Founded in 2008, the goal of Northwest Early College High School (NWECHS) is for students to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree from El Paso Community College (EPCC). The school, consisting of 28 portable classrooms, is located on the edge of EPCC northwest campus. In 2014, Tracy Speaker-Gerstheimer, became principal just two weeks before the start of the new school year. At that time, NWECHS was in trouble: student enrollment was low, less than 60% of the students were graduating with an associate degree, the school had been on the federal AYP list, and it previously had three principals in six years.
One of Principal Speaker-Gerstheimer’s first goals was to change the reputation of NWECHS and increase student enrollment. To that end, she launched targeted student recruitment initiatives. She worked with middle school principals and teachers to create a pipeline of students to the school, and every 8th grader attended an informational meeting about the program, completely run by NWECHS students. She and the counselor organized multiple information nights and sent letters in English and Spanish to all 8th graders within 20 miles of the school, and she employed state-of-the-art marketing strategies, such as mass mailings and advertisements on social media. Additionally, she involved teachers in the interview process for incoming ninth-grade applicants, using a novel “speed-dating” technique where recruits met with as many as eight NWECHS teachers in their interview sessions.
A second goal was to build relationships with faculty and staff. Principal Speaker-Gerstheimer quickly established effective Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) among all disciplines and grade levels. She has supported faculty in achieving National Board Certification so that the school will reach the goal of 100% of the faculty receiving the certification.
A third goal was to provide the structures necessary for students to earn both a diploma and an associate degree. She launched the required 9th grade NWECHS’s Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program. For additional support in the later grades, she devised a new College Prep class, writing much of the curriculum herself. She worked with the counselor to add a required course for all seniors focused on scholarship writing. Principal Speaker-Gerstheimer introduced Robotics and AP Computer Science to the NWECHS curricula. She advocated relentlessly for needed resources, including a full-time parent liaison; specialized tutoring, remediation, and software for students having difficulty with the Texas Success Initiative (TSI) college-placement exams; and student preparation services for the SAT and ACT.
In only four years, Principal Speaker-Gerstheimer’s tireless leadership and innovative strategies have brought about a dramatic increase in the number of students completing sixty hours of college coursework before earning their high-school diploma. As of May 2018, 56 of 87 NWECHS juniors earned an associate degree a year ahead of schedule, qualifying them for scholarships so they can begin advanced work on their four-year degrees during their senior year of high school. NWECHS seniors may now attend University of Texas at El Paso to earn 18 college credit hours after they finish their associate degree.
Principal Speaker-Gerstheimer exemplifies all the qualities you would want in a school leader: grit, reflective thinking, patience, compassion, and fearlessness. Because of her efforts, NWECHS now graduates 90% of its students with associate degrees. Now the longest-serving principal in the school’s history, Principal Speaker-Gerstheimer has established a sturdy foundation and a high standard of leadership. This foundation will also ensure that the school continues to make a difference in the lives of Canutillo’s at-risk students for years to come.