About 10 percent of students enrolled in college courses in Texas are still in high school. They're taking dual credit classes – that's where they get high school and college credit. These dual credit classes are growing in popularity, but in rural areas, access to college can be a struggle.
Three days a week, Elizabeth Lisko hops on a bus for a 45-minute ride to Commerce High School. The ninth-grader has to be there for college-level classes that start at 7:30 a.m.
She's one of about 70 teens from nearby school districts who are getting both high school and college credit through a program known as Pride Prep. Students get college credit through Texas A&M University-Commerce.
"It's a really good opportunity to get your college hours in," Lisko said. "And if we stay on this all throughout high school to our senior year then we can graduate with our associate's degree, I think, which can really help. Especially for me, because I want to be a veterinarian."
When she's not taking her college classes, Lisko attends high school in Community ISD, a school district in southeast Collin County.
Students in rural areas face unique challenges, according to a report released last summer by the University of Texas System and the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Travel time to college campuses and the rural school districts' limited budgets, combined with potentially spotty internet access — which makes it difficult for students to take classes online — can make the process more difficult.
One morning last fall at Commerce High School, students sat in Matt Brewer's college-level introductory history class. The lessons are usually posted online and students work on their assignments outside of class. When they meet in person, they dive deeper into the material.
On this day, they're preparing for their midterm exam — a biographical essay in which they have argue why the person they've chosen is important to the study of American history. Brewer says he wants his students to go beyond the usual historical figures.
"Cause if not, people are going to choose the standard presidents. They're going to choose standard people that we all know, and that's great, that's fine. But I encourage them to pick somebody unique," Brewer said.
One student chose Fred Rogers, the public broadcasting children's icon. Another student picked author Stephen King.
Brewer, who grew up in Commerce, says he wants more students raised in the area to think about going to college.
"I really like to impress with my students the importance that education opens up doors for them and just because they came from a rural community, maybe they came from a family where they're going to be the first person to go to college, they can still achieve great things and there's nothing holding them back other than hard work."
Among the participants in the Pride Prep program: students from Wolfe City, about 15 minutes northwest of Commerce.
Rose Gardner, a college and career readiness counselor at Wolfe City High School, sees a lot of kids who are hesitant to apply to college.
"We are very small rural town. Our college admittance has been very low," Gardner said. "We have quite a few kids that feel college is out of their grasp. Majority of kids are first generation college-goers, so the whole college experience is a bit far reach for them."
Gardner says some parents of students in the Pride Prep program worry whether their children can handle a rigorous college class. Others wonder whether they can afford to send their kids to college after high school.
Gardner wants families to understand the benefits of getting a higher education.
"Even when I meet with my seniors, it's not even a consideration. They're going to go straight to the workforce. A majority of them. Even the ones that think they want to go to college, there's no education really from home of how to get there or what to do or what kind of classes to take."
Charlie Alderman, superintendent of Commerce ISD, says having a university like Texas A&M University-Commerce nearby gives Hunt County an advantage over other rural areas.
"I want people to understand that even though we're small schools and we may not have the funding and resources, as long as we're willing to think and work together, we can give lots of opportunities to our students," Alderman said.
And in Hunt County, those opportunities could lead to more students going to college.