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Dual graduates upending tradition

Caps and gowns, “Pomp and Circumstance,” commencement speakers, tassel turning and mortar board tossing – this is a season of tradition, but it’s also a season when tradition is being turned upside down by ambitious students intent on getting something more out of their high school career.

Increasingly, LCPS students are challenging themselves to do what only a few years ago was unheard of at so-called traditional high schools – in four years simultaneously completing high school and earning a two-year college degree. Three years ago, one student at a traditional high school in the district achieved that goal; this year, four did.

Brianna Brooks Brianna Brooks of Kinston High School and Conner Craft, Matthew Glen and Adriana Gaona of North Lenoir High School will receive their diplomas June 1. On May 9, they all graduated from Lenoir Community College.

The bulk of LCPS’s dual graduates still come from Lenoir County Early College High School – the district’s non-traditional high school – however, the connection between LCPS and LCC that made Early College possible 12 years ago has expanded to include more online classes and the introduction of college-level classes on traditional high school campuses.

Today, students at all the district’s high schools can accumulate credits for college courses that transfer to any university in the UNC system, giving them a head start on a four-year degree and saving years of college expenses. And, if the students make that their plan, there’s an associate degree as a reward for four years of very hard work.

“I set out to do it. I wanted to show younger people coming up that you can do it,” said Brianna, who chose Kinston High’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program over Early College after she finished at Woodington Middle School. “I learned I could achieve an associate degree through the IB program also, so I started working hard to achieve my associate.”

All four students started taking college classes as high school sophomores, but instead of pursuing a two-year degree as Brianna did, the North Lenoir students almost snuck up on theirs.

“We were able to take two classes in the beginning and as we continued on we got all our pre-requisites done and completed our pathways. From our pathways, we were able to complete our degrees,” Adriana said. “I didn’t expect to get as many credits as I did.”

Brianna and Conner earned associate of arts degrees from LCC, Matthew received an associate of science degree and Adriana was awarded both an associate of arts and associate of science degree.

The four accumulated between 63 and 80 credit hours and all will enter college academically as juniors. Given that a year at a university can cost $20,000 or more, saving money ranks as a real incentive for taking college classes in high school. This school year, about 600 LCPS students were enrolled in classes through LCC. About half of the Class of 2019 will graduate with college credits, many with sufficient credits to give them a significant head start on a bachelor’s degree.

And for goal-oriented students, there’s always the challenge of doing something difficult. “This was a milestone I never expected to hit,” Conner said.

But there’s some practical payoff to sampling college coursework in a familiar setting before becoming immersed in the campus life of a large university.

“I think it was a good opportunity to prepare me for college and will help me in the future,” Matthew said. “You need a lot of self-discipline. College classes teach you responsibility.”

It’s not high school, Adriana agreed. “You didn’t get reminded about anything. It got put up there once and if you saw it, great, and if you didn’t, too bad.”

In whatever setting they pursued college credits – completely online for Brianna or a combination of online and on-campus classes for the North Lenoir seniors – their lives became organized around the significant demands of their studies. And these are crowded lives – after-school jobs, in-school tutoring, a daunting schedule of extracurricular activities.

“Time management is the most important thing when trying to complete an associate degree and manage a high school career at the same time,” Conner said.

“The toughest thing about tackling IB and college work at the same time was trying to manage my time,” Brianna said, who played softball and basketball and ran track during her time at Kinston High. “I gave up a lot of my social life and I ended up giving up track this year so I could finish my last courses.”

Three of the four are heading to N.C. State University – Brianna to study political science on the way to law school, Conner to study chemical engineering and Matthew to tackle aerospace engineering. Adriana is going to the University of North Carolina as a Chancellor’s Science Scholar and is interested in biomedical engineering.

This summer, Conner is headed back to LCC to take that one class she needs for a second associate degree – in science. Matthew is taking classes in physics and microeconomics “just so I can get that stuff out of the way for N.C. State.” Adriana will be in Chapel Hill for six weeks of summer classes associated with her scholarship. Brianna says she will work, volunteer in the community and “get ready for college.”

Before moving on, there’s one more box to check – that ceremony on June 1 known as commencement. Tradition still counts for something.

“I feel accomplished,” Brianna said, looking back on her active senior year, “but at the same time I don’t feel completely finished because I haven’t graduated from high school yet."

 

Photo captions:

Top photo -- Brianna Brooks on the evening when she graduated from Lenoir Community College, three weeks ahead of her high school graduation.

Below -- Three of North Lenoir’s graduating seniors – from left, Matthew Glen, Conner Craft and Adriana Gaona – used their high school years to maximum effect by simultaneously earning associate degrees from Lenoir Community College.

North Lenoir High dual graduates Matthew Glen, Conner Craft and Adriana Gaona