The El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence: A Brief History
The Setting: Serving an Interdependent Educational Ecosystem
Responding to the needs of El Paso area schools has long been a major dimension of UTEP’s mission. As early as the 1920s, the then School of Mines and Metallurgy sought authorization from the Texas Legislature to begin offering education courses that would assure the availability of teachers to meet the educational needs of the growing El Paso population. Today, UTEP continues to be the primary source of preparation for professional educators in this region; an estimated 75% of all teachers in area schools have earned degrees at UTEP. In addition, graduates of El Paso County schools comprise more than 80% of UTEP’s student population—creating a closed educational loop. This interdependence generates a strong mutuality of interests among all educators in the region, and offers exciting opportunities for innovative collaboration, strategic data sharing and analysis, and reciprocal accountability.
Laying a Foundation for Educational Attainment, 1990-1992
In the wake of the modern education reform movement that began in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, colleges, universities, school districts, and community leaders across the nation began to address the issues it raised. The report called for reform based on a commitment to improved performance of U.S. students and the educational institutions that serve them. “Excellence,” the report asserted, “characterizes a school or college that sets high expectations and goals for all learners, then tries in every way possible to help students reach them.” Although the report did not focus on how K-12 schools and colleges could or should work together to achieve these higher expectations, it did spur lively discussion among educators across the El Paso area.
By the late 1980s, UTEP had all but abandoned its “Harvard on the Border” emulation that emphasized admissions exclusivity as measured by such traditional metrics as standardized tests. In addition, EPCC’s complementarity with UTEP had begun to create more flexible higher education options, such as concurrent enrollment, for our shared student population. Such developments helped deepen thinking about UTEP’s mission. If we assumed that talent crosses gender, ethnic/race and socioeconomic boundaries, and if UTEP’s goal was to impact the economy and quality of life in this region, then its student body would have to mirror the region’s demographics. This new focus on both access and excellence also recognized the unusually tight interdependencies among PreK-16 educational institutions in this region and the potential benefits of our working more closely together.
In a region with a per capita income at 60% of the national average, academic expectations and outcomes were highly correlated with such variables as family income, zip code and ethnicity, which were then used as explanations for academic performance gaps. To improve academic attainment across the region, it was critical that higher expectations and standards be established for all children, regardless of their backgrounds, together with a region-wide commitment and active collaboration among all educational institutions to develop innovative solutions for eliminating socioeconomic and ethnic performance disparities. This systemic change would require that educators at all levels spend more time reviewing and sharing data that would shed light on the specific needs and aspirations of all students.
UTEP’s capacity to respond as a regional public institution committed to the success of all talented and motivated young people regardless of background or financial means, would require greater flexibility in assessing college readiness, bold challenges to traditional metrics, and vertical integration of students’ PreK-16 educational pathway. It would require more data-driven decision-making that emphasized innovation over imitation, and collaboration over competition.
In 1991, UTEP President Diana Natalicio turned to M. Susana Navarro, a seasoned education trailblazer, with an invitation to spearhead the systemic change initiative that would become known as the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence (EPCAE). Together, they convened leaders of the El Paso Community College, the El Paso, Ysleta, and Socorro Independent School Districts, the Region 19 Education Service Center, the El Paso, Hispanic and Black Chambers of Commerce, the City and County of El Paso, and a regional interfaith group, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO). As the backbone of EPCAE, these organizations helped determine its two primary goals:
To improve academic success from kindergarten to college, and to ensure that all high school graduates are prepared to succeed in college (Navarro and Natalicio 1999).
The Pew Charitable Trusts played an important validating role during this formative period. Pew’s Community Compacts for Student Success program awarded EPCAE its initial seed funding, which was followed by a $150,000 grant from the Coca-Cola Foundation. Together, these funds enabled EPCAE to launch efforts to build trust, embrace change and promote cooperation among regional stakeholders.
Calibrating Academic Standards, 1992-1996
Major grant funding, notably $15 million from the National Science Foundation’s Urban Systemic Initiative program, enabled the Collaborative to offer a robust series of professional development workshops for teachers and administrators. By the end of 1994, EPCAE members were meeting monthly to establish baseline data and begin closely monitoring the results of their efforts. Among key metrics at that time was the first-year college success rate of area high school graduates.
