New program lets students attend high school, college at the same time

Imagine graduating from high school with not only a high school diploma, but an associate’s degree as well. Now imagine that it’s free or at a significantly reduced rate than normal tuition.

That is now the case for several Gulfport High School students, who are participating in the state’s first “collegiate academy” at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. The program allows students the chance to complete an associate’s degree — at no additional cost — by the time they graduate from high school.

“Our aim is that the students have the opportunity that when they walk across the graduation stage, they’ll have their high school degree and an associate’s degree,” said MGCCC Jefferson Davis Campus Vice President Michael Woodward.

The program is a more robust form of duel credit or enrollment, where students receive college and high school credit for courses they pass. The big difference is academy students attend MGCCC’s Jefferson Davis Campus on a day-to-day basis, and are free to participate in college activities and groups.

There are 23 students participating in the program’s first year. In order to get an associate’s degree, students have to complete 60 college credit hours, or a full load for each of the four semesters they take. The schedule doesn’t prevent students from participating in both college and high school activities, Gulfport High School Principal Michael Lindsey said.

“That was kind of a sticking point,” Lindsey said. “We wanted to make sure the students could enjoy their time in high school, not just college. So far, they’ve been able to do that. I’d say about 80 to 90 percent of the students in the academy are involved in both high school and college sports, clubs and activities.”

Getting ahead

Students Derek Watts and Carissa Virgilio heard about the program from their friends. Both said they planned to go into nursing, but after a short pause, Virgilio said that she was giving serious thought to becoming a doctor since she’ll have a head start on most other students her age.

“My best friend told me about the program. It seemed really interesting, and I thought it would get me ahead of people who were already ahead of me. You know, I can get my college degree before they do. And it’s paid for,” Virgilio said.

“The teachers don’t make us do anything,” Watts said about the college experience. “You have to do it on your own,” he laughed.

“When you look at it from the outside,” Lindsey said, “the students are getting experiences that prepare them not only for education but for the work world. So, it’s not just about the academics but that real life exposure to work.”

Expansion plans

The program is free to Gulfport High students who are enrolled at the college.

The college and school district have worked out a model to defray much of the costs of tuition by working together and consolidating some functions. For example, there are no fees for registration, books or technology. Some of the courses are taught at the high school and some at the college, often by the same teacher.

The long-range vision of college administrators is to increase the number of school districts that participate. Administrators recently presented the concept to other high school superintendents and to the Mississippi Department of Education. Woodward said the college chose Gulfport for the pilot program because of an already close relationship between administration officials.

The college also is in communication with school officials from George, Harrison, Jackson and Stone counties to expand the program.

Academy qualifications

Potential academy students must be a junior in good standing, with a grade point average of 3.0 or above. Students must have a written recommendation from their principal or guidance counselor. The program also looks for students with high maturity levels, who have proven responsible and respectful behavior.

The academy bills itself as a customized high school experience with the rigor of college.

There are eight career pathways — called meta majors — for students to choose from. They include arts and humanity, business, education, health sciences, industrial and manufacturing construction, public safety and administration, social sciences and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors. Some classes are mandatory and there are also electives, which are directed toward specific majors.

In subsequent semesters, students pick a more specific career pathway. High school counselors and college admissions officials advise students throughout their studies.

Justin Vicory: 228-896-2326, @justinvicory