The Quest for an AA Degree in High School

Twenty years ago a small alternative public high school opened in Houston based on the 10 common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools. After initial support and a great facility at opening, it was a battle to keep the school open, find new facilities, and gain access to equitable resources. As Lawrence Kohn, a founding member of Quest, explained the small school went through several phases and gained rebirth as an Early College High School (ECHS) with a grant from the Texas High School Project (now Educate Texas).

Early college students have the opportunity to earn college credit, up to a full associate degree with their high school diploma. The innovative opportunity is working at Quest Early College— last year over 70% of graduates left with a diploma from Lone Star College as well as Quest. (Note: in 2016, 90% of graduates earned an AA degree.)

Quest earned the ECHS designation from the state five years ago–a status that comes with waivers, resources, and some status. The school accepts students based on a lottery, however priority points are given to underserved students including ELL, first generation college, and disadvantaged students.

A former science teacher, Ginger Noyes is now principal of the Humble ISD high school of choice. Eighth graders from around the district apply to Quest recognizing the unique opportunity and lack of many of the trappings and extracurriculars of a traditional high school.

Noyes is graduate of the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program–an innovative leadership development initiative of the Jones Business School at Rice University.

Service learning. On Friday mornings students participate in service learning, freeing up those hours for staff professional development, reviewing student learning progress and plans, and team curriculum writing. Most students do about 400 hours of service often including an internship. Service Learning Coordinator Jim Nerad ensures a high level of student preparation. The articulate upper division students we spoke with said their service learning experience helped them mature and gain confidence in work settings.

Senior Kaitlyn McMahon is now a student service learning coordinator and credits her internships experiences with doctor’s offices for helping her make college and career decisions. It was clear that Kaitlyn’s experience in real-world medical settings had taught her to be poised and articulate. She is looking forward to receiving her associate degree before walking in her high school graduation this spring.

Building family. Every day, Monday to Thursday, begins with an advisory period called “Family.” About 18 students spend four years with the same Family facilitator in the academic and social support system. This structure builds relationships and allows for student leadership throughout their high school career. Family also provides students with the ability to develop a team mindset, pushing them to communicate and support a network of peers.

All of the 365 students also participate in the college prep AVID program. Family facilitator and teacher Mishka Douglas said the large number of first generation college aspirants in the Quest population benefit from the intensive combination of academic monitoring and college advising. As a graduate of Quest, Mishka knew first hand how powerful AVID and the family structure can be for students. She attended Quest after moving to the United States from Jamaica in high school and knew that after graduating from college she wanted to come back and impact students they way her instructors at Quest had changed her life.

Students. Junior Jason Hilaire made the decision in 8th grade to apply for Quest after hearing students present at his school. As with all Quest students, Jason is taking a mix of college and high school courses. For some classes a college certified high school instructor teachers an entire class of Quest students for college credit, while other times he is the sole high school student in a college course at the local community college. This year he is tackling college calculus. Like Kaitlyn, the service learning experience had such an impact that he applied to serve as a student service learning coordinator and supports his peers as they research and attend their own service learning opportunities.

[2/22/16 update: As as senior, Jason has already completed requirements for his AA degree.  In addition to Chemsitry, Jason currently taking Calculus 2 at Lone Star College and earned a 97 on his first test!  He has already been accepted to three top universities. He joins an astonishing 91%  of Quest seniors who will graduate with their AA in May.]

After seeing previous academic success, Taylor Valdez struggled as a freshman at Quest. It was the first time she was failing or barely passing classes. The level of rigor in the college- level courses at Quest was unfamiliar and daunting. Now a sophomore, Taylor credits the Family structure for her success and appreciates the AVID course she has been able to take. She understands the level of dedication and perseverance it will take to graduate from Quest and says she benefits from the weekly coaching received from both peers and instructors.

Scaling college success. As noted last year at the 10 year anniversary of Educate Texas, the initial goal was to develop 15 ECHS and 35 STEM schools. Today there are 135 STEM and early college high schools serving 63,000 students–more than 70% minority and low-income. Results have been impressive with high achievement, graduation, and college attendance rates. The secret sauce is a culture of rigor, teacher effectiveness, and collaborative partnerships. Quest is a great example of the nation’s best STEM and ECHS network.

For on early college and next gen schools, check out:

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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