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LAS CRUCES -- Samantha Varela wants to be either an FBI agent or pediatrician, but as a soon-to-be freshman at Mayfield High School, she recognizes she has a long way to go.

"I wanted to get a head start in college and I want to get a good job and have a good future," she said.

Varela is one of 116 high school freshmen enrolled in New Mexico's first-ever early college high school, which allows students to graduate with a high school diploma while earning a college associate's degree or credits toward a bachelor's degree.

Students take classes in science, technology, engineering, physical education and mathematics and there's an emphasis on entrepreneurship and career and technical education courses.

"You're two years ahead of everybody else," student Amarina Brown said. "Sometimes in class you get distracted by other people and this program is a good thing because you're selected and you have to be hardworking to be here, so there is no fooling around and you get your work done."

Reducing dropout rate

ECHS aims to reduce the dropout rate in the district by engaging students early in the college process and by offering small class sizes and real-world applications in coursework, officials said.


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Other states with ECHS programs have successfully retained students, said Jennifer Amis, the ECHS principal.

"This model, the early college high school, emerged as a best practice for graduating over 90 percent of their cohort, which is incredible," Amis said.

Different from dual credit

ECHS differs from LCPS' dual-credit program, which allows high school juniors and seniors to attend New Mexico State University and Do-a Ana Community College classes tuition-free, because ECHS students can start earning credit as freshmen.

Additionally, ECHS allows students to replace high school core requirements with college-level classes, something the dual-credit program does not allow, Amis said.

Classes will be on the main campus at DACC. A permanent building, paid for by state funds, will open next summer at Arrowhead Research Park on New Mexico State University's campus.

"At the end of the day, they have an opportunity to be on a college campus and fully realize what that venue is versus a regular traditional high school campus," said Ricky Williams, the new director of secondary instruction for LCPS. "It's going to breed some great possibilities for these kids."

As students enroll, they bring with them state funding under the state equalization guarantee, which ensures that revenues are at least equal to the program's cost, said Steven Sanchez, LCPS associate superintendent. Salaries for the four teachers, a counselor, the registrar and the principal are currently the only expenses.

The number of ECHS staff will grow as the enrollment adds another grade of students each year. Within four years, the ECHS will be home to 500 students in grades nine through 12.

Earl Nissen, who teaches a dual-credit human development and behavior course at Do-a Ana Community College, has reservations about adding an additional program while class sizes increase and 135 positions within the school district are cut, due to a reduction in state funding.

"Adding a whole new program given the state of the budget, I would hope a whole lot of thought was given to the selection process," Nissen said.

There are no specific academic or income requirements for applicants. Students were selected by completing an application and under going a personal interview.

Nissen said his son, Randy Nissen, works for an ECHS in its fifth year at the University of Toledo in Ohio. The program there primarily focuses on students without the opportunity to attend college because of income barriers.

"Since we have so many low-income families here, I wish they had designated this for those kids to give them the opportunity for college," Nissen said.

"The program should be focused on a very specific bunch of kids and by doing what they did, opening it up and having a lottery, that, to me, defeats what I defined as early college."

Even without specific income requirements, about 50 percent of students currently enrolled are first-generation college (students), said Sanchez.

The summer session ends on Aug. 10, though students will continue to take classes throughout the school year and for the duration of high school. The program is free to students as ECHS is a public school within the district.

The ECHS project was initiated through the Regional Education Initiative, now known as The Bridge, which brought together private business, public and higher education, government, and economic development leaders to address the dropout rate and better preparing graduates for the work force.

Christine Rogel can be reached at (575) 541-5424.

To apply

• Applications will be accepted in February and are available at: www.lcps.k12.nm.us

• Students and parents must complete a sit-down interview.

• Students must provide a teacher and counselor recommendation.

• To earn Do-a Ana Community College credit, a student must have a minimum 2.0 GPA and pass the COMPASS test or have an ACT score of 15 or higher.

• To earn New Mexico State University credit, a student must have a minimum 3.0 GPA and an ACT score of 23 or higher.

• For a full list of ECHS programs visit: www.lcps.k12.nm.us