College Classes at the Age of 12? How AEO Is Giving Students a Jump Start to College

AEO_Dual enrollment

At Ánimo Ellen Ochoa Charter Middle School (AEO), the road to college begins early. Through a dual enrollment partnership with East Los Angeles College (ELAC), AEO is helping students create a path to success that includes taking college courses before they even reach their first year of high school. “Being from East LA and growing up in that same neighborhood I want to provide students with opportunities that I didn’t have access to,” said Cynthia Ybarra, Principal at AEO.

Through this partnership, AEO provides students with free college courses, taught by ELAC professors. “Dual enrollment brings equitable access to students of color and students from underrepresented areas, whose families might not be aware of how to support students in endeavors related to college and university,” said Miguel Suenas Dean of Student Services at East Los Angeles College.

Since its founding, AEO has committed to ensuring that all its students are not only prepared to apply to college in the future but to also succeed and thrive once they enter. This is one of the many reasons Blanca Amaro enrolled her son, Alexander, in the school. “We've taken advantage of every program that AEO has offered through ELAC. They're really working for their students,” said Amaro. “Being in college while in middle school is just not something to be proud of, it’s a goal every student should have. You're in middle school and you're going to college, you're saving money, and you're getting ahead. So it's a win-win situation.” At AEO, Alexander has taken three college courses: Manufacturing and Industrial Technology 220, General Engineering 356, and Electrical Engineering technology 123. “It feels great to be taking college classes early. Because in the end I'm going to get the credit and it's going to really help later in my future,” said Alexander.

"You're in middle school and you're going to college, you're saving money, and you're getting ahead. So it's a win-win situation."

Last year, when schools across the country closed due to COVID-19, AEO equipped every student with the digital devices they needed to continue their education online. Despite this shift, educators at AEO and ELAC ensured that students would still have access to their dual enrollment courses this school year.

“Even during a pandemic students still have the opportunity to move their learning forward,” said AEO Counselor, Dora Archila. Middle school is one of the most challenging times in a student’s life and yet even in a pandemic, AEO students remain committed to this accelerated path to college. Archila feels inspired seeing students log in to their classes each week. “It’s amazing how much students can persevere, especially at such a young age.”

Engineering a Brighter Future

When developing the school’s dual enrollment program, Ybarra, knew it was critical that this opportunity offers both college and career exposure. As the former principal at Boyle Heights’ Oscar De La Hoya Ánimo Charter High School, a California Gold Ribbon School, Ybarra worked closely with ELAC partners to develop a program that strengthened students’ path to college and career success. “With ODLH, we identified courses that are transferable to college and university, and also some courses that would be supportive for students looking to learn skills. For example, engineering or graphic design,” said Suenas.

At AEO, the dual enrollment program focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) career pathways, an industry where people of color and women are grossly misrepresented. Pew Research reported that of the more than 17 million workers employed in STEM occupations, only 9% are African American and just 7% are Hispanic. With these figures in mind, Ybarra asked herself: “How are we giving our students an opportunity and a window to explore new interests and career options that could make an impact in their lives and the community?” Since the dual enrollment partnership began in 2017, over 100 AEO students have completed college courses. “It’s about representation, at AEO it's about not letting zip codes dictate what we can achieve.”

For Samia Herrera, an eighth grade student at AEO, taking college courses has exposed her to new skills and career opportunities. “My favorite part of taking college classes is learning new things. I took robotics and I learned how to build a robot,” said Samia. By the end of the semester, Samia gained a newfound confidence. “I felt smart, I felt good about myself. Not many kids my age are able to make a robot.” Samia’s mother is in awe of her daughter’s tenacity and drive. “Growing up, I didn’t have these opportunities and so to see her doing this makes me really proud,” said Herrera. “When she talks about school, she talks about it with such pride and happiness.”

“It’s about representation, at AEO it's about not letting zip codes dictate what we can achieve.”

Even if students choose not to pursue a career in STEM, taking dual enrollment courses helps demystify the college and provides students with a unique opportunity to gain invaluable college experience. “These opportunities give the student a chance to learn about colleges, learn about the systems, and how to communicate to instructors. So really setting them up for success as they transition into a college environment.”

Dual enrollment is just one way our schools are helping students get to and through college.
In addition to college credit and college exposure, dual enrollment courses have an added benefit--college persistence. In a 2017 study, the Community College Research Center (CCRC) and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that 88 percent of dual enrollment students continued in college after high school, and most earned a degree or transferred within six years. Further, California students who took dual enrollment courses earned their college degrees on average a year faster than students who did not participate in dual enrollment programs.

Limits Beyond The Sky

At AEO, college is at the forefront of every conversation from the first day a student enrolls. Students are not just talking about college, they are planning their academic paths and taking actionable steps towards becoming college graduates.

We know that many of the students we serve will be the first in their families to attend college. Meaning they must navigate the complexities of higher education without the insider knowledge of their peers whose parents earned a college degree. For first-generation students, the road to college can’t begin in high school -- that’s far too late. Through Dual Enrollment partnerships and our programs such as senior bridge and alumni champions, Green Dot is ensuring that all students graduate from our schools with the knowledge, confidence, self-efficacy skills, and momentum required to succeed and persist in college, leadership, and life.