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Hundreds of teens earned associate’s this year, then graduated high school

by Tribune News Service | June 19, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

DALLAS -- Alejandro Barajas crossed the graduation stage at Dallas College in May. As his mom's and grandma's cheers pierced through the giant room, Barajas could hear how thrilled they were that he earned a degree.

A few weeks later, they celebrated once again as he crossed the stage with fellow seniors from Sunset High School.

Barajas is one of hundreds of Dallas ISD graduates who participated in dual ceremonies this spring, signaling their success in concurrently earning a diploma and an associate's degree.

"For me, that was the first generation to ever graduate and to get my associate's," Barajas said. "Before any of this, college was just an expensive way just to get a higher education. But now, I'm actually surprised at myself that I got this far."

Roughly 1,100 Dallas students were recognized in a spring ceremony for their progress in DISD's Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-TECH, and early college programs this year. The majority of them earned an associate's -- though some came away with other industry certificates or are within six hours of completing the degree.

The final figures will be available in the fall. But district officials expect to meet or exceed the number of associate's earned by last year's graduating class, which was just more than 900.

"Every year that goal continues to increase," said Cheryl Nevels, the district's P-TECH & Early College Programs director.

For years -- despite the pandemic -- Barajas bounced between advanced high school and college courses, sometimes virtually and other times on campus. His mom warned him against getting too stressed. But he prioritized his school work, diving into sociology and public health lessons.

During senior year, he'd join classmates from Sunset who'd catch the bus to head to classes on the University of North Texas at Dallas campus, which is partnering with the district and Dallas College.

This year's Sunset group was the first to immerse in a more traditional-like college freshman experience, by spending five days a week in-person on the UNT campus, figuring out how to study during four-hour breaks or just squeezing in a nap.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has pointed to the growing enrollment in P-TECH as among his chief accomplishments during his tenure, which will soon end.

Students leaving high schools with tuition-free associate's degrees and trade certificates will have a leg up when it comes to earning a living wage, which can translate into breaking generational poverty and bringing more wealth into their communities, he has said.

Sunset Principal Jesus Martinez estimated about 90 percent of the teens in his school's P-TECH program will be first-generation college students. And though they are succeeding in college-level courses now, he said about half of them had failed parts of their standardized tests when in eighth grade.

"They're not our traditional high-achievers that are getting this college access," he said. "It's really catered towards students more towards the middle. And this really pushes them and gives them that extra shove into saying, 'Hey, you can do this. This is for everybody.'"

The school provides extra time -- for tutoring and mentorship -- to help students make it to the end. For freshmen, some tutoring is mandatory to ensure they're getting the help they need academically.

"There is a lot of support in place on the front end to keep our students motivated," Martinez said. "I'm always a firm believer that the students will always rise to the expectations."

Barajas said it took hard work and focus to power through his classes, including the semesters on Zoom.

"It's how much education you want because nothing's gonna be handed to you in life, and nothing's gonna be given to you, like, 'Oh, here you go, here's your associate's, you're done,'" Barajas said. "No, you have to work for it."

He will begin studying environmental science at the University of Texas at Arlington this fall. He hopes to educate local communities about how to eat and live healthier. In one of his favorite college classes so far, he studied food deserts and learned about communities lacking grocery stores and fresh options.

And beyond his own studies, Barajas is looking forward to encouraging his younger brother as he goes through the P-TECH program himself.

Print Headline: Hundreds of teens earned associate’s this year, then graduated high school

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