Lowell Matthews, Jr., is the Director of College and Career Pathways for ExcelinEd.
College acceleration opportunities—including Advanced Placement (AP), Cambridge AICE, College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), dual enrollment, early college high schools and International Baccalaureate (IB)—can help high school students prepare for college-level work while they earn valuable college credit or work toward a postsecondary credential. However, these opportunities are still out of reach for many students.
ExcelinEd’s college acceleration policy playbooks share the specific steps states and schools can take to improve opportunities and outcomes for their students. Our first playbook identifies a series of nine non-negotiables states, colleges, universities and schools can use to strengthen their college acceleration programs to benefit all students—especially those who have been traditionally underserved. Our second playbook examines how five schools in five different states are putting these non-negotiables into practice.
In today’s post, we’ll take a closer look at one of those schools: Vanguard Academy in Pharr, Texas.
Vanguard Academy is a rapidly growing public charter school system comprising four elementary schools and three secondary schools. From 2017 to 2019, the student body grew from 2,700 to 5,000. The school system serves a large urban area in the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metropolitan area on the U.S.-Mexico border. The student population is 99% Hispanic, 75% economically disadvantaged and 45% English language learners.
Vanguard Academy is an early college high school. This means students can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate degree or up to two years’ worth of college credits towards a bachelor’s degree while they are in high school.
The academy partners with South Texas College for dual credit opportunities and the associate degree. Additionally, the academy offers students the opportunity to complete career pathways in health science, computer science, criminal justice, engineering/robotics and welding. (Students are transported to South Texas College for the welding program.) Vanguard Academy’s partnership with South Texas College makes the successful early college high school model possible.
Since Dr. Garcia became superintendent in 2017, the number of students earning associate degrees has grown from 7 students in 2018 to 35 students in 2019 to expectations of 50+ students for 2020-21. Roughly 500 of the school’s 700 students are taking college level classes—including 120 students who are taking dual credit and AP.
Vanguard Academy has focused on three non-negotiables to drive early college high school success.
Non-Negotiable: States collect, analyze and publicly report student outcome data on college acceleration opportunities and use the data to strengthen access, quality and student success.
Through its partnership with South Texas College, Vanguard Academy uses student outcome data to evaluate dual credit courses and improve advisement for students.
To begin, South Texas College monitors the academic performance of Vanguard Academy’s dual credit students to ensure they are performing well in college. South Texas College also shares student performance data on the academy’s alumni with Dr. Garcia and his team, so they can understand how equipped their graduates are to succeed as college students. (They are doing well; the average college GPA of Vanguard Academy alumni is a successful 3.0.) All this data on current and former students helps inform the academy’s college advisement efforts with parents and students. South Texas College has a vested interest in sharing this data with Vanguard Academy. As Dr. Garcia explains, “It’s their students, too!”
Non-Negotiable: States and school districts ensure that educators in all schools receive appropriate training to teach college acceleration opportunities.
Students at Vanguard Academy can take dual credit courses on the South Texas College campus or on the academy’s campus. Faculty accreditation requirements for the educators teaching these dual credit/early college programs require a master’s degree in the specialty to be taught or a master’s degree in another discipline plus 18 graduate credit hours in the discipline to be taught. This requirement can make staffing a challenge.
Before Dr. Garcia began leading the school system, Vanguard Academy had two to four teachers with a master’s degree, but these teachers were not being leveraged for dual credit instruction. Now the academy is using tools—both internal and external—to develop their teachers. Through an academy initiative, teachers can earn $3,000-$4,000 per semester in stipends to meet the accreditation requirements. Additionally, Vanguard Academy offers salary incentives for teaching dual credit, including a $6,000 sign-on bonus and $1,500 per semester to teach dual credit in the early college model. Through these initiatives, Dr. Garcia was able to recruit qualifying instructors for art, criminal justice and Spanish in the first year and English, math, history, computer science and CTE, especially in the area of health sciences, in the third year.
Non-Negotiable: Schools notify students in all schools of available opportunities and use state indicators to identify low-income and traditionally underrepresented students with the potential to succeed in college acceleration opportunities. Schools notify students and their parents of the credit transferability for each college acceleration option before students enroll.
Vanguard Academy does an excellent job of notifying and supporting students in postsecondary success.
The community presents both challenges and opportunities for the academy. There is no resistance to college—rather, the community recognizes the importance of college. The academy informs and equips its families by:
Vanguard Academy also continues to support students after they graduate. Dr. Garcia and his team take the following strategic steps:
While the nine non-negotiables provide an important framework for quality in college acceleration opportunities, the interview with Dr. Garcia revealed the power of leadership. Under Dr. Garcia, Vanguard Academy has transformed into a model for how successful early college high schools can put students on a better path toward postsecondary success.
Consider some of the other strategic changes Dr. Garcia has made to help prepare students for lifelong success since he joined Vanguard Academy in 2017:
Vanguard Academy’s success is, by large part, a product of Dr. Garcia’s strong, thoughtful leadership. He and his team have addressed many of the barriers students previously encountered on the path toward postsecondary enrollment and success. Now, he says, all Vanguard Academy students need to do is “provide the want” and his team will “provide the rest.”
Texas provides an Early College High School designation for schools that educate historically underserved students, provide dual credit at cost to students, increase college readiness, offer accelerated courses and provide academic and social support services to help students succeed. Vanguard Academy has earned this designation. The designation is mostly a marketing tool to advertise the value of the academy. However, the designation’s value would substantially increase if Texas committed to financially back the designation with additional funding to early college high schools, like it does with Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH).
Texas is upping the ante on outcomes-based funding for students Texas determines are prepared for college, career and the military. Legislation passed in 2019 would reward districts for students enrolling in postsecondary institutions, completing a credential or enlisting in the military. The amount of funding is tiered: $5,000 per student for economically disadvantaged students, $3,000 per student for non-economically disadvantaged students and $2,000 per student for students with disabilities who meet the specified college, career and military readiness outcomes.
On March 13, 2020, Vanguard Academy abruptly closed and shifted to a completely different instructional delivery model. Hidalgo County, Texas, where Vanguard Academy is located, had the highest per capita COVID-19 death rate in the state and was fifth in the number of COVID-19 cases early in the pandemic.
Although schools in Texas were told to plan for two weeks of remote instruction, Dr. Garcia suspected that the school closure would be significantly longer, and he instructed teachers to plan for remote instruction for the remainder of the school year. Dr. Garcia called in his teachers and staff to hand out devices. Grades 3-12 received instruction through Google Classroom, and preK-2 were given packets.
Dr. Garcia believes that Vanguard Academy—and other Texas early college high schools—could benefit from state policy that creates a performance-based incentive based on the number of students earning an associate degree or equivalent number of college credit hours. This policy would help grow successful schools that drive postsecondary student success, especially schools that educate traditionally underserved students.
Explore ExcelinEd’s college acceleration policy playbooks to learn more.