To address the issue of pre-college preparation, the Collaborative partners agreed to take a two-pronged approach. First, area school districts would raise academic standards by adopting a rigorous college preparatory curriculum for all students at all grade levels. Second, UTEP would work toward ensuring that all teachers were well qualified to teach the new college-preparatory courses. This across-the-board standards-raising in El Paso occurred well before the State of Texas introduced its own higher standards.
Then, recognizing the shortcomings of standardized admissions tests as predictors of success at UTEP, especially for students from low-income backgrounds, and with a goal of encouraging more area high school graduates to pursue baccalaureate degrees, UTEP revised its admission policies for entering students. To be phased in over ten years, the new policies would enable the enrollment of all area high school graduates who had successfully completed the newly adopted region-wide, college-preparatory curriculum.
Meanwhile, one dedicated community partner, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO), provided valuable service in bringing EPCAE’s mission into students’ homes and giving a voice to parents. Under the capable leadership of Sister Mary Beth Larkin, EPISO organized “house meetings,” where parents were encouraged to take a more active role in their children’s education. These meetings helped bridge the gaps between parents and educators, especially in those households where English was not the primary language.
Establishing Systemic Reform, 1997-2000
By the late 1990s, as its closed-loop paradigm began to pay major student success dividends, the El Paso Collaborative began to attract growing national interest. References to the EPCAE’s efforts appeared in numerous agency reports, conference presentations, and peer-reviewed journals.
Scholars observed that the type of systemic reform taking place in El Paso owed its success not to top-down imposition but to collaborative efforts among the participants. Each EPCAE member, as Natalicio once put it, “had skin in the game.” All willingly invested their own resources to achieve results leading to a shared goal for the entire region. Kati Haycock (2001) of the Education Trust observed that the Collaborative partners implemented four key strategies to close achievement gaps: they set high standards, provided a challenging curriculum, furnished students extra help, and trained teachers to teach to the higher standards.
The hard work of the EPCAE, especially in the targeted areas of science, mathematics and literacy, was clearly paying off, with significantly improved achievement test scores among school children across the region. In addition, the number of low-performing schools in the three largest districts was reduced from fifteen to zero, and more than 75 schools were singled out as Recognized or Exemplary. These successes were recognized by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, and the Collaborative was increasingly described as a national model for education reform.
As the millennium ended, El Paso community, business, and academic leaders gathered to discuss raising the bar even higher. The El Paso Education Summit, which convened in February 2000, afforded the partners an opportunity to review the Collaborative’s accomplishments to date and plan even more ambitiously for the future. “Educators can’t do this alone,” said Danny Vickers, a local business owner. “It has to be a collaborative effort if we are going to reach our goals.”
Closing the Academic Gap, 2001-2005
With the new millennium, the Collaborative approached its first decade of service to the region, and the results were striking. Academic gaps had been narrowed and high academic standards were becoming the expectation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in high school freshmen cohorts, where enrollment in Algebra 1 grew from 60% to 100%.
As more students moved successfully along this revitalized and integrated education pathway, their numbers began to affect higher education participation. Enrollment at UTEP in the fall of 2001 surpassed all forecasts, matching numbers projected for the end of the decade. More remarkable was the increase in Hispanic enrollment, which transformed UTEP into the only U.S. research university with a majority Mexican- American enrollment. By 2005, UTEP’s total enrollment exceeded state agency projections by nearly 20%.
Growth in Hispanic enrollment also enabled UTEP to become a national pacesetter in graduating Hispanic science and engineering majors. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that an inadequate supply of highly trained scientists and engineers was contributing to a decline in U.S. global competitiveness, and one major cause of this shortage appeared to be the severe underrepresentation of minority groups, which comprised nearly 39% of total K-12 enrollment but only 5.4% of those earning STEM doctoral degrees. Thanks to the Collaborative’s commitment to more rigorous pre-college preparation for all students, UTEP was well-positioned to become the top- ranked Hispanic-Serving Institution in awarding STEM degrees to Hispanic students, and to attract the attention of major corporations, foundations and government agencies seeking to recruit these STEM graduates. Momentum was clearly building.
