A building located on the Northeast Campus of Tarrant County College houses a select group of Grapevine-Colleyville ISD high school students who are earning not only their high school diplomas but also their associate degrees.

Established in 2014, Collegiate Academy began with 113 high school freshmen. This school year, the academy has 342 students between ninth and 12th grades.

The school is designed to help students who would not normally attend college, Director Bobbe Knutz said. However, anyone in GCISD is welcome to attend.

Collegiate Academy helps these students achieve their college goals and gives them the chance to graduate with a high school diploma in one hand and an associate degree in the other—completely free of charge.

“We’re really trying to prepare kids to be successful,” Knutz said.

Between 2003 and 2018, the average price for annual college tuition in Texas soared 90% from $4,587 to $8,719, according to a 2019 study from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. But with Collegiate Academy, a student could earn up to 60 hours of college credit in high school for free.

Larry Darlage first approached GCISD in 2013 about partnering on an early college high school while he was president of Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus. He is retired now, but he said helping students overcome financial obstacles to college was part of his original vision.

“If they graduate from here with an associate degree and it doesn’t cost them anything, that’s two free years of school,” he said.

GCISD board President Lisa Pardo said helping launch Collegiate Academy was one of her favorite projects she has accomplished on the board.

“If you look ... who is and who isn’t going to college, and that we would be able to impact those kids that were not having the opportunity to continue on ... it was just a perfect fit,” she said.

A focused mission

Collegiate Academy celebrated its fifth anniversary Sept. 23. Since it began, the school has graduated two classes totaling 183 students and granted associate degrees to 104 of those students.

The school is completely free for students to attend. It is paid for the same way all schools in the district are—with taxpayer dollars. Tarrant County College partnered with the district at Collegiate Academy’s inception to provide space and technology for the school.

Information about the academy is provided to everyone in the district, but additional steps are taken to make sure students who might not otherwise attend college are aware of the opportunity.

“We’re targeting first-generation [students] and students not normally seen in higher ed,” Knutz said.

Collegiate Academy staffers work with middle school counselors to identify first-generation students in the district, she said. The school also has a college transition specialist who reaches out to targeted students.

“The state defines [students not normally seen in higher education] as Hispanic and African American, economically disadvantaged and first-generation,” Knutz said.

The biggest portion of students enrolled at Collegiate Academy for the class of 2019—about 46%—were Hispanic as a result.

In many ways, Collegiate Academy is a traditional high school: Students go to prom, and extracurricular opportunities, such as basketball, drama and social service clubs, are offered.

But there are some key differences. Because Collegiate Academy is located on the Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus, students get to experience college culture. Classes are structured in a sequence that gradually immerses students into Tarrant County College classes. Classes that count toward their dual credit hours include English, math, history, government, music and biology.

Core class credits at Collegiate Academy will transfer to any public university in Texas, according to the academy’s website. Counselors at Collegiate Academy work with the transfer department at Tarrant County College to help ensure students can attend the college of their choice, Knutz said.

Students also have opportunities for internships and job shadowing.

There is a five-step application process to attend the academy. Anyone in the district is welcome to apply, but Knutz said students should want to attend a smaller school and participate in a rigorous curriculum with advanced education opportunities.

During the academy’s fifth-anniversary celebration, students Jose Pedraza and Lesly Alvarado shared their experiences in the school. Pedraza will graduate in the spring from Collegiate Academy with 57 college credit hours.

“This school is based on a lot of first-generation students, like me, that never had that opportunity, that have never experienced [seeing] someone go through college,” he said.

Alvarado is also a senior at Collegiate Academy, where she discovered a passion for speech pathology.

“Coming to Collegiate Academy has been one of the most impactful decisions that I have made in my life,” she said. “I have been able to build connections and relationships with the teachers here, and they have mentally supported me in the past three years.”

‘A growing need’

As colleges continue to become more expensive, Knutz said more students need options to help them get ahead.

Tuition and fees total a little more than $10,000 per year at The University of Texas at Austin, which data shows is a top choice in Texas for students graduating from CISD and GCISD. The average debt for UT Austin graduates is $38,344; parents usually pick up a little more than one-third of that cost, according to data.

GCISD estimates that students at Collegiate Academy who earn their associate degree as a high school student could end up saving more than $10,000 on their higher education.

At the celebration, GCISD Superintendent Robin Ryan shared that his father attended college only because someone else paid his tuition. That shaped his family’s history, Ryan said.

“That’s why I feel so much pride about this school because this particular school gives folks a chance,” Ryan said.

To help students on the path to college, GCISD and Carroll ISD also offer dual credit and advanced placement, or AP, classes. Those high school courses can transfer as college credit.

Knutz said none of these options would be possible without a partnership with the local community college.

“We’re more than thankful to TCC Northeast and how ... everyone has just been more than gracious to push our students and to hold our students accountable, but also just to love on our students,” she said.