When Valle Verde Early College High School (VVECHS) opened in 2007, it was one of the first of its kind in Texas. Today, such schools are an established option, but Principal Paul Covey was working with a new idea, in a challenging context: with nearly three-quarters of students from economically disadvantaged homes, more than half of the students would be the first in their families to attend college. Furthermore, professors at El Paso Community College (EPCC) were reluctant to have high school students in their college classes, some individuals feared that VVECHS would “steal” talented students from other district schools, and parents worried that their children would not be able to perform at college level while in high school.
A former assistant principal and principal of a middle school, Principal Covey is guided by an unwavering commitment to communication: before formulating any action steps, he listens deeply and widely to stakeholders.
To win over EPCC faculty, Principal Covey and his staff met with professors, attended faculty meetings, and introduced high school students slowly, a few classes at a time, to demonstrate that high school students could master the coursework and be positive additions to college classes. He listened to school board and district concerns, then brought officials to campus to see how well the school worked and to hear from students about VVECHS’s impact on them. He used a similar approach with parents, meeting parents of every new class of students before school starts, and holding monthly meetings of parents, administrators, and teachers. VVECHS alumni and their parents weighed in with compelling personal stories.
A further challenge was the campus, spread over 32 portable buildings. Space is a constant issue: parent meetings are held off-campus and all-school meetings take place on the front lawn. Without space for traditional high school sports, Principal Covey and his staff started a cross country running team.
He also turned to technology to expand student opportunities: every student receives a digital device, with encouragement to be used both as a resource and a creative platform. Teachers are encouraged to pursue professional development on the latest best technology practices in the classroom and students are accustomed to incorporating technology into their everyday learning. Principal Covey now leads a Technology Cadre that presents on using technology in the classroom in El Paso and throughout the state.
To prepare students for an ambitious curriculum, Principal Covey created a “College Transition” course to support Valley Verde students as they took classes at EPCC. The course covers such as time management, textbook reading, note-taking, handling college projects, and communicating with college professors. He modified the VVECHS schedule in accordance with the college schedule so that the high school students can be immersed in the college environment. Principal Covey credits these steps, along with tutoring and AVID, for figures such as the 85% of seniors who earn Associate of Arts degrees alongside high school diplomas, and the 93% of seniors who go on to four-year colleges and universities.
Because the normal stresses of adolescence are exacerbated by the challenge of completing six years of schooling in four, Principal Covey ensured that students would have access to a full-time counselor and a part-time social worker; the counselor works with students one-on-one while the social worker provides campus-wide programs to help students deal with stress. Both have connections to community programs and refer students to them as needed.
Because much student learning occurs outside the classroom, Principal Covey has led efforts to create more than 35 clubs at VVECHS and opportunities for students to join organizations on the community college campus. Students have risen to the occasion, participating in college arts events and productions, editing the college newspaper, and serving as officers in college student clubs, including the Honor Society and Phi Theta Kappa.