Meanwhile, under Dean Arturo Pacheco, UTEP’s College of Education embraced its role in redefining teacher training. Adopting a residency model similar to that found in medical school programs, UTEP paired cohorts of pre-service education students with individual schools for a year or more, including spending time with families of school children.
Building a College-Going Culture, 2006-2013
Fostering a commitment to academic success in K-12 required building a college-going culture. As the Collaborative matured, new initiatives emerged that contributed to the theme of college readiness. At Ysleta ISD, pre-kindergarten students participated in graduation ceremonies at which their mortar boards bore the names of colleges they wished to attend. The hallways of local elementary schools were covered with posters promoting a college-going culture. Children and school buses became a common sight on the UTEP and EPCC campuses, and school districts hosted workshops on college admissions and financial aid processes.
Students on the pathway to college understood expectations at every grade level and were afforded new opportunities to accelerate their post-secondary education by earning college credit while attending high school.
By 2013, a significantly greater number of high school graduates from El Paso high schools—57%—were attending college, the highest percentage among all 20 Texas Education Agency regions. Notably, the Paso del Norte region was enrolling more economically disadvantaged students in post-secondary education than any other region in the state. Moreover, El Paso’s rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum greatly reduced the need for remediation at UTEP and decreased time to bachelor’s degree completion.
Increasing Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 2013 to Present
Building a college-going culture in a low-resourced region also required Collaborative partners to address the challenges of declining state support and rising higher education costs for students. Recognizing the financial challenges faced by a majority of their students, UTEP and EPCC have led their peer institutions in controlling tuition/ fee increases over the past 15 years; UTEP’s cost of attendance is the lowest of all its peer institutions across Texas. Another highly effective cost-containment strategy was to encourage students to complete college-level work, at no cost, while enrolled in high school. For low-income students, the savings in time and money make a huge difference in their capacity to complete a bachelor’s degree on time and with minimal student debt.
Local schools districts now offer myriad options for earning college credit. In addition to the traditional Advanced Placement courses, students can now enroll in dual-credit courses in comprehensive high schools or associate’s degrees in Early College High Schools. These options enable students to earn college credit without incurring any college tuition costs and significantly reduce the time required to earn a college degree.
Growing enrollments in college-level courses offered in high schools placed a new demand on school districts to increase the number of teachers with credentials to teach college-level courses. In response, UTEP has mobilized significant resources to provide teachers the graduate-level classes required to earn instructor credentials. Since 2014, the number of teachers credentialed to teach dual credit courses has grown by nearly
60%, to a total of 141, with many others in the pipeline. Doing their part to help teachers finance the additional graduate coursework required for credentialing were various EPCAE business partners, including ADP, Boeing, El Paso Electric, GECU and Wells Fargo, in addition to a generous pledge of $400,000 from the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development (CREEED).
Reverse transfer, another major benefit to students, was enabled by the close working relationship between EPCAE partners UTEP and EPCC. When EPCC students transfer to UTEP before completing their Associate’s degrees, UTEP continues to monitor their EPCC degree plans as they progress toward a UTEP degree. Once these students complete at UTEP all requirements on their unfinished associate’s degree plan, UTEP notifies EPCC, the students’ degrees are certified, and students are awarded their EPCC degrees. This partnership not only credits the students with work successfully completed—often earning them their first-ever college degree—and saves them both time and money, but it also appropriately credits EPCC for total degrees earned and validates the rich reciprocity of benefits derived from collaboration.
Over the past 25 years, this historically underserved Paso del Norte region has become one of the top performers in increasing student success at all levels. The Collaborative’s work, and the growing trust it has fostered among educational institutions in the region, have played a major role in increasing the total number of college degrees awarded. Since 2000, the number of degrees awarded annually at UTEP has increased 112%, while enrollments grew 57%, clear evidence of greater efficiency in degree completion, thanks in part to the accelerated start that students gain while enrolled in both K-12 and EPCC partner institutions. At EPCC, the number of degrees awarded over the same period has grown by 283%, thanks in part to these same partnerships and the increasingly productive reverse-transfer program.
