SANFORD — Young ninth-grade pioneers set out on a quest for a unique, challenging educational experience in 2006. They found it at Lee Early College, a collaboration between Central Carolina Community College and Lee County Schools located on the college’s Lee County Campus.
Now, less four years later, seven of these pioneers have earned not only their high school diplomas but also associate degrees or college transfer credits, giving them a major boost toward their educational goals.
While their peers at traditional high schools are receiving their diplomas after four years, members of the LEC Class of 2010 have earned both diplomas and associate degrees or transfer credits to continue their education at the university level.
“Lee Early College has been the most amazing experience,” said Hillary Akers, who was just 13 when she became a member of LEC’s inaugural class in 2006. “I wanted to come because I knew I was going to grow more from being on a college campus.”
Now 17, she receives her Associate in Arts degree at CCCC’s May 13 spring commencement, where she will be one of the speakers. Akers will continue her education at UNC-Pembroke, majoring in mass communication.
The other LEC students who are receiving associate degrees from the college are Nathaniel Newell, who will attend UNC-Chapel Hill on a full-ride scholarship to study biomedical engineering; Raul Zamora-Duprey, who plans to study psychology at the university level; and Caroline Griffith, who is heading to Brigham Young University-Hawaii to major in international communication. Rodolfo Zelaya will complete his associate degree in the summer semester.
“I feel fantastic,” said Newell, who was 14 when he started at LEC and now, at 17, has earned his Associate in Arts degree. “Lee Early College met my expectations and, in addition, allotted me such a degree of freedom to excel.”
The associate degree students will attend their universities as freshmen for the first semester, according to LEC counselor Dave Nourse. After that semester, all their CCCC credits will transfer and they will have academic standing as juniors.
Instead of earning associate degrees, some students are using their earned college credits to continue at a community college. Anthony Smith is transferring to Fayetteville Technical Community College to major in funeral service education. Alejandra Lopez is applying to CCCC’s Associate Degree Nursing program.
The Class of 2010 will also receive diplomas at LEC’s high school graduation on May 17 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. Due to the event scheduling, these students are in the unique position of receiving their college degrees before their high school diplomas.
Other members of the inaugural class will graduate in December or in spring 2011.
“Lee Early College has been an extraordinarily successful collaboration,” said CCCC President Bud Marchant. “The college is pleased to have worked with Lee County Schools to provide this unique educational environment in which these young people could excel. We welcome them to the ranks of CCCC alumni and wish them great success in continuing their educations and in their careers and lives.”
LEC is an academically advanced, non-traditional high school under Lee County Schools. Current enrollment is about 260. During the first two years, the students are taught by LCS teachers and focus on their requirements for their high school diploma. During the second and following years, they shift to college-level courses, taught by CCCC instructors.
Lee Early College has established the students’ academic schedules so they can finish both their diplomas and an associate degree/ transfer credits within four years, though the students are allowed five years if needed.
“We are extremely proud of the performance and dedication of the Lee Early College students,” said Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss. “Their hard work shows that young adults in today’s society can achieve both a high school diploma and a college degree by putting forth the time and energy.”
LEC was established in 2006 as the local response to the call by then-N.C. Gov. Mike Easley for school districts to work with colleges and universities to improve and expand educational opportunities for high school students. North Carolina is now a leader in the establishment of early colleges. Nationally, there are about 130 early colleges in 24 states, with 42 of those in North Carolina.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided the initial funding for LEC through the North Carolina New Schools Project. LEC receives standard North Carolina high school educational funding, so students do not pay for tuition or books, even after they have transitioned to college classes. It also receives funding from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s High School Innovation Project.
Students must apply to be considered for acceptance. They and their parents go through an interview process and the prospective students must submit essays on why they want to attend the school. The student body makeup reflects the population of Lee County.
“If students are really motivated and work hard, their Lee Early College experience is the beginning of wonderful opportunities that await them,” Nourse said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with this inaugural class. They’ve matured into really great people — and that makes me smile.”
The first graduates of Lee Early College leave with a sense of accomplishment and confidence in their ability to achieve and move on to even greater success.
“I’m grateful to have had this opportunity.” Griffith said. “Attending Lee Early College encourages you to look at the big picture and start life sooner. Being here has gotten me farther faster than I could have otherwise.”
For more information about Lee Early College, visit its Web site, www.leeearlycollege.com
. For more information about Central Carolina Community College, visit its Web site, www.cccc.edu