5 Questions for Sonia Flores, Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy

By: Andrew Campanella

Last Upated: May 25, 2021

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California’s Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy was ranked among the top high schools in the nation recently by U.S. News & World Report.


Read: College credits, right over here


Andrew Campanella: Can you explain what an early college program is? 

Sonia Flores, principal: An early college is a program that allows students to be dually enrolled, and it’s a partnership between a community college and a K-12 school district in most cases. The students are placed at this special type of program where they take high school classes for part of the day and college classes for part of the day. Those college classes they take count toward their high school diploma, but they also count towards an associate degree or a four-year university degree. There are about 30 early and middle colleges across the state of California. There’s not many of us, but we stick together, and there are some pieces of education code that apply just to early and middle colleges.

Andrew: What makes Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy (GECA) unique?    

Sonia: Our program is established to serve students who are traditionally under-represented at a four-year school. A lot of people have the misconception that GECA is only for the “smart kids,” and that’s not the case. We actually seek out students who are first in their family to go to college, who come from a low-income background, who speak a language other than English at home, and who have some sort of circumstance that may prevent them from being successful in a comprehensive high school setting. 

Andrew: Leadership and character development are important components of your program. How does that fit into your overall approach to learning?

Sonia: We know that our students are very motivated and want to pursue a higher education, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree or beyond. With that higher education comes more opportunity. With that opportunity we see future leaders. We want to make sure that we’re preparing them for those leadership roles by creating independent thinkers, critical thinkers.

From the time students come to our campus, they know that they are ambassadors. We talk to them about that and what that means. We really ingrain that role in them, and we work with them even on team building skills so that they’re working together collaboratively. Being a leader doesn’t just mean you’re the one in charge. It means working well with other people, knowing when to step back and let somebody else take charge.

We work through some of those team building skills and leadership skills through our ACA Prep Class, which is an AVID-like program. We want our students to be leaders and to show what is possible. They have to advocate for themselves here at our school. Their parents cannot go up to a professor when they’re taking a college class and tell them, “My child is struggling.” Instead, students have to advocate for themselves. Students start to develop leadership skills and self-awareness to figure out when they are struggling and when they need to speak up, which is a skill that they need for life.

 Andrew: Why did you start celebrating National School Choice Week? 

 Sonia: A student actually brought this to my attention the year before I became principal. She had brought it to the campus, and when I became principal she said, “We need to keep this going.” And I said, “Absolutely. You’re in charge of it.” She implemented it, and now our student government does it on an annual basis. We want to celebrate the fact that it is a choice to be here at our program. It is a school of choice. You had to apply to be here, but you also have to actively choose to come to school every day and be part of this program. It is rigorous, it is challenging at times, and that takes a lot of commitment. [National School Choice Week] celebrates the students, but it also celebrates the program and allows students to take a moment to reflect on why it is that they are actually here at GECA. Why have they stayed at GECA if they’re seniors or juniors? Why are they deciding to attend?

Sonia Flores and staff showcase school choice scarves

Andrew: What activities do you do during National School Choice Week?

Sonia: We do it a little differently each year. We’ve got the yellow scarves, and our students wear those and our staff wear those. But what has been absolutely consistent is that we have students reflect. They individually fill out a little survey as to “what do you love about GECA, why do you choose to be here?” Students write their reflections, and then the teachers go over their responses. Every year we have posters, but some years it’s the student leadership that does it and some years it’s the classes themselves that do it. We hang those positive statements around the campus, which does positively affect our school environment. In general, we have a very positive school culture and school climate. But, when kids are very stressed or just focused on academics, that little bright yellow sign really helps bring some light and a reminder to kids of not only why they’re working so hard, but why they like to be here and why they’re making that choice to be here.


Andrew Campanella is President of National School Choice Week. 


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