coursework they will experience in college, the P-TECH programs in FBISD prepare students for in-demand careers in technology and healthcare. Opportunities are fine tuned to the current labor market and create a pipeline of highly skilled workers for growing industries through certifications. The P-TECH program at Hightower High School is geared toward the healthcare sector.

Hightower P-TECH graduate Sergio Tovar became interested in the program after hearing about it in middle school. He plans to pursue a career as a travel nurse after completing his education. Like Awofodu, the rigor of college-level coursework took some time for Tovar to get used to but he’s grateful to have had the experience.

One of the incentives for Tovar and his family was that the program offered him two years of college at no cost. Both the ECHS and P-TECH programs in FBISD are free. With the cost of college continuing to rise, this can be an attractive option for students and families.

“I was willing to risk it because it’s education that you get for free,” Tovar said. “It’s something that you should always take no matter what. Being a part of the P-TECH program was one of the best decisions I could say I’ve made so far, because not only did I graduate with my high school diploma, but also with two years of an associate degree that I was able to work for, for free.”

Tovar is now encouraging his sister to enroll in the program. When asked, he said he is honest with middle school students about what life is like in the P-TECH program. It can be a challenge to manage academic requirements but it isn’t impossible and he said it is definitely worth the hard work.

Hightower Program Dean Dr. Sharon Delesbore echoes those feelings and applauds the perseverance demonstrated by this year’s inaugural cohort. She said the new Fort Bend ISD initiative was a bit like flying and building a plane at the same time. To better serve students, Hightower’s program curriculum changed after students were already enrolled. Despite that, students rose to the challenge of not only the changes but also the expectations of being a college student in high school.

“The students were amazing,” DDelesbore said. “They were able to adapt and pull it off.”

“The celebration and the joy that we have right now is really encouraging those kids to continue with the tenacity that they have demonstrated,” she said. “I tell kids all the time that what is going to help them be successful is learning how to collaborate with others and learning how to advocate for themselves. Those two soft skills are the developmental pieces that grow our kids.”

The P-TECH program at Willowridge High School focuses on computer programming, and one of its graduates was Class of 2023 valedictorian Arianna Coronel. She plans to study psychology at the University of Houston. She was able to take a psychology course as part of the P-TECH program. She said she also enjoyed the computer programming offerings.

“My goal was to learn right alongside everyone else, not just in the classroom, but to know what is expected of me in the college environment,” Coronel said. “We tutored each other, and we helped each other with our projects.”

Willowridge Counselor and P-TECH Program Lead Danielle Anderson said she sees the students as her flock, especially this first group of graduates. Like students at Hightower and Marshall, the Willowridge students formed a family and Anderson regularly checked in with them individually. As she looks forward to the future of the program, her hope is that more students have the opportunity to participate and that they have the same perseverance she saw in the first cohort.

“They stuck together, and they persevered, followed through and completed this program,” Anderson said. “I just don’t know how they did it, you know, but they were dedicated and committed to earning their degrees.”

ECHS and P-TECH District Administrator and veteran educator Donald Lam has worked with his counterparts in other school districts to learn a lot about how to steer programs toward success. Changes continue to be made to FBISD’s three programs to make them as efficient and effective as possible, but the goal remains the same – to prepare students for bright futures.

“Their goal is to finish college at an accelerated pace because they already have their 60 credit hours,” Lam said. “It’s also a good thing for our kids who know what they want to do, who just need to get certified to start working.”

The success of the programs is thanks in large part to the district’s partnership with HCC and innovative approaches such as a multi-week summer bridge program this year so students can learn what college life is like. ECHS and P-TECH students will also have access to tutoring provided by their peers in a Dulles High School student group.

More than 100 students from all three schools were honored at this year’s first celebration of ECHS and P-TECH graduates.

For any student considering ECHS or P-TECH as a high school option, Awofodu said they can be successful in the programs and it has nothing to do with their grades.

“Don’t think it’s impossible because it’s never impossible and also surround yourself with people who have the same goal and determination as you, because if you’re surrounding yourself with people who are easily going to quit, you’re going to do the same thing,” she said. “You can improve academically, emotionally, mentally, and physically as long as you’re going into the program with the mindset of improvement.”


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