Socorro High School will have a designation as an Early College High School program in the fall where students can finish high school with an associate’s degree or a certificate in business from New Mexico Tech.
John Larson | El Defensor Chieftain

Starting next fall, students at Socorro High School can start taking classes at New Mexico Tech to work towards earning an associate’s degree in General Studies or a certificate in Small Business Management.

This is made possible through the Early College High School Program. Socorro High School has to submit an application and once it is approved, the high school will have a designation for the program. This will create two high schools within the high school.

“That’s the icing on the cake to all of this is New Mexico Tech, we are partnering with them for associates degrees for our students at Socorro,” Socorro High School principal Robbie Stephens said. “It is sometimes overwhelming to think about how amazing this is for our students. (I believe) our students at Socorro High are going to embrace this fully.”

According to Stephens, this program will be free to everyone who participates as tuition and books are covered by the program.

“They can earn college credits while in high school and it’s free,” Stephens said. “You couldn’t ask for anything better. If they work the program the way it is designed and they achieve an associate’s degree, it shaves off two years towards an undergrad cost-free. Not only are they ahead of their peers at the college level, it comes to the families essentially free of charge.”

Sharon Sessions of NMT said dual enrollment in the past has been a challenge because Tech would pay for the student’s tuition, while Socorro High provided the textbooks and parents paid for any lab fees or other fees that would incur. Previously, students also had to provide transportation to Tech and Sessions said that the City of Socorro is interested in helping to transport those students.

There is a committee of business owners, parents and educators and administrators at Tech and Socorro High working on getting the application ready to be sent to the Public Education Department. Stephens said if the application is submitted this semester, the program will be able to start in the fall.

While working through the application, Sessions said that there were logistical issues that Tech has had to work through.

Stephens said that Michael Hargather of Tech has also helped Sessions with the logistics at NMT.

According to Sessions, the university has to make catalog changes as the General Studies associate’s degree is currently at 65 credits. She said it needs to be reduced to 60 credits to be consistent with the state standards.

The admission standards for dual enrollment at Tech has also changed to better align with the program. Sessions said that a student who wants a certification in business does not need to be calculus ready like a STEM student would need to be.

“Before, it used to be that dual credit students were held to the same admission standard as college freshmen,” Sessions said. “Now, we are trying to make this to where they can make this as a method to be able to be very well prepared for college.”

Students who participate in the program can take math, science and business classes, but the State of New Mexico does not allow them to take remedial or physical recreation courses.

Part of the application, Sessions said, is that Tech has to demonstrate relationships with workforce partners and has to submit letters of support with the application to the Public Education Department.

“They are important because that demonstrates a pathway for some of these students to have internship possibilities,” she said. “The connections with a lot of the businesses, like instance EMRTC (and) the Center for Cyber Security, already have active internship programs. Being able to bridge the things we already have to get it started with the idea that once we have it in place, we really want to grow in all directions.”

If the program is successful, educators at Socorro High and Tech are hoping to expand the program in the future. Stephens said the program is starting with a certification in business and a General Studies associate’s degree because Tech is known for STEM education.

Sessions and Stephens said they would like to see more certifications added in the future so that more students can partake in the program.

“Things that we can look forward to in the future might include culinary, agriculture, just a myriad of different things that we can start to lay out the groundwork for,” Stephens said. “If we can ask New Mexico Tech to continue to work in agreement with us, we can provide credit hours from the university for the students to earn either certificates or associate’s degrees. It’s pretty awesome and I’m way excited about it.”

Students at Socorro High will be able to start in the program their freshman year.

According to Stephens, students will have knowledge of the program going into their freshman year and will be able to decide if it is something they want to participate in. Their freshman year will include college-readiness classes and then taking dual enrollment classes at Socorro High during their sophomore year. They would then transition to Tech for their junior and senior years of high school.

Damien Ocampo, who originally brought the idea to the table, said the students will still be able to participate in their high school activities.

“We are making sure that whatever happens throughout a schedule, whatever happens throughout their personal college schedule that they are always going to have time for their high school events and to have a high school life,” he said. “They are going to be able to go to the dances. They are going to be able to be involved with athletics. They can be in the Science Olympiad. They can go run on the track team.”

Since bringing up the idea originally, multiple challenges have been faced such as COVID-19 and changes in leadership throughout the Socorro Consolidated Schools district.

“Every time we would have a new administrator or a new superintendent, I sat down with them and said, ‘look, this is what has been going on. I have a committee. We really want to get this done. We are tired of seeing people move away from town because they perceive the grass being greener somewhere else when we have an opportunity to make our grass as green as it could be with New Mexico Tech and working in conjunction with the schools,’” Ocampo said.

Ocampo said that he wants to see this program succeed because he believes it will have a ripple effect on the community.

He first brought up the program because he began to notice that enrollment was dropping at Socorro High due to parents taking their children to a high school that has different tracks, such as a STEM track.

“I think it’s going to make us a destination,” he said. “Now when we are going to have a science or math job open at the high school, across the state any science or math teacher, or any teacher for that matter, if you have a kid that you know wants to become an engineer, wants to have an opportunity to get two years of schooling, they are going to be putting in for these jobs.”

He said he also noticed that the majority of Tech professors live in Albuquerque and making Socorro High an early college high school might bring some of them back to Socorro, which would in return help some of the local businesses.

“If you think about it, 10 high wage earners at Tech staying in our community is a big deal,” Ocampo said. “That is a lot of money that does not leave this community and stays here and it will bring up the amount of money that is in this town and is getting our economy back on track.”