Preparations for the first-ever Early College Program at Woodlawn High School kicked off last week for county students who will work to earn their diplomas and associate's degrees at the same time.
A group of 90 students accepted into the magnet program met at the Community College of Baltimore County — which is partnering with Baltimore County Public Schools to provide the program — throughout the week to prepare for a placement exam that will decide their college classes next semester.
The incoming ninth-graders will take one class per semester with CCBC faculty at Woodlawn High School during their first year in the program, and gradually increase their course load, eventually taking electives and higher-level classes at the community college.
"Some of these kids could really benefit from these more challenging, rigorous classes," BCPS program facilitator Christina Sargent said. "Even though they're 14 years old, they're ready for it, so why not? If we're not rising to that challenge, we're doing a disservice to our kids."
Woodlawn High, with enrollment of 1,409, was the ideal spot as it is a central location and was recently renovated, creating space to accommodate the program, Sargent said. The county has 27 other high schools.
The students, who come from middle schools primarily on the west side of the county, were chosen from a fall application process that consisted of math and reading tests, an essay, a group interview with school and college faculty, and their grades from the prior year.
The cost for tuition, fees, books and transportation to CCBC is included, making the program attractive to lower-income families or prospective first-generation college students, Sargent said.
After completing 60 credits, students will graduate with an associate's degree in general education, according to CCBC Dean of Student Development Nicole Baird, which differs from more specialized early college programs across the nation and enables more flexibility.
As this is the first year, Baird said there's no hard data on the success of the program, but the curriculum was created after county educators observed the successes and shortcomings of other early college program models across the country.
A 2013 study from the American Institutes of Research found that 80 percent of early college students enrolled in college, while 71 percent of comparison high school students did.
There are over a dozen dual-enrollment programs across the state that offer access to college classes, but just a handful of early college programs that offer a concurrent degree. Other schools with similar programs include Howard Community College, Hagerstown Community College and Prince George's Community College. Baltimore City began offering an early college program in 2015 in partnership with Bard College in New York.
Justin Knight just finished eighth-grade at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, but already knows he wants to go to law school at Towson University and work for the FBI's behavioral analysis unit. He figured that out when he was 9 years old.
Knight's passion for law started when he was 6, when he started watching TV shows about the law and the FBI — "Criminal Minds" is his favorite. The 13-year-old wants to go to law school to help people, and decided the early college program was the perfect way to fast-track his journey there.
"This could be a really good break for me," Knight said.
Tya Mercure, also 13, doesn't know exactly where she wants to go after graduating with her diploma and associate's degree, but she knows she wants to earn her bachelor's degree and pursue IT work or computer engineering.
"To get our associates degree so early, you're going to get a good job, a lovely job you just benefit from," she said. "And many people don't have this opportunity, so it's great."
This is the first early college program in Baltimore County offering an associate's degree upon high school graduation, but Baird said there are plans to expand to the east side of the county in the next few years. Students from eastern Baltimore County middle schools are welcome to apply to the Woodlawn program, but membership is less likely because transportation isn't provided to the high school, Sargent said.
Coordinators will watch the Woodlawn students "very closely," Baird said, and track the program's early successes and failures to shape the next one. BCPS and CCBC will provide students in the program with tutoring, academic coaching and sessions outlining study skills and note taking practices.
To remain in the program, students must meet the BCPS magnet school grade requirements and the CCBC grade requirements — a 2.0 GPA — as well as credit for the minimum number of courses.
"You're always told college is gonna be difficult and you're going to have to do things differently, and you're going to have to be more independent," Baird said, "There's nothing like experiencing something."