An online charter school that educates children from all over Louisiana is joining a small fraternity of public schools in the state that provides eligible students a pathway to earning an associate degree while they are still in high school.

University View Academy, formerly Louisiana Connections Academy, is launching its Early College High School in the fall and will include as many as 100 of its more than 250 ninth-graders. 

An early college is a high school program where students can take a substantial number of college-credit earning courses while still in high school. Early college differs from most high school dual enrollment programs in that it is designed to ensure that students will earn a high school diploma as well as a college associate degree on graduation day.

University View Academy, which has more 2,300 students, is now marketing itself as the “only statewide K-14 program” in Louisiana. Its primary competitor is Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, which has more than 1,900 students statewide. Charter schools are public schools run by private groups via charters, or contracts.

Most Louisiana public high schools, including both of the statewide online charter schools, offer dual enrollment — taking high school and college courses while in high school — but the vast majority of students who take the college courses end up taking just one or two such courses. For instance, while about 18 percent of graduating seniors passed a college course during the 2015-16 school year, less than 1 percent passed three college courses. Even schools with lots of college course options rarely counsel students in how they can use dual enrollment to cobble together an associate degree.

University View is modeling its new program on established early colleges in Ascension and Lafayette parishes, as well as programs in other states. The two parishes have ambitious programs, starting students in the ninth grade.

High school students attending early colleges take an array of dual enrollment courses offered through local community, technical or four-year colleges. Their goal is to amass enough credits — in Louisiana, that’s about 60 credits, or 20 courses — to earn an associate degree.

Unlike the schools it’s modeling itself on, though, University View is not aligning itself with just one college. Rather it’s working to form partnerships with colleges all over Louisiana.

“I want students to have access to quality dual enrollment courses regardless of their zip code,” said Alonzo “Lonnie” Luce, University View’s superintendent.

When he was superintendent in St. James Parish, Luce started an early college there. But Luce said his interest goes back further to when he worked in South Carolina in a town with a handful of successful early college schools.

Getting an associate degree while still in high school not only gives you a two-year head start on your college-going peers, it also gets you acclimated early to the demands of higher education, he said.

“It’s probably the best program to inspire kids and motivate them to go to college, especially those who are average or just below average,” Luce said.

Robin Olivier helped launch Lafayette Parish’s Early College Academy in 2008 and served as its lone administrator for its first three years. In the beginning, it was just her, three full-time teachers and 41 students. Nine years later, the school still operates on the campus of South Louisiana Community College, but it has more than 250 students, plus a waiting list.

“It was a great opportunity to expose students to the college atmosphere,” Olivier said.

Early College Academy has the highest school performance score of any school in the Lafayette district, earning it an A letter grade from the state. Olivier is now Lafayette Parish’s director of career and technical education and schools of choice, a job where she supervises the Early College Academy.

Olivier said students have to do well enough on eighth-grade standardized tests to gain admission to the early college and later they have to earn high enough ACT scores to enroll in certain community college courses. The school has raised its requirements over time in order to ensure that the students in the program can meet the demands of college coursework, she said.

For ninth- and tenth-graders, school starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m., a much later schedule than the one used by traditional high schools. Juniors and seniors are treated just like other college students, though they meet once a week for a “homeroom” class, Olivier said.

“You’re allowed to take classes at whatever time you like,” she said.

Early College Academy’s graduating class this year will have about 40 students. Each year, about 95 percent or more of the senior class finishes with both a high school diploma and an associate degree, Olivier said.

She said she recently hired a former student as a school counselor. After four years in college, that individual entered the job market with not only a bachelor's degree, but a master’s degree, giving her a significant advantage over her competitors, Olivier said.

Ascension Parish started its own early college program in 2013 after reading about Lafayette’s school in The Advocate, said Superintendent David Alexander.

Like Lafayette, Ascension’s early college students spend their day on a college campus, in their case, River Parishes Community College. Alexander, who ran the program before becoming superintendent last year, said 31 students started in its first class and, of those, about 20 are graduating this month, the early college’s first graduating class; almost all are expected to earn a diploma and an associate degree simultaneously.

Since starting, the program has grown steadily more popular. Alexander said it could top 300 students next year. He said the program will likely have to put kids on a waiting list. Like Lafayette, it has minimum admission requirements.

Unlike Lafayette, Ascension’s early college is not a stand-alone school; its test scores flow back to the district’s four traditional high schools. Also, its schedule is the same as the traditional high schools, though a bit shorter. Students take the bus to their home school and immediately board a transfer bus to the community college campus.

Alexander said he hears from community college personnel that the high school kids get a thrill out of taking classes at college in a way that older students, who’ve already been through high school, do not.

“There is not a lot of school pride with a 20-year-old,” he said.

University View’s early college program is still in its infancy. Luce recently hired Mandy LaCerte, former principal of the Career Academy, a career-focused charter school in Baton Rouge that closed in 2015, to oversee it.

Dual enrollment was not an area the online school had much success in grabbing students' interest in the past. Less than five percent of its graduates in 2016 earned dual enrollment credits, compared with 18 percent for the state as a whole.

Luce said that early college students will start largely with online courses taught by the school’s own instructors, specially chosen because they meet college accreditation requirements.

But in a departure for this virtual school, juniors and seniors will take many of their courses face-to-face at community and technical colleges across the state, he said. Luce said that is in keeping with research that suggests the biggest benefit of early colleges comes from face-to-face exposure to college.

How that will work is unclear.

In granting approval to University View last fall to start the early college program, the Louisiana Department of Education gave the charter school the task of simplifying the complex process of reaching individual agreements with state colleges. The idea is public schools could then follow the same path.

Luce said he’s been in talks with the Louisiana College and Technical College System about developing a simplified agreement, but for the first year, he’s near completing an agreement with River Parishes Community College to get the early college rolling.

Quintin Taylor, an LCTCS spokesman, acknowledged the ongoing discussions.

“We are indeed working with University View to work out the specifics of an agreement that will allow us to provide online dual enrollment opportunities for students across the state,” Taylor said. “We are hopeful that this will be completed soon.”

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier