College credits, right over here

By: Savanna Buckner

Last Upated: May 24, 2021

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In Gilroy, California, this traditional public high school’s mission is to help students navigate obstacles and find their way to success at college. 



Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy (GECA) was recently ranked in the top 50 public high schools in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. We were lucky enough to speak to GECA’s principal, Sonia Flores, about how the school helps students succeed. 

While early college schools, especially ones of GECA’s academic caliber, can be seen as only for “smart kids,” GECA’s mission is actually to help students who might otherwise “fall through the cracks” to attend college.

“The design of the program is to get students who are first in their family to go to college, or students who come from a low-income background who face obstacles that prevent them from being successful in a comprehensive high school setting,” described Flores.

Regardless of their background, GECA students don’t have to look very far to set their sights on higher ed. Gavilan Community College is literally in sight from GECA’s campus. 

Students take at least 40 units of college coursework at Gavilan by the time they graduate, with the majority of students earning their associate degree by graduation. 

GECA’s mission is near and dear to Flores’ heart. After beginning her education career with Teach for America, she joined the school in its third year of existence. As part of the founding team, she taught GECA’s first graduating students when they were juniors. She’s stayed with the school since, completing her administrative credentials and becoming principal in 2014.

Flores knows a thing or two about GECA, and here’s what she shared are two of the biggest reasons high schoolers are thriving at the school. 

First: Staff support (and school size). 

The mission, and the incredible results GECA is seeing, is the fruit of dedicated, thoughtful staff members. 

“I want to give a ton of credit to the founding teachers and staff who built a solid foundation,” Flores said, “and to the staff who are here now who have continued on with the success and are very committed to the students. I’ve got one of the best staff in the whole country. I think that ranking represents their dedication to our students.”

With fewer than than 300 students, the school counselor and teachers are able to personalize attention for students. 

“Just the fact that we’re a small school really provides a lot of support for students, and we can collaborate and make programmatic changes more quickly because we’re small,” said Flores. We collaborate three times a month as a staff, and we discuss any concerns that we might have about a student who may be struggling and how to help support them. We bring in the families to also ensure that they’re getting support at home.”

Second: Diversity of options offered.

 The second major element of success Flores noted is diversity, both in terms of student backgrounds and in terms of the college classes available to students. 

On top of the gamut of classes students can choose from at Gavilan Community College, there are a diverse array of clubs and extracurriculars available to GECA students, including a robotics club, a film club, and an art club. These extracurriculars help students develop as people, as well as keep them engaged in school, said Flores. 

Gilroy Early College Academy students work on a science lab

These two secrets of success— strong staff and diverse options— give a little insight into how GECA is helping kids achieve their education goals, regardless of where they’ve come from or what obstacles they face. 

There isn’t a single learning environment that fits every high schooler, but GECA is providing a stellar option for some students. 

 As Flores put it, “Every child has different learning needs. Having the opportunity to select a program that may be more beneficial for that child’s learning, whether it be the specific type of environment or the program that’s offered, providing that choice can really help keep a student engaged in school, and can help ensure that the student meets his or her goals.”


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

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