Bridging the gap

Early College High School helps at-risk students transition into higher education.



Keshawn Williams, a ninth-grader at Early College High School, takes her classes at Tulsa Community College's Northeast Campus.

Keshawn Williams, a 15-year-old ninth-grader, has known she wanted to attend college since she was 3 years old. In fact, that’s when she first informed her mother that she planned to become a doctor.

As an eighth-grader at Gilcrease Middle School, Keshawn says that a math teacher saw her desire to learn and excel and suggested a new program to the promising student — an alternative learning format that would help her college dreams come true sooner than she realized.

Within three days, Keshawn became a student at Early College High School, a partnership between Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) and Tulsa Community College (TCC). She now takes classes on TCC’s Northeast Campus, and she says she appreciates the freedom the program provides, as well as the individualized attention from teachers.

Keshawn plans to continue attending Early College through 12th grade and possibly further, and she hopes to one day attend Harvard or Princeton University.

“The teachers are always on me, pushing me,” she says. “The fact that I have help here is pushing me to that goal.”
Not long ago high school and college were separate endeavors. Those days are no more.

Early College offers specially selected at-risk students a customized high school curriculum in a college setting. Beginning with high school freshmen, the program is designed to increase educational opportunities, graduation rates and college enrollments for TPS students.

Dr. Sandra Massey is provost of TCC’s Northeast Campus, home to Early College. She says the goal of the program is for students to take one or more college classes by the time they reach their junior year. They will attend one class and receive both high school and college credit.

“The exciting part about a program such as this is, we have access to students who are traditionally underrepresented in college, or they’re underprepared when they get to us,” Massey says. “So we will now have students who are going to succeed in college before they ever graduate from high school.”

A national trend

Originally known as Middle College High School, the program was launched in September 2009 with 34 eighth-graders. The program emphasizes highly individualized learning plans and interest-based projects.

The program is now called Early College High School, and incoming students are selected from ninth-graders. Early College emphasizes learning that occurs both in the classroom setting and through experiences that connect learning to the real world, says Dr. Marsha Edmonds, Early College principal. For example, students participate in career shadowing that will lead to internships in the future.

Massey says feedback from teachers, parents and students has been positive.

“We are already seeing where the integration between high school and college is making a difference,” she says.

“Students are beginning to explore career options and talk about college, which they may not have done previously. Many of them are going to be first-generation college students.”

In the future, additional TPS ninth-graders will be selected through an application process and added to the roster, which now totals 41 but has the potential to accommodate students through the 12th grade. The tuition-free program costs TPS $160,000 a year, paid for by TPS-approved funds for alternative education.

Although the Early College program is the first of its kind in northeastern Oklahoma, Tulsa is far from the first school district to implement such an alternative program. At the national level, since 2002, the Early College High School Initiative and its partner organizations have started or redesigned more than 200 schools in two dozen states and the District of Columbia. Close to home, the city of Glenpool has also partnered with TCC to increase college access for its public school students.

Expanding dreams

Depending on their academic performance and maturity, many of the students who participate in Early College will have earned either an associate’s degree or have college credit toward an associate’s degree or certificate of achievement by the time they finish high school.

Edmonds says the program’s key benefit is simply reassurance that college is not an unattainable goal.

“Research suggests it’s the power of place,” Edmonds says. “It’s about providing an environment where students feel safe and comfortable so that by the time they graduate, college is not something they are intimidated by.”

Keshawn Williams’ mother, Contrail, says Early College has had a noticeable impact on her daughter and helped to refine her ambition to become a doctor.

“The program has motivated Keshawn to be even more than she wanted to be before,” her mother says. “She’s decided she wants to be a brain surgeon. It’s a blessing for her to be part of this. She never misses a day, and all she talks about when she gets home is what’s planned for the next day.”


Options and opportunities

Trained volunteers will soon help Tulsa students prepare for life beyond high school.

For today’s students, a high school diploma is paramount but does not guarantee future success.

Of the 70 percent of Tulsa Public Schools students who graduate, only 7 percent are college or career ready based on studies conducted by the McKenzie Group, a national consulting firm that helped TPS develop a district-wide Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, says Pamela Pittman, executive director of the University of Oklahoma Tulsa Community Engagement Center.

To help students develop workplace and college readiness skills, Pittman spearheaded what is known as the College Access Career Readiness (CACR) Coach Program.

The program brings together TPS, the Tulsa Metro Chamber and OU-Tulsa to help ensure that every student completes middle and high school prepared for college, technical training, the military or the workforce.

Beginning in January, the program will pair a trained volunteer “coach” with a Teachers as Advisors-trained TPS teacher.

The coach and teacher will work with a small group of students from a handful of selected middle and high schools.

Discussion topics include interest inventories, college applications and how middle and high school curricula are relevant to career goals.

Prospective coaches must complete eight hours of training by the CACR training committee. Coaches will then participate in two TPS classes per month from January through May; the program will begin again in August.

More than 200 local professionals expressed interest at a Tulsa Metro Chamber recruitment kickoff event last September. Pittman says she hopes to enlist a diverse group of volunteers from every sector of the community.

“We believe that if you have one caring adult,” Pittman says, “someone who is consistent, who asks about career goals and grades, who is aware if you need additional resources and connects you to those, then we can have a great impact on our school district.”

Interested in volunteering as a CACR coach? Contact the Tulsa Metro Chamber at 918-585-1201.

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