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BETTY REYNARD — First early college graduating class sets example for impactful program

On Saturday (June 6), the first-ever graduating class of Woodrow Wilson Early College High School will receive their diplomas, capping off 12 years of public education with great fanfare and celebration.

But what’s even more exciting about this moment is that 37 of those students will cross the stage, not only as high school graduates but as owners of an associate degree from Lamar State College Port Arthur.

In 2016 when these Port Arthur ISD students first became part of a great educational experiment, it must have seemed like a situation too good to be true. In fact, it really is a dream come true.

Students work to earn a high school diploma while also collecting credits toward an associate degree from LSCPA. By the time they graduate high school, they have the first two years of college under their belts.

And for these students, it’s all free.

“I was thinking, ‘It can’t be real,’” said De’Janique Jones, a graduate who first heard of the program in eighth grade.

But it is, and it’s important.

This program, and others like it across the U.S., are critical in moving the country’s economy forward and giving the nation its best chance to dominate in a world arena.

Statistics show there is a massive 25 percent postsecondary enrollment gap between high- and low-poverty schools. Early College high schools increase access to higher education while also providing the critical support students need to succeed.

It’s important that students enroll in some form of postsecondary education opportunity beyond high school. That’s particularly true for low-income students and other underrepresented populations.

Early College high school benefits not only the student by creating a seamless transition between high school and college but helps improve families and the community at large.

Woodrow Wilson ECHS, which is located on the historic Woodrow Wilson campus on Lakeshore Drive overlooking the Intracoastal Canal, provides a dedicated staff to guide and support students throughout their blended high school and college experiences.

Career pathways at Wilson ECHS are aligned to Southeast Texas’ economic needs, creating a pipeline of future skilled employees for the community. At the same time, as is the case with Jones’ Academic Studies associate degree, the Wilson ECHS benefits colleges and universities by creating a pipeline of students for their four-year degree programs.

The American Institutes for Research completed a study in 2019 on Early College high schools and the impact on students and the communities in which they live. Among their findings:

  • Early College students are not only more likely to complete postsecondary degrees, but they also complete these degrees more quickly. Earlier degree completion allows students to get a head start on furthering their education or entering the labor force at a younger age, or both, which impacts potential lifetime earnings.
  • Within four years after high school graduation, about 1 in 5 Early College students had earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 1 of 10 of non-ECHS students.
  • The positive impacts of Early Colleges on college enrollment and degree attainment continue for at least six years after high school graduation.
  • Per-student lifetime benefits of Early Colleges substantially exceeded the per-student cost.

The implications of the Early College high school experience are indeed far-reaching.

Early College high schools help policymakers and educators address key priorities in education, improve instructional rigor and college-going culture in schools, improve students’ college and career readiness and postsecondary outcomes and reduce economic barriers to postsecondary education and addressing the student debt crisis.

Boosting postsecondary educational attainment improves individuals’ earnings over a career, increases the amount of taxes governments collect and reduces government spending on federal assistance programs.

Lamar State College Port Arthur is proud of its participation in the Woodrow Wilson Early College High School experience. When those 37 students receive their diplomas this Saturday, it’s as if part of us is walking along with them.

Congratulations to you all. We know the future is in accomplished and capable hands as you take your next steps in life.

Dr. Betty Reynard is president of Lamar State College Port Arthur. She can be reached at reynardbj@lamarpa.edu.