PHARR, Texas — Lorena Gonzalez took her first college course — music appreciation — when she was 15. Intimidated by the older students on campus, she would have her mother drop her off and pick her up at the doors of the class.
Now, just two years later, she is taking organic chemistry on that very same campus and has already earned 62 college credits, enough for an associate’s degree.
Most students on such an accelerated path are high achievers from wealthy districts. But Gonzalez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who never finished high school, lives in one of the poorest counties in Texas.
She is attending one of a growing number of high schools across the country that offer free college courses to low-income students in an effort to help them make the transition from high school to college — and afford the rising cost of a degree.
“This is really just like a stepping-stone for a lot of us,” said Gonzalez, who wants to become a doctor and has applied to 10 colleges, including several beyond her home in the Rio Grande Valley. “Now I see that I can go out of state, I can go outside of the valley, and hold my own against people that have much better advantages than most of us do.”
School districts in Boston, and in cities across the country, are beginning to rethink the high school experience, turning to the early college model, as well as a variety of others, to address persistent socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps.
Just 40 percent of Boston’s Hispanic and African-American high school graduates go on to earn college degrees, compared with more than 70 percent of its white and Asian students.
Many parents set their sights on exam schools, or successful charter high schools, for their children. Those whose children don’t get in sometimes leave the city, or turn to parochial schools, frustrated that many of the city’s traditional high schools have higher dropout rates and lower college graduation rates.
Boston has sought to close the achievement gap in recent years with specialized high schools focused on the arts, clean energy, health care, and technology. At least four schools have also launched small early college programs that send a few students to free college classes.
City officials see the approach as one of the most promising ways to prepare poor and minority students academically and socially for college, while saving their parents thousands of dollars in tuition costs.
“Love it. Love it,” said Rahn Dorsey, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s chief of education. “It’s the wave of the future. It adds to the rigor that we need at the high school level, and we’ve learned that high school students can step up to the challenge . . . Why not acclimate you to that level of work as early as possible?”
Students at these schools are more likely to get a high school diploma, go to college, and, just as critically, to stay in college and get a degree, according to the American Institutes for Research, which compared students who enrolled in early colleges with students who sought to enroll but were rejected by a lottery.
More than 280 early college high schools have opened across the country since 2002. Last year, the Obama administration awarded $15 million to start more in South Texas and Denver, calling the schools an “innovative model with a proven record of improving student outcomes and closing achievement gaps for high-need students.”
“If you agree with the premise that, for most jobs, you need at least some post-secondary education, this is an extremely successful strategy,” said Nancy Hoffman, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and a vice president at Jobs for the Future, a Boston nonprofit that helps to launch these schools nationwide.
But even students and teachers who embrace the model say that pushing high school students into college has its hazards.
Students at early college schools say they sometimes struggle with the logistics of scheduling classes at nearby colleges and finding transportation there. Some complain that their long commutes and reading lists leave them with no time for sports and clubs. And the college courses they attend can be large, impersonal lectures, the antithesis of the small, hands-on classes that help teenagers stay focused.
“College teaching, as a rule, is not what I would call centered on student engagement,” said Linda Nathan, a founder of Boston Arts Academy and former codirector of Fenway High School. “It’s often a lot of rote learning. It’s not particularly innovative.”
Boston, which opened the nation’s first high school in 1821, could be bolder, Nathan said. Why not, she said, divide senior year into thirds devoted to community service, work, and college classes? Why not have students tackle problems in their neighborhoods?
“Early college doesn’t fundamentally rethink what we value, and how we think about teaching and learning for adolescents,” Nathan said. “It just says we want more kids to go college. And do we know that, as a society, is the right thing?”
Bill Rawlinson, who works at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in Boston, which is sending 11 students to an English class at Bunker Hill Community College this year, said he sees both the necessity for early college and the potential downsides.
“The drawback may be that we are trying to make kids grow up too fast,” Rawlinson said, “but with the competitive nature of colleges, we almost have to do that.”
Massachusetts provides only a small amount of funding for early college, forcing most participating colleges to waive the students’ tuition. The burden on colleges has made it difficult to expand the programs. Texas, however, pays the full cost of tuition for its early college students.
That has helped Daniel P. King, the superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District, home to 30,000 students on the US-Mexico border, to launch the nation’s most audacious attempt yet to meld high school and college.
While most early college schools take only the students motivated enough to sign up, King is trying to push all of his 9,000 high schoolers — 90 percent of whom are low-income and more than 98 percent of whom are Hispanic — into early college classes. To qualify, students must pass an exam that tests whether they are ready for college-level work.
This year, 4,300 are taking college courses. Some take a 15-minute bus ride to South Texas College. Most take college-level classes in their high schools with teachers accredited by the college.
On a recent Tuesday at PSJA Early College High School, banners for Harvard, Yale, and the University of Texas fluttered from palm trees in the courtyard.
Students in a college-level calculus class worked on a formula known as the chain rule. A few doors down, a physics class calculated when two carts moving in the same direction at different speeds would collide. Students in a Spanish class discussed a 16th-century poem while wearing paper hats labeled with literary terms — verse, stanza, and sonnet.
“In the beginning, it’s really hard,” said Eric Garza, a 17-year-old senior originally from Mexico, who wants to go to the University of Pennsylvania next year. “You’re coming out of eighth grade. You’re a child. But I feel it’s helped me, and I feel prepared for any university of any kind.”
The district launched its first early college classes in 2007, along with special high schools for teen mothers and for dropouts ages 18 to 26. The results are drawing nationwide attention.
Since 2007, the dropout rate has plummeted from 19 percent — double the statewide average — to 3 percent, while the rate of students earning a high school diploma has jumped from 62 percent to 90 percent. This summer, 1,000 students took voluntary, free classes at South Texas College.
“When you go around, the number of students talking about their master’s and even their PhDs — these are things that are not typical,” King said. “Whether it’s a student who has really struggled or a student who is doing very well, we’ve seen a lot of positive results from it, and it’s changed the conversation among students in our high schools.”
Students said they appreciate the added responsibility and independence that are central to the early college experience. At one high school in Pharr, students have to get themselves to class on time; there is no bell at the end of class. In Boston, early college students at Bunker Hill Community College are issued college IDs and can use the campus gym and library.
“I even told my teacher, I would prefer coming here than going to school,” said Stephanie Cardoso, a junior at the Community Academy of Science and Health in Dorchester, who is taking English at Bunker Hill. “Nobody’s like, ‘Go here. Go there.’ You just have to know what time it is, where your class is.”
Boston’s attempt to reinvent its high schools was prompted by a study that found that just 46 percent of the city’s high school graduates go on to get a college degree within seven years of getting their high school diploma. That figure drops to just 35 percent for students who do not graduate from one of the three exam schools such as Boston Latin.
Dorsey said Boston needs to do a better job preparing all of its students for colleges and careers. City officials will focus initially on revamping Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, which has been plagued by low test scores and graduation rates.
While officials are venturing cautiously toward new models, gathering community input and considering whether a large-scale transformation is advisable, students in early college programs say they have already reimagined high school — and their academic trajectories.
“When I’m here, I feel like I’m a college student,” said Jenel Miller Cairo, a 16-year-old junior at the Community Academy of Science and Health, who is taking English at Bunker Hill. “I don’t even think about high school.”