High school and college used to be a six-to-eight-year proposition—four years of high school and six years total for an associate’s degree or eight years total for a bachelor’s degree.

Holly Roper recently graduated from Carlsbad Early College High School with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in art. She said if it wasn’t for the opportunity to earn her associate’s degree at no charge while in high school, she likely would not have been able to attend college at all.

Since 2002, however, many high school students have been offered another option, Early College High School.

Initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the first Early College High School program started in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the Early College at Guilford. Today, there are more than 230 early-college programs across the country and more than 50,000 participating students nationwide. Four years ago, Carlsbad students were afforded the opportunity to join these ranks.

In 2014, the Carlsbad Early College High School (CECHS) was created to provide high school students in Carlsbad expanded educational opportunities by combining dual-credit learning opportunities with support services through New Mexico State University-Carlsbad (NMSU-C).

The Carlsbad Early College High School received start-up funding from the Daniels Fund through The Bridge of Southern New Mexico, as well as various industry contributions and instructional support by working with regional energy partners and local businesses.

Through CECHS, students can receive a high school diploma and an associate’s degree or 60+ hours toward a bachelor’s degree, all within the same four years they would normally spend getting just a high school diploma.

When speaking to the New Mexico Legislative Education Committee last year…

…former CECHS Principal Eric Spencer and now Director of Secondary Education for the Carlsbad Municipal School District, said Early College students also “…are far more likely to graduate from high school. Ninety percent of Early College students receive a diploma versus 83 percent of regular students nationally and 70 percent in New Mexico.”

Besides the obvious timesaving advantage, the CECHS program allows students to achieve an associate’s degree tuition free, potentially saving each student thousands of dollars in student loans. Carlsbad Early College High School focuses on low-income youth, first-generation college-goers, English Language Learners, ethnically diverse students and other students underrepresented in higher education.

Holly Roper, a recent graduate of the program is one such student. Roper graduated with her high school diploma and an Associate Degree in Art. “If it hadn’t been for Early College, I probably would not have been able to afford to go to college at all,” she admitted. “The program basically allowed me to get an associate’s degree for free.” Roper is currently working in food service in Carlsbad to save money, but she soon hopes to enroll in school to earn her Bachelor Degree in Fashion Design.

Carlsbad students are recruited during their eighth-grade year, while they prepare to transition into their freshmen year of high school. They are considered on an individual basis through an application and interview process. This year CECHS accepted 48 students for the incoming freshman class.

Students who are admitted into the CECHS program are enrolled in four rigorous honors level core courses, as well as a mandatory test-preparation course for the required college entrance exam to NMSU-C.

Additionally, participants are able to take an elective course offered through the main campus of Carlsbad High School (CHS) during the early zero hour or the afternoon seventh hour. Students attend their core-class requirements at CECHS on the NMSU-C campus and transportation is provided to and from CHS for the elective hours.

Kaylei Hainze is currently in her junior year at Carlsbad Early College High School and said one of the reasons she wanted to attend was the fact that they offered BPA (Business Professionals of America) as an elective.

Spencer said, as of the 2017-2018 school year, approximately one-quarter to one-half of the CECHS student body attended an elective course at CHS.

Having been in existence for four years now, the CECHS program is undergoing changes this year. Within the Carlsbad Municipal School District, there is a new Principal, Jesse Fuentes, a new Director of Secondary Education, Eric Spencer, and a new Director of Communications and Community Partnerships, Natasha N. Mackey.

According to Mackey though, there will still be some supporting instruction and activities this year, such as elective courses, athletics and extracurricular activities from Carlsbad High School, CECHS will be its own high school. As such, it will provide its own high school experiences separate from CHS, including spring coronation, homecoming court and graduation.

Mackey pointed out that Early College differs from dual enrollment. With dual enrollment, students attend a regular four-year high school and take college classes or duel-credit classes at the same time. In Early College, the high school classes are rigorous and accelerated. At CECHS, required classes are completed in the first and second years, and the third and fourth years are dedicated to college classes and job or professional training.

Spencer added that in addition to college classes,

“All students are required to participate in a work-based learning internship during their junior and senior years.”

For the school year of 2017-2018, “Sixty percent of the junior and senior classes were also members of Business Professionals of America (BPA),” a co-curricular career and technical student organization that helps students set and attain goals in self-improvement, professionalism, leadership development, community service, career development, public relations, student cooperation, and health and safety.

Carlsbad Early College High School junior, Kaylei Hainze, pointed out in addition to the smaller student-teacher ratio and the accelerated high school classes, the BPA program was very important to her. “If BPA had not been offered at CECHS, I probably would not have applied,” she admitted. Hainze also falls into that group of students who will benefit greatly from the financial help the tuition-free Associate’s Degree provides.

She noted that the program demands a lot of hard work.

“I tell interested students, this is a tough program. You can’t take it for granted. For students that can’t afford to go to college, it’s a great program. But don’t think you are going to just slide through and get your degree; you’ve got to work hard to succeed in this program.”

Roper agreed.

“It’s a huge deal to be able to get your high school diploma and associate’s degree in four years, but you’re going to have to work hard for it.”

Most CECHS students stay very busy both in school and out. Sarah Flores is a junior this year and is working toward her Associate Degree in Electrical Engineering with the possibility of getting a second Associate Degree in Science, as some of the classes she takes will fill the requirements for both degrees. She is a well-rounded student. When she isn’t in school or doing her internship, Flores enjoys going to church and participating in their activities, or writing fiction and playing video games.

For the upcoming and current group of high school students, the old system of finishing high school in four years and then moving on to college is undergoing a transformation. The opportunities available today allow some students, who never thought they would be able to attend college at all, to make that dream a reality. Early College not only allows for those college dreams to come to fruition, but it also  sets up students for successful careers and fully satisfying lives, not to mention the benefit of graduating without having to carry the burden of student loans.