When Michael Igoe entered the ninth grade at West Laurel's Chesapeake Math and IT Academy in 2013, the Laurel resident simultaneously kicked off his freshman year in college, spending half of every school day learning from Prince George's Community College professors.
On May 25, the 18-year-old was among 10 CMIT Academy students to receive an associate degree at the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro; five days later, he earned his high school diploma.
Igoe, the only Laurel student in the program, and his nine classmates are the first graduating class from a public charter school in the county, with a 100 percent college and university acceptance rate. Igoe said he plans to attend University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the fall, where he hopes to pursue a career in the technology field.
"I feel like I'm a lot more college-ready than others who are graduating [from high school] this year," Igoe said. "I've been to the campus, taken classes, dealt with college professors and experienced the trials and tribulations any other college student would've gone through."
Except, he got to do it as a high school student.
The opportunity for this dual degree endeavor was offered through the Information Technology Early College program at the Laurel academy.
All students were required to test into the program as eighth-graders. As ninth-graders, they got instruction at CMIT Academy from one Prince George's Community College professor each semester; and as sophomores, they took two college courses each semester.
Ferhat Avsar, the academy's college and career counselor, said the program was designed in a partnership between the community college and the University of Maryland, College Park.
"The students did fantastically well," Avsar said. "They were able to complete all 60 credits required for the associate degree. The amount of time and money they saved through this process is great."
During his junior year, Igoe said, he and his classmates spent the second half of each school day at the Laurel College Center, where classes for Prince George's and Howard community colleges and the University of Maryland are offered. By their senior year, the participating students were spending the entire school day at Prince George's Community College's Largo campus.
"Most of us already finished our high school classes, so we were just driving down to the campus and taking classes like any other normal student," he said. "It really started to feel like that college experience."
The overall workload served as a "wake-up call" for Igoe, especially during his first class: generic instruction to computers.
The program required a measure of self-reliance for the high-school seniors. In their college courses, teachers were less likely to communicate with parents and guidance counselors did keep an eye on class attendance, as they do in high schools.
Instead, students learned to dedicate the right amount of study time to each class.
In the beginning, Igoe said, "we were all just kind of being silly youngsters, not really taking things too seriously. While I still managed to pass that first class, the grade wasn't so great. I'm glad I got that experience during my freshmen year of high school instead of my freshmen year of college because that would've been a worse time to get that wake-up call."
Erica Rush, Joey Hoke and Olutayo Fawibe – three Bowie residents who were also in the program – said it was a bit of a non-traditional track, but they tried to keep things as normal as they could.
"We were still able to have PE classes and go on field trips and stuff," said Rush, who will attend West Virginia University in the fall. "Maybe not as much as a normal student, because if it interfered with our PGCC schedule, we couldn't do it. But we were still able to experience things and do [high school] activities."
"I think that you need to be willing to let some things go," added Fawibe, who is headed to the University of Pennsylvania this fall. "You won't be able to do everything you want to do. So you need to be able to accept that before you go into this."
The other challenge was the difficulty of the computer-oriented, college-level material itself. As part of the program, the students took classes with names like systems management, advanced security, project analysis and Network Plus.
Hoke recalled that in one course, his final exam involved being handed a broken laptop that he had to boot up, diagnose, take apart, fix and reassemble, all within a 30-minute class. In another class, Igoe said he had to design and create a user manual for a project; a difficult task compared to most high school project.
Knowing what he knows now about the program, Igoe said the experience provided a timely and smooth transition into college.
"I've already made the screw-ups that a normal college freshman would, so I know how to avoid them when I go to college," Igoe said. "If you have the opportunity to do it, go for it. It was tough going through, but it paid off in the end."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter John McNamara contributed to this story.