No football, no lockers, no drama
Horacio Silva met trouble at his Oak Cliff middle school.
He had to fight, to prove himself a tough guy every day, he says.
But four years ago, he entered Trini Garza Early College High School at Mountain View College as a high school freshman. Garza is a Dallas ISD high school located on the Mountain View campus, where students can earn college credits for free while completing their high school diplomas.
Silva is one of 81 Garza seniors, out of a class of 99, who will have an associate’s degree when he graduates from high school this spring.
All of that childish drama disappeared as soon as he started high school, Silva says. Garza students have more freedom — to walk outside between classes, to visit a snack machine or make a phone call, for example — and they are held personally responsible for getting to their college courses.
“They treat us like adults,” says Silva, who plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in business and own a car dealership. “My mentality is way different now.”
Garza opened in 2006 and was one of the first early college high schools in the district. Next school year, 10 DISD high schools, including Molina, Sunset and Adamson, will offer similar models. Adamson students will take classes at El Centro College, those at Molina will attend Mountain View, and Sunset students will take classes at UNT-Dallas.
Giving students responsibility has resulted in greatness at Garza.
The school has won the district’s attendance award for two years running, achieving 99.2 percent attendance. Its graduation rate is around 92 percent, compared to the 88 percent district-wide.
Running an early college high school is complicated, and Garza has become a Texas Education Agency demonstration site. School administrators and teachers from all over the state and country visit the school to learn how to start such a program in their own districts.
There is one negative: Garza has only 120 open slots every year for about 450 applicants.
The school gives priority to first-generation college students and kids at risk of dropping out; no academic assessment is required.
“If we could take all of them, we would,” says principal Marcario Hernandez.
But the school’s small size is part of what makes it successful. The students all know each other. They have all the same instructors and take the same classes.
“The students encourage each other,” says teacher Gracie Garcia. “We are a team.”
Hernandez, himself a graduate of Sunset and Mountain View, has served Oak Cliff schools for his entire teaching career, and he believes hometown teachers are key to great schools.
He’s excited about Sunset’s partnership with UNT-D, which offers students a pathway to teaching.
“I believe in hiring local talent because they can connect to our students a little better,” Hernandez says. “We want to create a pipeline of teachers who will return to Oak Cliff and become leaders.”
Gracie Garcia, 25, is one such homegrown teachers Hernandez hired. She was among Garza’s first graduating class and was able to graduate from Texas Woman’s University, obtain alternative teaching certification and begin teaching at age 21. Garcia, a math instructor, says she “Came from a hard background.” Even though she was a straight-A student and a cheerleader, no one knew her private struggles at home, she says.
“That gave me a heart for kids who might be in the same situation,” she says.
Garza students also learn maturity through volunteerism. The school currently requires 100 volunteer hours for graduation, and next year, they’re increasing the requirement to 200 hours. Most public schools don’t require any volunteer hours.
There are no athletic programs, but students can take physical-education electives, and they can join the Mountain View dance team. Besides that, there are debate and mock trial teams, and a ton of clubs: chess, robotics, volunteer club, a step team and more. The health club promotes fitness, and about 60 percent of Garza students run in the annual Mayor’s 5k race.
In part because they’re entering as transfer students and not as freshmen, Garza students regularly receive acceptance letters from impressive colleges. Take senior Toni Byrd of Oak Cliff. She hasn’t yet heard from her No. 1 choice, New York University. But she’s been accepted to her second choice, Howard University, for theater and dance.
“If I had a chance to speak to middle schoolers, I would say, ‘Come check it out,’” Byrd says. “There’s so much opportunity, and everyone is focused on academics.”