U.S. Department of Education Assistant Secretary Frank Brogan met with administrators, teachers and students at Early College Academy on Tuesday to learn about how the alternative high school is helping change academic options in Lafayette.

Brogan’s visit is part of a multi-day tour of the state exploring how schools in Louisiana are advancing student achievement and rethinking the traditional educational structure. The assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education is slated to visit 10 schools in cities including Alexandria, Covington, Lafayette and New Orleans before traveling back to Washington D.C. on Thursday.

Brogan, a former fifth-grade teacher, school superintendent and college system chancellor, said it’s critical that adults are willing to embrace change and recognize they need to organize learning strategies and programs around students, rather than forcing students to conform to outdated systems.

“Today in America’s educational systems things must change. The world is changing dramatically that these young people are going to live in as adults. The demands placed on them, the skill sets they’re going to need to be successful, the way they’re going to be expected to live their lives out there,” he said.

Brogan said he’s looking for change-makers whose stories and techniques he can share with other educators.

Early College Academy was recognized in September as a National Blue Ribbon School in the exemplary high-performing schools category. The high school magnet academy works in partnership with South Louisiana Community College to integrate students into a full college environment and help them graduate simultaneously with their high school diploma and associate degree.

Principal Alex Melton said the school currently has 270 students, with an average of 90% to 95% graduating with their associate degree and about 85% moving on to pursue four-year degrees after graduation. Melton credited the school’s success to strong personal relationships, embracing students’ interests and a rigorous academic environment.

He said the relationships between students and staff are crucial to students’ successful transition into the school’s four-by-four class schedule freshman year, which models the college course load. He said the first three to six weeks of the fall semester are typically very emotional as students struggle with the adjustment and doubt their abilities, but they adapt and excel.

Melton said the teachers help students learn to prioritize and plan, setting them up for success as they begin college courses in 10th grade and settle into full-time college schedules in 11th and 12th grades.

ECA Spanish teacher Lisette Rignault-Henderson said she’s never worked at a school with more supportive administrators. Rignault-Henderson joined the school three years ago and said the school’s team is constantly looking for new ways to adapt their strategies to meet students’ needs and are responsive to new and creative ideas from teachers.

“I’ve never been so supported by an administrative staff. Anything that you ask for that’s going to benefit the kids they’re 100% about. There’s a lot of support in reaching every child any way the child needs us to access the way that they learn,” she said.

“I think we’re the best kept secret,” Rignault-Henderson said later.

A group of six ECA students echoed Rignault-Henderson’s comments, telling Brogan about the school’s strong emotional support system, the constant academic challenges, their freedom to explore personal interests and the benefits of a fast paced learning environment.

Sophomore Ramudi Kariyawasam said she wants to become a cardiovascular surgeon and ECA has helped her feel confident and set her on the fast track to achieving that goal.

“Not only has it changed me academically, but it has also changed me emotionally,” Kariyawasam said. “I have dealt with many challenges that I did not assume that I would face and the support I’ve been given from the administration and my peers has changed me and, not only how I view education, but also the world, and I’m very thankful for that.”

Andre Perez, SLCC executive director of academic initiatives, said building the successful partnership between the two community education providers required breaking through education’s siloed nature and recognizing the two groups could benefit students by working together. Strong communication and commitment to ensuring access and support for all students is key to maintaining and expanding the program, he said.

Brogan said he was impressed by the synergy between the public school system, the community college system and other local partners. He said he’s seen similar college-credit programs around the country, including while president at Florida Atlantic University, and said the program will pay dividends to the community and students as it continues to strengthen.

He commended the administrators’ willingness to create options for students.

“It takes courage to change,” he said.

Melton said he was honored by the assistant secretary’s visit and said he hopes their passion left an impression.

“I hope he takes away the passion of the kids, the passion of the teachers. The challenges the kids and the teachers are welcoming and wanting to face as opposed to just staying in a traditional structure where it’s safe,” he said.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com