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The Early College High School Initiative

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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A New Trend in Education: Early College High Schools

Early College High School.

At first read, this combination of words seems like a contradiction in terms. Traditionally speaking, college and high school are two separate segments of education. There has always been a small percentage of advanced students who begin college far earlier than most students. It’s not unheard of for prodigies to begin college classes by age fourteen. For the most part, though, even the brightest finish high school in late spring or early summer at around age seventeen or eighteen. Then they head off to college for the freshman experience the following fall. It’s also not unusual for some students to get a head start on college by taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes. They may also take dual enrollment classes at local colleges or universities during their junior or senior years.

However, Early College High School is something entirely different. It’s neither early enrollment in college nor dual enrollment while still in high school. It’s a new approach to curriculum design. It serves as a bridge from secondary to post-secondary education for students who traditionally might not have the highest expectation of continuing their education after high school.

What is Early College High School?

The Early College High School Initiative first emerged in 2002, funded by a broad group of private organizations with the goal of making tuition-free post-secondary education obtainable for students who were previously underrepresented in institutions of higher learning. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation, The Ford Foundation, The Dell Foundation, The Walton Foundation, and others founded the movement. It’s been successful in increasing both high school graduation rates and attendance rates in junior colleges for the following populations:

  • Low-income students
  • First generation college students
  • English Language Learners
  • Students of Color

In addition to private donors, The Early College Initiative has created partnerships with public and private schools in 31 states across the country. To date, the Early College Initiative has been successful. It boasts the following statistics:

  • 90% of program participants finish high school
  • 94% of program participants earn college credit while still in high school
  • 71% of program participants enroll in college directly after high school

How Early College High School Works

The Early College High School (ECHS) model is united by a comprehensive approach to curriculum design which is common to all its programs across the nation.

The Six Elements of the EHCS Curriculum

1. Group Collaboration. 

Students engage in project-based work in which they cooperate with their peers to develop new academic and career-driven knowledge. They also develop valuable communication and teamwork skills.

2. Writing to Learn. 

Student engage in writing assignments which begin without evaluation. These assignments encourage experimentation with writing conventions. They get students comfortable using written language in an academic context. When a comfort level is established, Writing to Learn assignments may be evaluated and used as formative assessments which progressively lead to summative testing.

3. Progressive Scaffolding. 

Scaffolding is a technique common to almost all curriculum approaches. Class work progresses step-wise. In the ECHS model, scaffolding is carefully designed in a step-wise manner to build on prior skills and challenge students to take the next step in their learning process.

4. Classroom Discussion. 

Discussion in pairs, small groups, and in a full classroom setting is used to increase student comfort with communicating academic concepts and language in progressively more formal situations. This is important for English Language Learners and students not typically comfortable with public speaking.

5. Literacy Groups. 

Literacy groups heighten student engagement with literary texts. They also increase the sophistication with which they encounter texts of all kinds, from literature to STEM question sets. Teachers create and assign roles within the groups which guide students to a higher level of understanding of their subject material.

6. Questioning.

The Socratic Method encourages students to turn on their minds and ask questions which lead to a deep, personal relationship to new knowledge. Teachers encourage and develop questioning skills until they become a core part of the learning process for each student. Through active questioning, students challenge their teachers, their peers, and themselves to apply critical thinking techniques to the learning experience. This drives everyone involved to bring their best attributes to the table at all times.

Increasing College Access and Likelihood of Success

An important aspect of the national ethos in the U.S. is upward mobility. But this does not mean we’re a nation driven solely by acquiring wealth. Nor does it mean that everyone wants to start a business or become a doctor or a lawyer. Certainly, these dreams are praiseworthy and many of our young people live to fulfill them. But many young people today feel blocked from the path to even modest success in life. And it’s because they simply can’t afford college.

Many of these young people have modest goals: work, stability, and family.

The Early College High School Initiative exists to give these students the opportunity to pursue education past high school. It helps them pursue an associate’s degree, a technical certification, or a four-year college degree. School leaders, teachers, and parents should consider researching the options created by the Early College High School Initiative. With over 230 school partners in 28 states across the nation, there is probably an avenue available for every student to achieve their dreams.

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