At Austin Community College’s graduation ceremony last week, hundreds of students beamed with pride as their names were called to walk across the stage and receive diplomas. In this mix was a cohort of Bastrop students.
Thirty-one students from Bastrop Colorado River Collegiate Academy received their associate degrees just weeks before graduating from high school. They were the first class in the academy to complete the program which integrates students’ high school curriculum with college courses.
The Early College High School program has spread to central Texas school districts. ACC launched the program in 2011 with two high schools in the Austin School District. Since then, the program has taken shape in Round Rock, Elgin, Manor, Bastrop and soon in Leander.
Colorado River Collegiate Academy, a public high school committed to the Early College High School framework adopted by the Texas Education Agency, began taking shape in November 2013 and welcomed its first freshman class in 2014.
The program is designed for students to complete credit hours toward both an ACC associate’s degree and a high school diploma within four years.
For some of these students, the past four years have felt more like an experiment.
“For us, being first class was a bit more difficult, because we had no idea what we were walking in. We were the guinea pig, so it was like an experiment the whole time,” said Shelby Rose, one of 31 students who graduated from ACC last week. “It was exciting because we were able to create the high school experience for ourselves.”
Like many in her graduating class, Rose is college-bound — a future University of Texas at Austin Longhorn with plans to double down on psychology and rhetoric.
Rose along with her CRCA classmate and future middle school roommate Frances Ramirez were two of CRCA’s top students, but both had only a rough idea of what they were getting into when they entered college. school in first grade four years ago.
“I knew taking classes in college and taking classes in high school was going to be tough. I didn’t know how it was going to be considering we were first class, but I knew it was going to be rigorous,” Ramirez said.
The past four years have also been a learning experience for Principal Martin Conrardy. Conrardy served as an educator for 26 years in central Texas school districts and was asked by then-school district superintendent Steve Murray to lead the program.
“That was November 2013, and I haven’t looked back since,” he said.
The program allows students to earn up to 60 hours of college credit toward an associate degree – which can also be used for a bachelor’s degree – at no cost. As freshmen, students begin the spring semester with a college-level study skills course that prepares them for the workload ahead. Sophomores spend Tuesdays and Thursdays at ACC’s Elgin campus where they complete 14 credit hours over two semesters, while taking high school classes the other three days of the week. Juniors and seniors can continue with a similar schedule or can choose to take courses offered at other ACC campuses.
In the early years, administrators struggled with expected logistical hurdles, such as transportation between the CRCA campus and ACC’s Elgin campus. And because the emphasis is on academic rigor, the school forgoes extracurricular activities like athletics and fine arts programs, Conrardy said.
“Any time you start a school, there are unforeseen challenges — things that come up that need to be dealt with,” Conrardy said. “My first year as school principal, I wasn’t thinking about things like high school dances and proms and stuff like that. For me, part of the learning curve was making sure we paid attention to our children’s emotional and social development in addition to academic development.
As required by the Texas Education Agency, any student who completes the full application process can enroll in the school.
“We don’t say no to kids,” Conrardy said.
The school employs 11 full-time teachers and one part-time teacher who supervise 211 students. Each class is gradually growing in size, with the current freshman class being 62 students while the senior class is 47. Conrardy hopes the school will grow to 70 students per grade level.
“We are getting ahead of ourselves and hope that with our first class, we will get more members of the community excited about coming to this school,” he said. .
Meanwhile, seniors who received their ACC diplomas are planning to walk again for their high school diplomas.
“Graduating twice is pretty cool,” Rose said. “It was tough juggling middle school classes and high school classes and evaluating the different environments, but overall it was a really good learning experience.”