When Dr. Bobby Rice became superintendent of Harts Bluff ISD three years ago, the school board immediately tasked him with the responsibility of finding an innovative way to add a high school to the district. In June 2020, the board of trustees approved starting the construction project. Five months later, the district hosted a groundbreaking ceremony Nov. 17 anticipating completion of the new campus by Fall 2021.
“We already have Mount Pleasant High School and we already have Chapel Hill High School, and there’s nothing wrong with those schools, so if we were just going to do what other schools were doing, there really wasn’t a need for us to have a high school,” Rice said. “But if it were something new, something innovative, then it would be something the board would be interested in.”
Rice said he had been told that the conversation to add a high school had been happening for a number of years before he arrived.
“In the spring of 2018, I started looking at things that might be beneficial to our district, and I found out about the early college high school program, which is not something I had been aware of prior to that,” Rice said.
According to Rice, there are currently 183 school districts in the state that have at least one early college high school. While that number may seem high, Rice said there are approximately 1,200 districts in the state, making the percentage of early college high schools relatively low.
“I think the reason that more high schools don’t become early college high schools is that it is harder to fund if they’ve been in operation for a number of years, because in order to fund the program they would have to take money from another program,” Rice theorized. “We’ve never had a high school, so we don’t currently collect any ADA money for grades 9 through 12, so we will be using that money to pay for the college program.”
School districts in Texas receive funding based in part on Average Daily Attendance (ADA) numbers. Because Harts Bluff ISD is not building another building for the high school, and is adding one grade level each year over four years, the district expects the funds received from the state to be enough to cover tuition and books for each student in the program.
According to Rice, the school district will completely fund tuition, books, and transportation to and from the college for each student enrolled in their early college high school. The goal is to have every student graduate from high school with either an Associate of Science degree in a multidisciplinary track or a certification of their choice from Northeast Texas Community College.
“We chose the multidisciplinary track because it’s easier to transfer to a four-year university and, hopefully, not lose any credits,” Rice reasoned. “But even if they do lose a credit and a class won’t transfer for some reason, they’re not out any money, and they still have a degree.”
Rice also mentioned that they could possibly offer more tracks based on the certifications the students choose to attain.
The biggest obstacle facing the new program? The TSI, Rice states. The Texas Success Initiative Assessment, better known as the TSI test, is an assessment that determines the appropriate level of college coursework for an incoming student. Students must obtain certain scores in math, reading, and writing in order to enroll in college-level classes.
“We’ll have to have a program in place for this entire year to do TSI prep for our eighth-grade students, and we’ll test in the spring,” Rice said. “We’ll also have an opportunity in the summer for a summer bridge program, sort of like a TSI camp, to help them with that test as well.”
Rice said students entering the ninth grade who have not passed the TSI will only be enrolled in courses which do not require a student to have passed that assessment, and they will keep working with each of those students to bring them to that level. He said the district will have to have plans in place for students who do not reach that goal of degree or certification attainment.
“63 percent of our kids in the district are low socio-economic, meaning 63 percent of our kids qualify for free or reduced lunch,” Rice explained. “In my opinion, the only way out of poverty is through education.”
Rice’s personal goal for his students is that by the time they graduate high school they have had a college experience where they can see themselves as a college student and feel confident in their ability to go on and get a bachelor’s, master’s or even doctorate degree. At the very least, he wants them to have the skills training to prepare them for whatever field they want to go into.
“It just makes them more marketable as an employee,” he said. “Just having an associate’s degree gets them half a million dollars more in salary in their lifetime.”
Rice said the district has already begun to put resources in place to help prepare their students for college-level courses. “We’re starting a program called AVID, which is designed originally for first-generation college students, to help teach them note-taking skills, organization, using calendars, those types of skills. We’ll have resources in place to help any student struggling. Being a small school, we know every kid, we can pull every kid and work with them on things they might be struggling with.”
Rice also said that the district has also been in contact with the University Interscholastic League (UIL) about establishing a rough timeline for competing in sports at the high school level. Since the program is building only one grade level each year, Rice doesn’t expect to be competing at the varsity level for approximately three years after the program’s start, or when the incoming freshman would be juniors. Even then, it might take longer to build the athletic program, depending on the number of students participating in sports and their interests.
The first freshman class began taking high school coursework this past August. The 2019-2020 eighth-grade class consisted of approximately 52 students. While the district will accept transfers at no cost, Rice warned of a couple of stipulations for out-of-district students interested in transferring and entering the early college high school program.
“We won’t accept any students in tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade that first year, because we are building the program one grade at a time. We would only accept transfers in ninth grade and below,” Rice explained. “Also, while we have never charged a fee for out-of-district transfer students, we do have a screening process, and they have to be approved.”
Rice expects to have between 250 to 300 high school students by the time all four grade levels are in place. He said he is appreciative to work with a school board that is forward-thinking enough to make these kinds of decisions for the kids.
“We are very excited to be the first school in the area doing this,” he said. “Anytime you have a more educated workforce it is a benefit to the community.”
More information about the Harts Bluff Early College High School can be found online at www.hbisd.net.
(Please note: This article now with updates was written by Annette White and originally appeared in the Your Connection magazine by the Mount Pleasant Chamber of Commerce)