This significant increase in degrees earned—more than 4,500 per year at UTEP and 3,600 per year at EPCC—offers an entirely different set of opportunities and huge 21st- century benefits for young people and their families in this historically underserved region. Disappointingly, however, the number of new well-paying jobs within this region has not kept pace, and an estimated 50% of all UTEP’s graduates leave the region for competitive, professional-level employment elsewhere in Texas, the U.S. and globally. Acknowledging the region’s remarkable educational progress in a recent study, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) also pointed to the need for growth in higher-skilled economic activity if the region hopes to stem the brain drain of its best-educated young people, including upwards of 75% of UTEP’s engineering and computer science graduates. The OECD suggested that this region’s economic development might be enhanced through an effective collaboration among civic and business leaders along the lines of EPCAE (Puukka et al. 2012).
The El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence has fostered major changes in attitudes, aspirations and behaviors across the Paso del Norte region over the past 25 years, but there is still much work to be done.
Among the challenges ahead for EPCAE are: expanding the number of dual-credit and advanced courses offered in high schools; preparing more teachers with credentials required to teach these college-level courses; and engaging business and civic leaders and other stakeholders in supporting not only a variety of EPCAE initiatives but in expanding the number of well-paying jobs in the region. EPCAE must also help the region rise to the challenge of the 60x30TX plan, launched in late 2015 by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and recently localized as the 60x30 El Paso plan. The goal of the plan is that at least 60% percent of Texans, ages 25-34, will have earned a college degree or higher-education certificate by 2030. For this region, these will be stretch goals, not because the educational institutions can’t deliver on them, but because too many of our best educated residents will continue to leave the area unless more well-paying jobs become available to them here.
The EPCAE will also be challenged to ensure that its data-driven strategies continue to focus on metrics that are meaningful and relevant to this region, such as steady growth in the number of degrees awarded rather than the misaligned and more traditional higher education graduation rates. The myriad pathways into higher education today make completely obsolete the use of a metric that requires students to start and complete their degrees at the same institution.
We must also assess our progress by benchmarking data reported by other sources. One such source is an annual review by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board of the 10-year retrospective performance of 8th-grade student cohorts across all 20 of the Texas Education Agency’s regional centers. In its latest report, on the FY2006- 2016 regional cohort performances, El Paso’s Region 19 ranked first in performance improvement on all major measures: growth in high school graduation rates; growth in total higher education degrees or certificates awarded; total degrees or certificates awarded to Hispanics; and to economically disadvantaged students. This last metric should be especially satisfying because it offers such a clear demonstration of the power of the EPCAE to ignite the high aspirations and expectations that are required to accelerate all students’ progress toward higher educational attainment and the social mobility that it empowers.
All residents of the Paso del Norte region should join in celebrating what their community —educators, students, parents, and civic/business leaders—has accomplished over the past 25 years. Twenty-five years ago students in this binational border region whose household income was in the lowest quintile, had only a one-in-ten chance of reaching the top earnings quintile; today, those same students have a one-in-four chance. That’s extraordinary progress!
Thanks to EPCAE, UTEP has become nationally celebrated as a leader among research universities in fostering student social mobility, and EPCC has been included in rankings of the top community colleges in the nation. These successes were clearly not solo performances. Instead, they are the result of 25 years of steady, systemic and strategic investment in the education of talented young people in this community through the work of all the EPCAE partners. UTEP and EPCC stand on the shoulders of educators at the pre-college level who are steadily raising students’ and their families’ educational aspirations and preparing them to meet their and our higher expectations for them. And, what’s especially exciting, is that most of these outstanding K-12 educators are themselves El Pasoans and UTEP graduates.
All of us—and especially all EPCAE partners—can take justifiable pride in our shared progress, knowing that our most significant single accomplishment is the wealth of opportunities that are now available to all talented, highly motivated and hardworking young people—whatever their backgrounds, cultures and financial means—and the solid foundation that they represent for this region’s future economic prosperity and quality of life!