GONZALES — Nia Comery, 14, of Prairieville, has begun her freshman year of high school at River Parishes Community College in a new program that has some advantages, particularly one that will allow her to earn two years of college credits while in high school.
“I decided to do this because I’d rather not miss this opportunity and regret not taking it in the future,” Comery said of her decision to enroll in the Early College Option program, now going into its second year in Ascension Parish.
The program, a partnership of the Ascension Parish school district and River Parishes Community College, lets high school students attend the community college for all four years of high school while still considered enrolled in their “home” high schools.
The school district pays for tuition, fees and books for the high school students attending the college, a cost of about $550 per three-credit-hour course, said Julian Surla, the administrator of the program.
And if students do the work, they graduate with both their high school diploma and an associate degree in humanities.
But it gets even better.
Students who go on to a four-year university will have earned enough credits to enter as a college junior.
And, since TOPS, Louisiana’s Tuition Opportunity Program for Students, is a four-year program, the students’ tuition for their last two years of college as well as two years of graduate school — if they choose to get a master’s degree — will be paid for by TOPS.
“They’ll have their master’s by age 22,” said Surla, who is an employee of the Ascension Parish School Board.
David Alexander, director of secondary education with the Ascension Parish School Board, said the school district began looking into the Early College program a few years ago when it visited South Louisiana Community College in Lafayette, which partnered seven years ago with the Lafayette Parish school system for such a program.
“It’s an innovative opportunity” for students, Alexander said.
For those enrolled in the Early College Option in Ascension Parish, the school day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m.
Students get on a bus at their home high schools and head to River Parishes Community College. They return by bus to their high schools in the afternoon.
The program is growing.
This year there are 84 students, and 60 of them are new freshmen, Surla said. The first class in the program, which started last year, had 32 students enroll and it only lost eight, several of whom moved, Surla said.
Students come from the four public high schools in the parish as well as the two private schools.
Last year, the Early College program was housed at River Parishes Community College’s old campus in Sorrento. The community college moved to a new campus in Gonzales near La. 44 over the summer.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for young people,” said Chancellor Dale Doty. “It’s been very well-received by kids and parents. We couldn’t be happier to be part of this.”
To enroll in Early College, students apply while they’re in the eighth grade and must score a minimum of “basic” on all four parts of Louisiana’s eighth-grade LEAP test.
Kids can earn five scores on LEAP tests and the highest to the lowest scores are: advanced, mastery, basic, approaching basic and unsatisfactory.
Students enroll in the program a year at a time, Surla said.
The ninth- and 10th-grade students take high school honors level courses in English, algebra, biology and electives that are taught by high school teachers, and also take one college class each semester, taught by one of the community college instructors, Surla said. The high school freshmen and sophomores are in their own classrooms for their first two years, he said.
In their junior and senior years, the students are full-time college students, taking college courses, including college algebra, biology, chemistry, U.S. history and speech taught by community college instructors with the courses counting as both high school credits and college credits.
“They’re earning two gpas and two transcripts,” Surla said.
The Early College concept was launched in the U.S. in 2002 with funding provided by the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation and the partnership of several organizations to help the program become established in schools serving low-income students across the country.
School districts like the ones in Gonzales and Lafayette have gone on to establish Early College programs on their own, without seeking outside funding.
Joel Vargas, a vice president with the Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future, one of the organizations that works to help establish Early College programs, said the concept is a way to “make things more relevant, enticing and efficient to really break down the barriers between the high school student and college.”
Surla said there are plenty of students who don’t mind skipping high school.
“There’s always going to be a small percentage of students who don’t care about the high school ‘experience,’ ” Surla said.
Students in Early College can, though, still participate in before- and after-school activities at their home high schools.
Several students in the Early College program in Ascension Parish said they do not feel like they’re missing anything by not going to a traditional high school.
Comery, who said she didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of Early College, said she is enjoying the college program but that she has stayed involved in her home school of St. Amant High.
She plays on her high school’s freshman girls’ basketball team.
Tyjanay Brewer, 15, whose home high school is Donaldsonville High, said she still sees her friends in the mornings and afternoons when she catches the school bus to and from River Parishes Community College.
She said she wanted to be in Early College because “I decided I want to become a doctor in the future, so it’s a head start for me and it will take less years for me to get through school.”
Perret and classmate Blaine Brewer, 16, whose home school is Dutchtown High, both said they’re making new friends at the college but for them, the most important part of the program is the college credits.
“It’s a way to get ahead in school,” Perret said.