Early College in Houston

by Justin Fuentes, former Dean of Students and Principal at Challenge Early College, MCNC Board Member, and currently School Support Officer for all of the Houston ISD Early College High Schools

houston graduates2It has been my pleasure to have been with the HISD Early College Initiative since its inception, I am Justin Fuentes, once Dean of Students and Principal at Challenge Early College, and serve as a board member for the MCNC, and currently am School Support Officer for all of our Early College High Schools.  To brag a bit, two of our schools have achieved National Blue Ribbon Award status, all of our schools have achieved an Exemplary rating via the Texas Education Agency, about 50% of our graduates have achieved an Associates Degree while all have left with college credits, many of our students have gone to Ivy League schools, participated in Internships abroad, and even served our country through military service. More than a few are currently working in HISD, and even my own son was a graduate from our schools.  This is our story.


In the early 2000’s, during the peak of the small schools movement, a discussion was going on in Houston around how to build schools for the many different subsections of its expanding community.  This was also a time when funding in public education was plush, so it wasn’t only our public K-12 schools that were looking for alternatives to student success.

In Houston, the driver of this conversation was the Houston A+ Challenge.  This organization was an offshoot of the Annenburg Foundation that had been pumping major funding into public education with a focus on changing it from traditional to something new.  They had been working with Houston Independent School District (HISD) for some time in the areas of professional growth, communication, and collaboration through the use of theories and structures such as Critical Friends Groups, Professional Learning Communities, Data-driven Instruction, etc.  They now wanted to help develop a school where all of these were tenets for both adult- and student-level growth and learning.

After much research into the new and exciting constructs that were being promoted for schooling nation-wide, the Houston A+ Challenge saw an opportunity via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and their newly promoted Early College High Schools Initiative.  These were to be schools that sit on a college campus where students earn both their high school and college Associate’s Degrees concurrently.  This not only created a need for a partnership with HISD, but also one of the many institutions of higher education in the city of Houston.

Provided the high pace of funding for new and innovative programs for students of all levels, the local community college had a need to provide alternative methods to attract students to its doors and to do it fast.  When Houston Community College (HCC) was approached by Houston A+ Challenge about the opportunity to host an Early College it was an easy win.

In 2003 Challenge Early College was opened, closed, opened, closed again, and finally reopened one month before school started.  Challenge became one of the new innovative schools that HISD was opening and others in the state of Texas started to notice.

After two successful years of educating students and partnering with HCC, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) partnering with the Texas High School Project and Jobs For the Future came to Challenge to use it as its primary replication site for the state initiative.  During the 2005-2006 school year upwards of 100 different school districts came to visit and see if Early College was in their future, currently there are over 50 in the state of Texas, 9 in the Houston metropolitan area, and 4 in HISD with another on the way.

With the addition of the new school given a victory in our current bond initiative, we will have an Early College at every compass point within the city of Houston.  Currently Challenge is in the west, East ECHS on the east side, North Houston ECHS on the north side, Houston Academy of International Studies ECHS is located in the downtown center of our city, and the new school will reside on the south side of the city sprawl.  These strategic placements maintain service to all communities in our city, allow for less student travel given that HISD’s Early Colleges are not provided with district transportation, and provide for continuity between the various campuses within HCC.


Given the variation in the HCC campuses where the HISD Early College’s reside, there is some difference in the programs provided by each.

  • Challenge and North Houston are located on large campuses which allow for students to be embedded into about ninety percent of their college courses, With a focus on general AA/AS degrees at the college the credits that the students accrue are similarly focused on generalized degree requirements.
  • East is on a campus where their building was constructed before the college campus so a majority of their classes are taught in a cohort fashion, again with a focus on generalized degree requirements, but a bit more on math and science than the other schools.
  • The Houston Academy of International Studies, as its name describes, pushes students toward coursework in international business and communication while the majority of their students take embedded coursework while having to take a bus to the college campus at the main building which is five blocks away.
  • The new school on the south side of town is going to specifically have a STEM, or Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics, focus, and since it is on a college campus also being built, the students will likely take the majority of their coursework in cohort classes.


The five Early College High Schools in HISD are under the supervision of one administrator, or School Support Officer, which provides for a sharper focus on their needs.  The schools have always shared a kinship and collaborated regardless but working under the leadership and within a common structure their opportunities and resources are optimized.  The Early College High Schools, with other charter schools, have created a “small schools league” which started with school based soccer teams and now has expanded to other sports of student interest.  They have always shared information regarding college textbook pricing, school staffing, course alignment, and specific details of running their unique schools.


In the last two years they have formed a “small schools collaborative” in which they hold common professional development sessions in pre-service days and throughout the school year.  Here they make time for teachers of similar subjects to collaborate on curriculum and instruction and build benchmark exams to gauge student progress toward success on state tests.  They have also done inter-school Instructional Rounds so that their small departments get to see how others work and provide constructive feedback for the school hosting the session.  The collaborative has even decided to make the MCNC’s Peer Review process a common structure.


Extending their work to continually improve their schools there is still work done with the other local Early Colleges, and currently three of the four campuses belong to the MCNC.  In HISD these schools are looked upon with respect as they are extremely successful, but still must maintain and educate others to the point that they are not schools for the easily educated or students from prosperous backgrounds – they truly are Early College’s by the Gates definition!


To get a true snapshot of each of the Houston ECHS’s read what their principal’s have to say:

  • Challenge Early College/Tonya Miller:
    •  I am Tonya Miller, and I have had the privilege of serving Houston’s early colleges since 2008. Prior to becoming the Principal of Challenge in July of 2011, I was the Dean of Instruction at North Houston for three years. There, I was also involved in the planning and groundwork in the months leading up to the opening in August of 2008.
    • Early college in Houston has created equity in education for traditionally underrepresented students who now have the opportunity to receive both a college education and Advanced Placement coursework.  At Challenge, we have closed the achievement gap between subgroups of students. The expectation and program design is such that all races, ethnicities, regardless of socio-economic background achieve. Our relationships with students and the mentorship they receive are what ensure student success in a rigorous program that exposes them to real college classes at an early age. Our location, inside of a college building, affords students the unique opportunity of a true college experience which includes both the opportunities, exposure to a diverse student body and ideas as well as the challenges. Students grapple with paying fees, registering for classes, college placement exams and having conversations with professors and college officials. To brag a bit, our senior class of 2012 left with $3.1 million in scholarships, and the class of 2013 will surpass that amount. One hundred percent of students who apply to four year universities are accepted.  Esteemed publications such as the Washington Post, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report all list us as one of the top high schools in the nation. We were also named a 2011 Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Dept of Education. I am proud to say that Houston Early College runs through my veins!
  • East Early College/Tamera Bolden:
    • Early College in Houston has grown from what was first thought to be another flash in the pan that would disappear, to a safe haven for Houston’s at-risk students.  Our students would most likely disappear within a large comprehensive high school. They would be the ones to flounder, get into trouble, or drop out due to family situations.  When we first opened in 2006, we were largely ignored.  After years of consistent high achievement and attendance rates, opinions changed.
    • East Early College recruits solely from the East and Southeast regions of Houston.  The needs of students on the Eastside are different from those North, South, or Central.  We utilize local resources such as area YMCA’s, Neighborhood Centers/Ripley House, local businesses and local residents.  Our students do required community service hours in elementary and middle schools, the facilities named above, local libraries as well as city-wide.
    • One early concern was a lack of transportation as a factor that might hinder success, but at East Early College our attendance has ranged from highest to second-highest among HISD high schools (98.1-98.8% between 2006 and 2012).  This is due to our constant monitoring and counseling of students and families about attendance, which as we know, generally stems from social or economic issues.
    • The consistency of excellence has been achieved through all of us sharing within the collaborative and by all of us holding firm to the early college principles of rigorous instruction, relevance by exposure to college-bound culture, and close relationships with our students and their families.  All five EC principals and our School Improvement Officer Justin Fuentes ensure that the team not only targets populations underrepresented on college campuses, students of low SES, minorities, and first-generation college goers, but also supports them with social workers, advocacy/advisory and constant monitoring by deans and college access coordinators.
  • Houston Academy for International Studies Early College, Principal Melissa Jacobs:
    • The Houston Academy for International Studies was started as primarily an international studies school in the Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network.  We began with a focus on “internationalizing” our inner-city students with Model United Nations, language study and world travel and the thought that they could also earn some college credit.  In our 3rd year we applied for and received a TEA grant to become an Early College High School.  This gave us the structure, planning protocols, and authority to begin getting our student on the track to earning an Associate’s Degree with their high school diploma.  The paradigm shift from offering the world and some college credit to the world and an Associate’s degree has been a big one.  Getting our “at-risk” and economically disadvantaged students to step outside their current reality and see their role as global citizens and college scholars has been both challenging and rewarding.
  • North Houston Early College, Principal Angela Lundy-Jackson:
    • North Houston Early College High School operates on the philosophy that people should and can be lifelong learners.  To that end, as we interview perspective students our focus is not primarily on how far they have come, but rather how far they wish to go.  We strive to provide a rigorous curriculum that is in line with the state standards, but which goes further than what is required.  Our students are varied in their academic abilities, interests, and plans, but they all have a common goal of attaining admission to a four year college or university.    Our school serves students who are mostly from the North Houston community.   Because many of our students are first generation college students, they instill a sense of pride to their families and their neighbors.  We serve the students who are underrepresented in the academic arena: the poor, the immigrants, the minorities, and the at-risk.  Our faculty, too, come from different backgrounds and diverse educational levels.  All have Bachelor’s, most have Master’s, and some have Doctorates.  Their differences are eclipsed only by their passion to see the students succeed and to ensure that they learn more than test preparation, but life skills which will guide them into greater research and discovery.
    • North Houston Early College High School is in its fifth year of operation.  Last year, we graduated our first group of seniors and over half of them (67) earned Associates degrees along with their high school diplomas.  The class as a whole was awarded over 2.3 million dollars in scholarship money, and most were admitted to 4 year universities.  This year, members of our senior class have  received full ride scholarships, admittance into universities all over the country, membership into the prestigious Posse Foundation, and awards for community service.  At North Houston Early College High School, our students’ tomorrow begins today.


And a final word from Justin Fuentes….

We have maintained the vision that we started with, making both children and adults be continuous learners, and what makes me most proud is that our schools are places where people want to be, which includes me.