Free college for those who apply

By Heather Orchard
Pulse Staff Reporter

Gabe Salazar pumps up Early College High School students.

Free college!? The current presidential debate has brought this topic to everyone’s mind. However, free college already exists on the Palo Alto campus for a fortunate few who are currently enrolled in the Frank L. Madla Early College High School program.

Jeffrey Flores, principal of Madla ECHS, explained that it is a public charter school and receives state funding that allows them to cover the costs of tuition, books and free or reduced-priced lunches for those students who qualify.

The students enrolled are taking dual-credit courses as a part of their curriculum to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Upon graduation, the students will be two years ahead of their age-level counterparts.

“The school’s mission…is to provide students the access to college who otherwise wouldn’t have it,” said Khalid Zakaria, academic counselor at Frank L. Madla ECHS.

One hundred and thirty-nine students are currently enrolled in this program that is made up of high school freshmen and sophomores. They are fully immersed in college classes with college professors and college students.

The students in the program have had to take on writing assignments and give speeches along with their PAC peers.

“One ECHS student provided one of the best persuasive speeches in my 10 years of teaching, and it was against fracking,” said Joseph Coppola, instructor of Speech.

While this particular school began in Fall 2014, Jobs For The Future launched the Early College High School Initiative in 2002. The organization’s goal was to give underrepresented, low-income students the chance to earn two years of college credit or an associate’s degree while in high school, tuition free.

The Texas Education Agency approved the Early College Leadership Academy, a multi-district program; ACES ECHS, a Southside High School program; and the STEM ECHS, a Harlandale ISD program. All partner with Palo Alto College to allow students access to free college credits.

Steven Sanchez, a Palo Alto alumni who currently works as a Marketing Communication Specialist for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, attended Palo Alto in a Gateway to College program.

He took dual-credit courses that allowed him to graduate with his high school diploma and an associate’s degree before continuing on at the University of Northern Iowa as a part of the Bridge Program.

Julia Ridenour, a sophomore Liberal Arts major at the Madla ECHS, said, “I feel Frank L. Madla Early College High School is such a great opportunity, not only for me, but for the young adults within my community because it gives us a head start on college life.”

The program eliminates the traditional dual credit requirements. For example, students accepted into the program are allowed to take the dual credit curriculum regardless of previous grade point averages.

Elizabeth Aguilar-Villarreal, director of Enrollment Services, believes this program is beneficial to those students who may not be in the top 10 percent. This is a program that is also accessible to those students who still want to attend college, even if they haven’t made the honor roll in high school.

Some students may have seen college as a dream that would never become a reality because of the high costs. For those students, this is no longer just a dream.