As 16-year-old Kimberly Valadez sits in her Cornell University dorm room, she reflects on her journey from the Central Valley town of Tranquility to the Ivy League. “Since I was a child, I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know what college was or if there were different types of colleges.”
Luckily for Valadez, her local high school, Tranquility High School, offers a dual enrollment program that allowed her to work toward both her high school diploma and two associate degrees from West Hills College at the same time.
“Knowing we have tools and resources and responsibility to allow for students to thrive, our moral obligation is not to put limits but ask questions to move students forward,” said Golden Plains Unified School District Superintendent Martín Macías.
The district is 98% minority (majority Hispanic) with 88% English-language learners and 97% coming from lower socio-economic households. This dual enrollment program is part of a Cradle to Career effort within the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools to provide the education and services needed to help lift families out of poverty.
Tranquility High School has about 40 students enrolled in the dual enrollment program. One of the first classes they take is a guidance class to help them prepare for the college courses. “We would have teachers spend a couple hours a week with the students, just to be there, to motivate and inspire to help them if they got stuck,” said Macías. “Having those support systems is important, not just leaving things by chance and hoping they’re going to navigate and survive, especially when they get stuck.”
Asking high school students to add college courses to their high school schedule may seem like a lot, but for Valadez, the two intertwined perfectly. “A lot of the times, the things we went over in the high school classes tied into the college courses and it was as if they were helping one another.”
“Berkeley has been my dream school since 8th grade,” said current UC Berkeley student Estefania Avalos. She learned about Tranquility’s dual enrollment program while in the 8th grade.
“We had a teacher come to register us for high school classes and they were talking about the dual enrollment program saying college classes would help us,” she explained. “I signed up for the college classes, but I didn’t know I was actually going to be a college student. I just remembered the word ‘college’ and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it.’”
Avalos graduated with her high school diploma and three associate degrees. She is currently in her second year at Berkeley majoring in political science with a minor in Chicano/Latino studies. She plans to attend law school and become an immigration attorney.
The program is more than enrolling students in college classes, it is providing exposure and a support system to students who are mostly first-generation college students.
“One of the things that we have been very intentional about is to work with the social and emotional part of the students,” said Macías. “The academics are very important, but if we can’t build relationships with students and have students trust us for who we are, then we’re only meeting with them halfway.”
The other part of the equation is parental involvement. Macías added, “Our parents have an aspiration for students to go to college. But college can be a scary place. We invite the parents to go on the college trips with the kids. So, when they come back home, they’re able to talk about the college experience with their kids.”
“My parents have always been my number one supporters,” added Avalos. “They didn’t have the opportunity to do the same things that I did. So, whenever I told my parents, ‘I have a meeting,’ they would go out of their way — sometimes they would work on the weekends just to get me to meetings, even if it was an hour away.”
At Cornell, Valadez appreciates the value of the dual enrollment program. “I feel like it has given me a great advantage, especially has given me some guidance this semester.” She plans to spend all four years at Cornell majoring in linguistics with a goal of attending medical school. “I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to continue growing.”