Last August, Kyren “Austin” Gradney started ninth grade, but he also simultaneously started college. The teenager from Lake Charles plans to get his associate’s degree the same day he earns his diploma.
Elaina Stuntz, who is 14, the same age as Austin, wasn’t sure if college was for her. But after successfully completing four dual enrollment courses in ninth grade, the girl from St. Amant is dreaming of careers that a college education could make possible, anything from being a historical novelist to an equine-assisted therapist.
Hunter Gravois, of Sorrento, likely will go further that both of them during high school. This 13-year-old, who also starting taking dual enrollment classes last August, may earn his bachelor's degree by the time he dons his cap and gown for his high school graduation ceremony.
They are all students at University View Academy, Louisiana’s largest online school, as well as participants in its fledgling early college program. The program is part of a larger commitment by the Baton Rouge-based charter school to get its students, who number almost 2,400, off to a fast start in college.
An online charter school that educates children from all over Louisiana is joining a small fraternity of public schools in the state that prov…
Mandy LaCerte, University View Academy’s director of early college and workforce development, was hired a year ago to help launch the early college.
The idea is that high school students will take an array of dual enrollment courses offered through local community, technical or four-year colleges with the goal of amassing enough credits — in Louisiana, that’s about 60 credits, or 20 courses — to earn an associate degree. University View is now among a small fraternity of public schools in the state with an early college program.
Unlike those other schools, University View draws students statewide, not just from a school district. And it is working to form partnerships with colleges all over Louisiana. Last year, it teamed up with River Parishes Community College in Gonzales. This coming year, it’s adding Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.
LaCerte said the initial goal for the early college was to enroll at least 50 students that first year and about 100 more every year after that.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing things well before we bit off more than we could chew,” LaCerte said.
Eighty-six students ended up enrolling this first year, a mix of existing and newly enrolled students. Of those, 72 remained in the early college program in May. LaCerte said of the 14 who dropped, 11 left the school, and three opted out because they found the program was too much. The early college took in a quarter of the ninth grade and about 8 percent of the 10th grade.
“It’s not something that we want to force on people because they really have to have the drive and the work ethic to want to do it,” LaCerte said.
Lonnie Luce, the school’s superintendent, said his goal is to eventually have more than 400 students in the ninth through 12th grade in the program where a majority of the senior class will earn a two-year degree when they graduate high school.
“Where I came from in the St. James Parish school system, I saw the demand,” said Luce, formerly that parish’s school superintendent. “I know what parents and kids want, and that’s these kinds of programs.”
Austin Gradney was homeschooled during his elementary years, except for one disappointing stint in sixth grade at Louisiana Connections Academy. He soon returned to home school. He said he didn’t like the large classes with a fast pace and limited help.
So he was skeptical when saw promotions for University View Academy, the new incarnation of Louisiana Connections Academy. But he said he liked what he saw of the new management and its more Louisiana-based approach. And the new early college program intrigued him; it could give him a jump on his peers.
“They might be doing honors or advanced course, but they are not going to have their associate’s degree when they get their diplomas,” Austin said.
One of his first dual enrollment courses after enrolling at UVA was college-level psychology.
“I wanted to try something new and get out of my comfort zone,” Austin said.
His mother, Karen Gradney, had just taken a psychology course. She was sure her son’s course would be a cut below her own.
“Come to find out we had the same exact book, same everything. It is really college,” she said.
Like Austin, Elaina Stuntz spent her elementary years in home school before enrolling in University View for ninth grade. The prospect of the early college program was alternately interesting and daunting.
“I was sort of worried about like the whole college thing,” she said.
Elaina said it took time to shift from the looser rhythms of homeschooling to the workload and pace of online education. To fit her increased school work and still provide daily horseback riding lessons – she’s a competitive rider – she said she often wakes up at 6:30 a.m. She said she’s glad she can get right to work rather than having to get dressed for a brick-and-mortar school.
“I like waking up in the morning, not having to put on a uniform and just wear pajamas and be comfy,” she said.
The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools presented its Innovative Education Award to University View Academy at the association’s a…
Her mother, Jessica Stuntz, said the college-level courses kept a strict schedule.
“They were what you would expect a college class to be,” she said. “They were not as flexible as her high school class. The deadline is the deadline. Sorry.”
By junior or senior year, she expects her daughter will be taking not just online college course, but face-to-face classes on a college campus, something UVA is encouraging. Elaina is preparing herself for what she sees as a necessary shift.
“It would be sort of nerve-wracking to go to a college in person,” she allowed, “but it would be a great experience as well. So mixed feelings.”
Hunter Gravois said University View’s embrace of technology is the “complete opposite” of his previous school, a Montessori school in Baton Rouge.
“One of the tenets of the Montessori school was to avoid computers and technology,” he said.
He’s jumped right in. In addition to taking several dual enrollment classes, Hunter spent his ninth grade taking a battery of dual enrollment courses, as well as an independent study course to prepare him for calculus. He also took the ACT, a college entrance exam, twice, scoring a 34 in math. Next year, he’s got more dual enrollment courses on tap as well as courses he plans to take on the LSU campus.
“Some courses, especially mathematics, I was extremely interested in,” said Hunter. “Some of the other courses were not as challenging as I would have liked.”
Finding teachers and schools that challenge Hunter has been an ongoing struggle for the 13-year-old, said his mother, Amy Gravois.
“You’re always fighting for an opportunity for kids who are out of the mold,” she said.
Hunter is speeding so fast through both high school and college that he may be in graduate school while still a teenager.
She said University View has continually tried to find solutions for Hunter. For instance, she said, LaCerte is the one who suggested to her that Hunter is ready to take classes on a college campus and get used to learning with older students.
“It’s nice that they were allowing him to grow,” she said.