A River Parishes Community College program that lets students simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree will have its largest freshman class yet when school begins Aug. 10.

More than 100 ninth-graders have enrolled in what’s called the Early College Option program, a partnership of the community college and the Ascension Parish school district.

“I decided to do this so I could get ahead and fulfill my dream of being an animator,” said Faith Ward, 14, at freshman orientation held at the college last week. Ward, who lives in Gonzales, said she wants to act and write as well.

For Raymond Street, 14, of Prairieville, enrolling in Early College Option was a chance to be more independent.

“Quite honestly, I came here for a challenge. I’m really bored with the normal school teaching,” said Street, who plans to one day be a computer programmer.

One of two such programs in the state, Early College Option lets public high school students attend the college in Gonzales for all four years of high school while they are still considered enrolled in their “home” high schools.

Students enroll in the program a year at a time, and will take both high school and college classes. When they graduate, they’ll have both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in humanities.

Students who go on to a four-year university will be able to enter as a college junior.

The Ascension Parish program, which began in the 2013-14 school year, will have its first graduating class of seniors in 2017.

The program has grown steadily, from 32 students in its first year to the 183 who will start in August.

“This program is a fantastic program. It’s a growing program and it’s working,” said Julian Surlan, the principal of Early College Option and an employee with the Ascension Parish School Board.

Students apply while they’re in the eighth grade, and they must score a minimum of “basic” on all parts of Louisiana’s eighth-grade LEAP test.

They must also be enrolled as an incoming freshman at one of the four public high schools: Donaldsonville, Dutchtown, East Ascension or St. Amant.

Students pay the same costs and fees they would at their home high schools during the year. The School Board provides the funding for tuition for the students’ college classes.

The students, most of whom ride by bus to and from their home high schools to attend RPCC, can participate in high school activities.

The other college credit of this kind in the state is at South Louisiana College in Lafayette in partnership with the Lafayette Parish school system.

At freshman orientation this week, students got to hear from their peers already in the program.

“Freshman year was the best I ever had, because I wanted to try,” Katherine “Kat” Grego, who will be a sophomore this year, told a roomful of incoming freshmen.

Principal Surla asked her if she had any regrets about entering the program.

“Yes, not wanting to do it in the first place. I did not want to be here, I hated everyone,” Grego said.

Her mother, she said, wanted her to enroll.

“But then I met new people and new friends,” Grego said. “The teachers are amazing. I love them to death.”

Sophomore Emily Hale said being able to meet students from other schools was a real positive of the program.

And, she said, “The college classes were a bit challenging, but if you really study, it will be fun.”

Student Micah May, a sophomore, said, “Raise your hands: Who never studies?”

“I didn’t either, and I got As, Bs and some Cs on tests in eighth grade and seventh grade,” he said.

But, he said, “On the college classes, you will definitely want to spend time studying at least a couple of times before every test. With friends, with flash cards.”

“They did make this wonderful place called study hall,” said May, who advised the freshmen to use it.