What’s stopping you? High school students lead college honor society

By all accounts, Taylor Cattes, Kellis Ruiz and Zachary Stemple are doing an exemplary job leading the Northwest Campus chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges. As officers, they pulled off a perfect induction ceremony for new members in late November and are organizing service projects to benefit the College and the community—all while working toward their associate degrees, earning outstanding grades and planning their futures. And they’re reaching these accomplishments while they’re still in high school.

The Alpha Delta Delta chapter at Northwest is one of the few Phi Theta Kappa groups in the country whose officers include high school students. Cattes, Ruiz and Stemple attend Marine Creek Collegiate High School (MCCHS) on Northwest Campus—an intensive program offered in partnership with the Fort Worth Independent School District that allows students to simultaneously earn high school credit and tuition-free, transferable college credit. Students can earn up to an associate degree by the time they obtain their high school diploma.

“I have always held myself up to a high academic standard—a ‘school comes first’ philosophy,” said Cattes, a senior serving as Phi Theta Kappa president this year. “That’s exactly what I signed up for at MCCHS. I applied to the school because I was determined to succeed and better myself.”

“The opportunity to accelerate my education was very appealing,” added Ruiz, a senior and vice president of public relations. “The college-level classes are more challenging, promising and fruitful than just the high school curriculum.”

For Stemple, a junior and vice president of fellowship, the independence and responsibility that come with MCCHS enrollment was a big draw—as was the opportunity to save both money and time in his higher education experience. With a year of high school still to go, he will have 52 college hours at the end of the fall semester. Like Cattes and Ruiz, he is on track to earn an associate degree by the end of his senior year.

The trio’s desire to succeed also led them to Phi Theta Kappa. Membership is extended to elite students who have completed at least 12 hours toward an associate degree with a minimum GPA of 3.5; the organization recognizes academic achievement while building leadership skills. Phi Theta Kappa has recognized TCC’s chapters for their service-learning projects and outstanding members and advisors. Earlier this year, Alpha Delta Delta at Northwest earned Five-Star Chapter status—the highest designation a chapter can receive.

“Involvement in Phi Theta Kappa allows these students to develop professionally as they engage in scholarship, leadership, community service, collaboration and other areas that they will eventually have to mature in as students in higher education,” noted Ayanna Jackson-Fowler, Ph.D., professor of English and Phi Theta Kappa advisor. “The opportunities that Phi Theta Kappa gives these high school students are quite valuable as they transfer to a college or university in that they, in essence, will have a head start on developing professionally and be role models to their peers.”

Phi Theta Kappa membership is so valuable that the Fort Worth ISD Education Foundation funds membership fees for all MCCHS students accepted into the honor society.
“Fort Worth ISD students continue to excel and the Foundation is committed to helping those high achievers continue to the next level, especially when they have limited financial resources that may prevent them from advancing their academic goals,” said Mike West, Ed.D., board chair of the Fort Worth ISD Education Foundation.

At the end of spring 2016, all of Northwest’s Phi Theta Kappa officers were graduating. Briar Gorrell, who served as president of the chapter last year, encouraged the MCCHS students to take on more visible roles in the organization.

“They were excited and had a positive impact on every meeting,” remembered Gorrell, who is now studying nursing at TCU. “They wanted to be involved and were committed. You get back what you put into Phi Theta Kappa, and they put a lot into it.”

Cattes, Ruiz and Stemple went through the same application and interview process as other officer candidates. Gorrell says it was clear that the high school students were ready to take on the challenge.

“I was amazed by their capabilities,” said Gorrell. “When you have a student willing to do the work to get an associate degree while in high school, that says a lot.”

If the collegiate high school approach blurs the lines between high school and college, the MCCHS students’ leadership in Phi Theta Kappa almost erases them.

“The older students work very well with them and do not treat them any different based on them being younger and in high school,” remarked Jackson-Fowler. “As the older students work with these younger students as a team, there really is no distinction between the two groups.”

All the MCCHS Phi Theta Kappa officers say their participation is much more than a line on their résumés—they are honored to serve and are developing qualities that will benefit them in higher education and beyond. For Cattes, her role as Phi Theta Kappa president helped her overcome some nagging self-doubt.

“By being part of Phi Theta Kappa, I have become more confident and comfortable with myself, because I am surrounded by people who are like family to me,” she said.

Ruiz and Stemple have both grown as scholars since joining the organization. Stemple has acquired better time management skills that allow him to balance his studies and activities. Ruiz is learning to overcome chronic procrastination.

“I can only imagine the load that they have to carry as high school students taking college courses and being committed to Phi Theta Kappa,” noted Jackson-Fowler. “The diligence with which they have to achieve their many tasks has to be quite high. They are helping to form the standard for high school students that come after them into the Phi Theta Kappa community at TCC Northwest.”

All three plan to transfer to a four-year university after graduation from MCCHS. Cattes is interested in forensic anthropology and crime scene investigation; Ruiz wants to study anthropology and political science and earn his doctorate. Stemple plans to go into engineering.

Cattes, Ruiz and Stemple hope their roles as Phi Theta Kappa officers can inspire their fellow students to reach even higher.

“I think it reminds them that while we are still high school students, we really are college students too,” explained Stemple. “I would tell other MCCHS students not to hide on campus. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. We can excel.”

Ruiz agrees. “Age doesn’t matter as much as your goals and determination.”

This story is the latest in a series celebrating members of the TCC community who don’t let challenges stop them. Follow these links to read previous features: Salma Alvarez, Celia Mwakutuya, Jessica Caudle, Ken Moak, Melora Werlwas and Kevin Douglas.