Last week, Kaylyn Clark, Meera Kesavan, Hannah Matecko-Conti and Shiza Tanveer walked across the stage in the Retriever Activities Center on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, didn't just receive their diplomas as members of the Class of 2014 at Catonsville High School.
They also received an associate's degree in General Studies from the Community College of Baltimore County.
The four, who will each attend a four-year college in the fall, are among 18 students in Baltimore County public schools who were part of the Diploma to Degree (D2D) program. Students graduated from high schools including: Catonsville High, Dulaney High, Eastern Technical High, George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, Kenwood High, Owings Mills High, Perry Hall High, Randallstown High and the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science.
The largest number of students graduated from Catonsville High, which is located close to the CCBC Catonsville campus.
As the first group of students to participate in the program, it was a learning experience for the students, their families, teachers and school administrators, said Kristina Boxley, chairwoman of student services at Catonsville High.
"It was a big family commitment, because the parents had to drive the students to and from classes and it was difficult for students to do anything but schoolwork," Boxley said.
Students were chosen based on recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors, PSAT sub-scores of 50 or above, grade point average (GPA) and previous course completion, according to a CCBC statement.
They were selected for the program as freshmen and began taking college courses during their sophomore year. That was in addition to a course load that included many Advanced Placement and honors classes.
Guidance counselors worked closely with students and their parents, to ensure they understood the benefits and drawbacks of the program before committing. Throughout the program, counselors met regularly with students to make sure they were taking the right classes and coordinate their schedules.
That they completed the rigorous academic program wasn't a surprise to their Advanced Placement (AP) English teacher, Judy Carter.
"They were top students — hardworking, very smart and focused," Carter said. "They are attentive and driven to be successful."
Clark, 17, joined the program with the encouragement of her parents, who thought she should take advantage of the free program.
"I really like school, so I figured it wouldn't be hard. Plus it was free, so you can't really turn that down," Kaylyn said.
She will attend UMBC as a Meyerhoff Scholar, where she will major in biology and hopes to work in the field of genetics.
Hannah Matecko-Conti, 17, enjoyed the opportunity of being in a classroom on CCBC's Catonsville campus among college students.
"I really liked meeting people in my classes," she said. "It was a big eye-opener, seeing people in their 30s and 40s taking classes. It taught me a lot about long-term planning."
Although, at times she found it intimidating to be surrounded by older classmates, she enjoyed the experience overall.
"You get to take so many other classes that aren't available in high school, like sign language and Japanese," she said. "It was really neat."
Matecko-Conti will major in Asian studies and math at St. Olaf College (Minn.) on an academic scholarship in the fall.
Meera Kesavan, 17, said balancing the rigorous AP courseload at Catonsville High, with extracurricular sports such as soccer, track and badminton while also taking an average of two classes at CCBC was difficult.
"I'm actually a bit more excited for college because I know I won't have to balance out college and high school. It will just be college," she said.
Meera will attend Johns Hopkins as a chemical engineering major.
Shiza Tanveer, 18, said she joined the program to stand out from other students during the college application process.
"It is something that not everybody is doing, so it definitely helps you stand out," Tanveer said.
She will attend New York University in the fall as a pre-med major on a full scholarship.
"I'm so proud of them," Boxley said. "I think it's incredible for them to have completed the program. It was a lot of work and stress on the kids and their families."
With support from CCBC and Baltimore County Public Schools, the program will continue. A second group of eight students began program in fall 2012 and are expected to graduate in spring 2015.
A new group of high school students will have the opportunity to earn an associate's degree beginning in the fall of 2015.