Like thousands of high school seniors throughout the region, Anthony Lloyd is about to get his high school diploma. But when the 18-year-old Baltimore student walks across the stage Friday for the Bard High School Early College graduation ceremony, he'll also pick up another piece of paper that he figures could save him thousands of dollars: An associate's degree.
Lloyd is a member of the first graduating class of Bard High School Early College, a public school in West Baltimore that combines the four years of high school and the first two years of college in a single, four-year program.
"It definitely is a true blessing coming to me," he said. "College is really expensive, and anything to chip away at the cost is really good."
Bard, which opened two years ago, is both a public high school and an accredited community college. It offers its students the opportunity to earn an associate's degree tuition-free while earning their high school diploma.
The state's public colleges and universities have agreed to accept these college credits, meaning graduates will be able to transfer in as juniors — cutting the four-year tuition bill in half.
The school is the newest in a network of seven public schools in the country operating as satellite campuses of Bard College, the liberal arts school in upstate New York. It will graduate 44 students on Friday for a graduation rate of 94 percent — greater than the state rate of 87.6 percent, and much greater than the city rate of 70.6 percent.
High school students taking college-level courses is not new: They have been earning college credits in advanced placement courses and community college courses for years. But completing two years of college in place of the 11th and 12th grades is slowly gaining ground.
Baltimore County will offer an early college program next fall to 100 students entering ninth grade at Woodlawn High School. During the first two years of school, they will take up to one course per semester taught by faculty from the Community College of Baltimore County. In the last two years, they will take one class in the morning at Woodlawn and then travel 15 minutes by bus to CCBC in Catonsville for regular college classes.
Using a different model, the Hogan administration also is encouraging school systems to work with community colleges. It is helping to establish six Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools across the state.
Under the P-Tech program, school systems form partnerships with community colleges and local businesses. Students spend six years in a combined high school and college program working toward an associate's degree while also developing skills for specific careers.
Dunbar High School and Carver Vocational Technical High School started programs last fall. The initiative will expand to two schools in Prince George's County and one each in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.
Carver, for example, is working with IBM to offer a degree focused on cybersecurity and information technology.
Educators say early college programs are particularly effective for low-income students, who are typically underrepresented among the college-bound population.
The American Institutes for Research reported in 2013 that students enrolled in early college high schools were more likely to graduate from high school and college.
Gail Sunderman is director of the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland College of Education. In a report for the Abell Foundation, she wrote that too few students have access to early college programs. Eleven percent of seniors in the state were taking college classes in the 2014-2015 school year.
The Baltimore County program will offer students the opportunity to earn an associate's degree, but students can go at their own pace and earn college credits without getting the degree.
"We are really not going to push a kid," said Georgina Aye, Woodlawn's principal. "If a kid needs half high school classes and half college classes, we are still helping toward that goal."
She said students should not be pushed to the point of frustration. School administrators understand they need academic support, she said.
"The biggest challenge is preparing 14-year-olds for the rigor of college," she said.
Francesca Gamber, the principal of Bard, said the volume and difficulty of the reading assignments is one of the biggest challenges for her students.
"We are going to give you Plato and Nietzsche," she said. "It is a radically different type and volume of reading."
Gamber said the first graduating class had a retention rate of 100 percent — no one decided the work was too hard and left.
Seventy-four percent of the students who started as 11th graders in the fall of 2015 will graduate with an associate's degree, according to school officials. Three students won't graduate, but plan to take classes this summer to get credits they are missing and graduate.
Bard students say they have valued the depth of the teaching.
Jahsol Drummond attended several schools before Bard, but says he never felt that he fit in. He says the focus at those schools was on memorizing material and taking tests.
He was uninspired and bored. He wanted to dig deeper into the subjects.
When he started at Bard, everything changed.
"The quality of education is genuinely better," the 11th grader said. The courses "are tailored so you genuinely learn, rather than just recite information."
Early college has also proved popular among parents.
Bard "is so wonderful that I keep thinking there is a catch," said Tracey Drummond, Jahsol's mother. "I am just thrilled. Our family needs that kind of support, and my son is working hard for it, so it is deserved."
Aubreigh Dehinbo, 16, an 11th grader at Bard, says she chose the school because she wanted to be prepared for higher education.
"I knew college was the only way to get out of my economic bracket," she said.
Bard is negotiating with some private colleges to accept the students' college credits. It has reached agreements with a few, including Goucher College.
The programs at Bard and Woodlawn have attracted middle- to high-achieving, low-income students for whom a four-year college could prove a challenge.
The principals say they provide substantial extra academic support, including after-school tutoring and courses in study skills. While students enrolled in the program usually aren't significantly behind academically, they might need a boost to prepare for college classes.
Some Bard students say they didn't have the grades to get into the top local high schools — Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western High School, City College — whose graduates often go to four-year colleges.
Bard doesn't consider applicants' middle school grades for admission. It bases decisions solely on an essay and an interview.
There were 600 applicants for 165 seats in next year's ninth-grade class. Gambers says the school selected students who showed that that they wanted a challenge. Clara Haskell Bostein, the associate vice president of the Bard Early Colleges network of schools, says administrators look for students with curiosity, motivation and a desire to learn.
The Bard schools also attract top students looking to reduce college costs. The Baltimore school is sending graduates to schools as disparate as Baltimore City Community College and Stanford University.
Students say Bard's professors, who are state certified to teach high school, are key to making the classes work. The professors belong to the Baltimore Teachers Union and are compensated on the city teacher pay scale.
With a scarcity in jobs in academia, Bard had no trouble finding applicants for 14 teaching positions last year. The school received 450 applications, many of them from people with doctorates.