Early college high schools to have first graduation

Members of the first senior class of OCTECHS and Falcon Early College High School saw the campuses as a chance to get a jump start on their lives.
Odessa Career & Technical Early College High School offers students a chance to earn an associate degree or certificate from Odessa College while working toward their high school diploma.
Falcon offers students a chance to earn up to 60 hours of college credit and also is on the OC campus. Initially, Falcon was on the University of Texas Permian Basin campus, but officials made an agreement to move it across town.
The students heard about the program four years ago while they were in middle school and thought it was for them, or their parents did.
Like other students, OCTECHS senior Courtnee Dunn, 17, said she remembers founding OCTECHS Principal Linda Wilder coming to Nimitz Middle School to talk to students about the school and why it was a good opportunity.
Dunn agreed, as did her parents. She earned an associate degree in business leadership from OC and walked the stage last weekend.
Kiara Villagonzalo, a 17-year-old Falcon senior, said her parents made her go to the early college high school.
“It was the last day of eighth grade and my mother texted me, ‘Hey, go to UTPB. You have an interview at this new high school.’ I just showed up, took the TSI and I got in,” Villagonzalo said.
The TSI, or Texas Success Initiative Assessment, determines the appropriate level of college course work for incoming students, according to the Mometrix test preparation website.
Villagonzalo and fellow Falcon senior Angel Benavides, 18, earned associate degrees in general studies.
Isaiah Castillo, an 18-year-old OCTECHS senior, said he got his associate degree in instrumentation and automation. He had wanted to go into energy technology for a while, saw the opportunity at OCTECHS and took it.
Benavides said he liked the program because it gave him a head start and showed him what college life would be like.
They also like the fact that even though they had to give up some of the traditional extracurricular activities, they traded it in for smaller class sizes and a focused academic environment.
Castillo said OCTECHS is like a big family in comparison to the thousands of students attending Odessa and Permian high schools.
“We’re pretty close. We all know each other really well,” Dunn said. “I feel like since the classes are so small, it gives the teachers a good opportunity to get to know each and every one of us personally. And if we ever need help on anything, they are there to really help us and just have the time to focus on each student.”
Benavides said he was always the one that liked doing things his peers didn’t and he thought Falcon Early College High School seemed to fit him.
“Most people go to regular school and they’ll say I’ll see what happens after that, but here I could see my future and I could say this seems like the perfect school for me; trying out new things; putting myself out there. The teachers have been really helpful; very caring. Here, I feel like I’m being heard, unlike middle schools and probably any other high school where you’re just a number to them. But here, they know … your personality; they know your background,” Benavides said.
Wilder said getting to this point of having the first graduating class at OCTECHS is gratifying.
“It’s very rewarding to see the breadth of the students, both academically and character wise; to see how much they have grown and I’m very proud of them and I will be very emotional, I’m sure, at graduation from OCTECHS. They’ve done a wonderful job. They’ve worked hard and had a lot of ups and downs, but they have crossed the finish line and I’m extremely proud of them,” Wilder said.
Gerardo Ramirez, who oversees both early college high schools, said graduation for OCTECHS is set for 10 a.m. May 24 at the OC Sports Center and commencement for Falcon is at noon May 24, also at the Sports Center.
“Right now, we have 63 out of the 64 seniors at OCTECHS that are on track to receive their high school diploma and also their associate degree,” Ramirez said. “Then have 21 out of the 28 seniors at Falcon Early College High School that are on track to receive both their high school diploma and their associate degree.”
The state average for early college high school students receiving both is about 30 percent.
“We’re well over the state average. We’re very excited. We’re very proud of our students. They’ve worked hard,” Ramirez said.
Early college high schools in Texas began in 2004. Currently, there are more than 200 early college high schools statewide.
Ramirez said the American Institute for Research found that early college high school students were significantly more likely to earn a college degree than comparison students. During the study, he said, 25 percent of early college high school students earned a college degree, typically an associate, compared with only 5 percent of comparison groups.
“We’re very excited to be part of Odessa College. As you know, they were awarded the Aspen Rising Star award for 2019. They’ve been more than helpful, more than supportive for both of the early college high schools. They’re in a unique circumstance in serving two early college high schools. Some of our students are also going to continue with the bachelor of arts of applied science that’s going to start here (at OC) in the fall. So we’re excited to see some of our students continue here,” Ramirez said.
He added that the high schools are still recruiting and accepting applications.
Falcon Dean of Students Rene Barrientes said he’s been honored to watch the students grow and mature. He’s known some since they were youngsters.
“… They’ve grown up so much they’re young adults. They carry themselves with great pride. To see that, that’s why you’re in this business; to see the traits that you want to instill in these students and I’m glad that I was a part of that to be able to see them grow that way,” Barrientes said.
Ramirez said the students in the first early college high school senior classes are pioneers. He added that this shows it’s possible for all students to be successful, not just in high school but college, as well.
“They’re the trailblazers for the early college high schools in our area. They’re the first of the first. We had a lot of firsts this year: first graduating class; first senior group,” Ramirez said.
For more information about OCTECHS and Falcon, email Ramirez at gerardo.ramirez@ectorcountyisd.org.