Students earn associate degrees before completing high school

Three years ago Horace Mann Junior High student Azalia Sprecher was ready to take a leap of faith, but she didn’t want to do it alone.

“I always had big dreams for my future, but I didn’t have the sense of direction I needed to get there,” the 17-year-old explained. “Then Early College High School [Impact] came around. Nothing had ever been done like this before, and at first I was the only one who wanted to try it.”

“That’s true, she was the only one,” 16-year-old Pablo Chavez added. “I wasn’t really interested in coming [to Impact] at first. I live and breathe soccer and I wanted to play in high school. But my Mom told me I needed to think about what would be best for my future. We had a tight group of friends, so we told Azalia, if you go, we’ll go.”

Their decision will soon be a cause for celebration. On Saturday, May 11, Sprecher and Chavez will become two of the first Impact Early College High School students to earn associate degrees at Lee College — prior to earning their high school diplomas — and participate in the college’s annual commencement exercises.

Impact student Alondra Uribe has also completed her associate degree one year early, but is choosing to “walk” with her classmates during the May 2014 exercises.

Established in 2010, and funded by a $455,500 grant from the Texas Education Agency (TEA), Impact is part of a national initiative seeking to raise high school graduation and post-secondary success rates of underserved youth.

The school, which was developed in partnership with the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District (GCCISD), and is housed on both the GCCISD and Lee College campuses, engages students in a rigorous and supportive academic program blending high school and college work. Enrollment is contingent upon the completion of an application, essay submission and interview process. Tuition is free.

Upon completing the program, students graduate with a high school diploma and associate degree, or 60 college credit hours toward a baccalaureate degree.

But for self-proclaimed “over-achievers” Sprecher and Chavez, the experience has been about much more than a degree.

“In junior high, getting good grades was easy for us,” Chavez explained. “We didn’t have to work very hard, and we always heard that,“just wait till you get to college” warning.

“Here, we’ve had to learn to balance high school and college,” he continued. “We have had to be responsible for making sure we get to class on time, stay on top of assignments, and be responsible. We’ve also learned that we have to study. So it’s been a safer place to make mistakes and learn from them.”

Those lessons come easier when you have solid support group of parents, friends and teachers, Sprecher added.

“Both our high school teachers and our Lee College instructors have been incredibly supportive,” she said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m balancing two different worlds. I took my ACT exams the same weekend I was studying for my college finals. But my teachers have always been willing to work with me.

“And, being here with so many friends has also been great,” she continued. “We try to take the same classes and study together, just so we have that support system.”

Although the academic demands have been rigorous — Sprecher said she has “been pushed to (her) limits” in her pursuit of associate degrees in natural science and Spanish, and natural science, pre-engineering/math, and Spanish major, Chavez is looking at a semester of linear math, physics calculus, calculus III and economics — both argue there is more to Impact than academics.

“People have this misconception that all we do is study,” Sprecher said. “But Pablo and I are both very social people. As a group, our class has tried to make the experience at Impact as close to a normal high school experience as possible. We had a powder puff football game this year, we have a talent show coming up, and we’re trying to plan a Prom next year.”

“We also do volunteer work on weekends,” Chavez added. “And if you can get college classes to work around your schedule, you can even play high school sports.

“You just have to learn to balance, and sometimes go without sleep,” he added, laughing.

According to Chavez and Sprecher, the sleepless nights are a small price to pay for their future — for him, an aspiration to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Texas; for her, a degree in biochemistry from Baylor University — and the message they intend to leave behind.

“This is the first college graduation ceremony my family members will go to,” Sprecher said. “And I know it makes my family, especially my mother, very, very proud.”

“Impact has broken social norms,” Chavez said. “Most of us are minorities from working class families. I came here from Mexico when I was young. Most people think because you’re different or because you don’t have much money, you’re set to fail. But we can do it, too.”