Early College High Schools: A Model Proven To Work

When it comes to failing schools, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every school is different and requires a tailored approach. However, there is one school turnaround program that has consistently achieved success: Early College High School (ECHS)

What is Early College High School?

The Early College High School model, begun in 2002, was an innovative educational response to the lack of college readiness and enrollment in postsecondary education for underrepresented and disadvantaged students, who constituted more than half of all public school students (Zinth, 2016). ECHS is a turnaround model that partners with struggling schools to help them improve student outcomes. The problem had reached critical levels considering several factors: postsecondary enrollment and graduation rates were low and continue to be for underrepresented students.  

The purpose of the Early College Initiative is to create and maintain partnerships connecting our state’s districts and high schools with the state’s colleges to give thousands of students—especially first-generation college-goers—access to college completion and career success. The ECHS model has succeeded in sealing the cracks through which many disadvantaged students fall by providing them with a personalized and rigorous program that creates a smooth transition from high school to college. The ECHS model motivates more low-income youth to go to college and gives them a head start on their careers. The Hechinger Report concluded, “It’s not just about exposure to college; it’s about increased support and helping students to self-identify as learners” (Barshay, 2020).

The ECHS model makes sense: It assumes students who engage in rigorous coursework in high school are better prepared for college-level work and more likely to earn a postsecondary degree. The model’s mission to engage historically underrepresented student populations is the most impactful element of the ECHS model. ECHSs are a “good chance” educational paradigm. They engage students who were otherwise left behind and motivate them on their way “early” to college. We raise underserved and high-risk students’ expectations for themselves by providing them access to advanced high school and college courses. The advantage of this approach is that students are exposed to higher education earlier in their lives while in a familiar, more comfortable learning environment.  

Educators are taking heed of the strong outcomes reported from more than 300 ECHS model schools nationwide, particularly for low-income, high-need, and under-represented students. Years of research show ECHSs worked for a large segment of the students they targeted (Edmunds, et al., 2012a; Edmunds, Willse, Archavsky & Dallas, 2013; Berger et al., 2013; Berger et al., 2014a; Edmunds et al., 2016b; New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, 2019). These outcomes are worth noting as more schools consider transitioning from a traditional high school to an ECHS.

The U.S. Department of Education research division identifies ECHSs as evidence-based models that have positive effects on high-school completion, credit accumulation, college enrollment, and college degree attainment: Data outcomes for college outcomes showed from 9% to 20% increases in enrollment and postsecondary degree achievement (New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, 2019). Other data reported by the Alliance for Excellent Education show outcomes for the ECHS model far exceed those from other traditional high-school programs, including other credit-accelerating programs (2018). ECHS students earn an average of 21.6 college credits by the time they graduate high school, compared to 2.8 credits earned in other high school programs (Edmunds, 2010). Thus, ECHS programs save students time and money toward college, as 94% earn some college credits before they graduate. This is especially important for students from low-income families.  

While ECHS models across the country provide unique programs reflective of their local and regional cultures and economies, almost all share core student-focused design components, which ease the path from high school to college to highly skilled jobs in demand. These components reflect the belief that all students, including those students in highest need, deserve the opportunity for higher education and good jobs and that preparation beginning in high school can support success. 

What are the Core Components of Early College High School

Equitable Access – increasing the number and percent of underrepresented students in higher education;

Academic Pathways – assuring what is taught in high school is well-integrated and aligned with college and career lessons and skills;

Robust Student Support – offering and providing both academic and advising support services;

Connections to Career – strengthening the bond of education and careers through workplace and experiential learning experiences; and,

High-Quality, Deep Partnerships – building and sustaining collaborations between high schools and colleges to coordinate student learning and preparation. 

If your school needs turnaround assistance, we encourage you to contact NS4ed.  For over 7 years, we have been a thought leader and a partner with ECHS programs across the country, including efforts in Massachusetts and New Mexico. Our expertise allows schools to easily develop the model and support the transition process by providing technical assistance where needed.

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