gmhTODAY 01 gmhToday Mar Apr 2015 - Page 97

An educational partnership between Gilroy Unified School District and Gavilan College, the Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy or GECA is a college preparatory high school where students receive both high school and college credits. In four years, students graduate from the Academy with not only a high school degree, but also transferable college units. “It’s a great opportunity for students to get ahead and get to their career goals sooner,” said Sonia Flores, principal of GECA. GECA’s namesake, Dr. TJ Owens, was the former Dean of Students at Gavilan College and president of the Gilroy Unified School District. A champion of civil rights, he was a key figure in GECA’s inception, but died of a stroke two years before it was established in 2011. GECA received start-up money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and now is fully funded with state tax dollars. GECA provides students not only with high school and college credits, but also a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that includes honors and Advanced Placement classes. Flores said she thoroughly enjoys working with the students and the teachers, and being a part of an innovative approach to education that helps students set them- selves apart from others while getting a jumpstart on their goals. With a student body of about 240 students from 9th through 12 grades, students come from Gilroy, Hollister, San Benito County, Salinas, and Morgan Hill, Flores said. GECA’s graduation rate is 98 percent, she said. The high school will witness their fifth class graduating this spring. All students before graduating must complete a senior project, which entails researching a question related to a professional field they are interested in entering and working with a mentor to learn about that profession. “That has determined what they decide to go on to study,” Flores said. “Some students have changed their minds about what kind of degrees they are pursuing.” Flores said many GECA graduates begin college with between 40 to 60 college credits, while others have earned their Associate’s degree. By already having many college credits under their belt, most students are able to graduate from college in three years, alleviating the financial burden of college and making it less likely that they will drop out of college before graduating. GECA provides students not only with high school and college credits, but also a rigorous college preparatory curriculum that includes honors and Advanced Placement classes. GECA has tracked their students’ college acceptance rates as well, Flores said. Since 2011, 77 percent of graduates have gone on to study at a four-year university, she said. “From our first graduating class (in 2011), some are working on their Master’s degree, and others have graduated from four-year schools,” Flores said. Flores points to alumni who have gone on to attend Santa Clara University, as well as University of California schools at Davis, Los Angeles and Berkeley. One graduate received a full scholarship to