As the school year comes to a close, Tomball ISD is celebrating the graduation of its inaugural class at Tomball Star Academy, an early college high school the district launched in partnership with Lone Star College-Tomball in August 2017.

The inaugural class of 95 students has been instrumental in paving the way for the students yet to finish the program, said Kelly Marchiando, the principal of Tomball Star Academy since January.

“They laid the groundwork for the classes behind them. They were the inaugural class,” Marchiando said. “It’s exciting. They’ve created the legacy; they’ve created the traditions.”

Marchiando said more than $1 million in scholarships has been awarded to the first graduating class.

“We all kind of blindly leapt together and created something that I would say is absolutely amazing. They taught me as much as I taught them,” said Kim McKinney, the first principal of Tomball Star Academy who will now lead the district’s new Grand Lakes Junior High School opening in August. “Early college high schools in our area were not something that were super widely known. ... In our area, there wasn’t one in Klein or Magnolia or our surrounding districts.”

Upon admission to the program, students begin at Tomball Star Academy as high school freshmen. Upon graduation, students may receive an associate degree from LSC-Tomball in addition to a high school diploma.

Marchiando said students earn 60 college credit hours over four years while working toward a high school diploma. The 60 hours equates to an associate degree from LSC-Tomball. The credits can transfer to a four-year institution, allowing graduates to enter with a junior status.

As the credits are earned through LSCS’ dual credit program, there is no charge for the program, totaling thousands of dollars in cost savings for students in Tomball Star Academy, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.

McKinney said the cost savings has been significant for families, with graduates going on to military academies, twins enrolling in colleges and universities with half of their education already completed, and graduates entering the workforce directly with an associate degree at no charge.

“To me, this really was a dream to bring this opportunity to the students of Tomball,” Superintendent Martha Salazar-Zamora said.

Salazar-Zamora said the idea began when she was chief academic officer under former Superintendent Huey Kinchen.

“I remember telling the board at the time and Mr. Kinchen that I felt in my heart and was certain that we would be able to only increase the number of students interested. With a great detail of happiness and some sadness, every year we far exceed—more than double—the number of students we can accept in the early college program,” she said.

Salazar-Zamora said the district was able to initially expand capacity slightly to accommodate growing demand, but TISD’s application for the early college high school program with the Texas Education Agency caps enrollment at 125 students per grade level. Therefore, the district would have to file a new application to increase Tomball Star Academy’s capacity, she said.

“We started with holding our breath [that] we’d hit 70, which we got like 105 [students] the first year, and we get close to 400 [applications] every year now for 125 spots,” McKinney said.

Tomball Star Academy will celebrate its senior class May 27 with a graduation ceremony at 7 p.m. at the Magnolia Event Center, according to district information. Students will graduate virtually from LSC-Tomball on May 13 and with a drive-thru celebration May 14, according to LSCS information.

“I really applaud students and their families who were early adopters that came out and said, ‘Yes, we want to try this,’” Salazar-Zamora said.