HARLINGEN – The students poured into the massive foyer with the pomp and celebration of a royal wedding.

“This school is like a whole different experience,” said Debanhi Garza, 17, as she sat with friends amid the passion and thrill of the first day at UTRGV Harlingen Collegiate High School.

The $14 million facility at 2901 Medical Drive opened Tuesday morning to welcome the staff, faculty and 335 students of Early College High School now entering their brand new campus. The University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, and the City of Harlingen collaborated to create this state-of-the-art facility.

The drumline from the Harlingen High School South Band electrified the entrance way with carnival cadences to celebrate the arrival of each student walking through the entrance. A bouncy blue owl with yellow stockings pranced around and waved at everyone; students handed out maps to help their classmates find their way around the new campus.

“You get this college feeling when you walk in,” said Jairah Martinez, 17, a senior and student ambassador who was handing out the colorful sheets with the maps, which were really diagrams showing the locations of classrooms in the two-story facility.

A few students lined up at the cafeteria; most gathered around tables talking with vivacious energy about their new school, classes, friends, or teachers.

The ceiling rose high above them creating a sense of power and grandeur and majesty. Still others quickly took advantage of the “learning stairs” rising to the second floor which would offer students a place to study and engage in conversation.

“It doesn’t look like a school,” Jairah said. “It looks like a college. It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s really exciting because we went from such a small school to such an amazing and beautiful new school.”

Principal Pamela Flores was ecstatic as she greeted her students from the old ECHS on Pecan Street to the grand new acropolis of learning. She spoke excitedly about the new opportunities at the new 64,000-square-foot school.

“We have three pathways here at our campus,” she said. “Our engineering classrooms are amazing. The engineering lab contains all state-of-the-art equipment from robotic arms to 3D printers. We have an aspiring teacher classroom that really allows students to learn to teach engaging lessons that are research based. And we also have a state-of-the-art computer science lab.”

Since ECHS opened in 2007 at the Pecan Street location, it has offered students the chance to take up to 60 college credit hours through dual enrollment. Students at Harlingen Collegiate will continue to pursue their vigorous academic curriculum in an environment more accommodating to that university focus. UTRGV instructors will now have an office with cubicles at Collegiate High.

“It really is a dream come true,” said Michael Aldape, director of dual enrollment at UTRGV. He oversees all dual enrollment partnerships with school districts throughout the Valley.

“We’ve been working on this for several years and finally seeing the fruit of all that work is really incredible,” he said. “It’s the only one that we have actually co-constructed with the school district and the City of Harlingen. It’s very unique in that sense.”

Students hand out maps while the school’s mascot celebrates the new era Tuesday morning during the opening of the UTRGV Harlingen Collegiate High School. By Travis Whitehead, Valley Morning Star

The City of Harlingen donated the 6.3 acres for the school.

“We are looking forward to sending our faculty to teach like we have been doing for the last several years as part of the partnership,” he said.

The new school is a “game changer” for UTRGV, he said, offering many advantages over the old location.

“It really does feel very collegiate,” Aldape said. “It’s really designed very thoughtfully to make sure we have those open spaces, those communal spaces where students can work together, where faculty feel like they can engage students. And then we have those smaller, cozier spaces where you can have small group instruction and so it really meets all of our needs.”

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