This year marks the 10th year of the Early College program, which allows rising high school juniors to enroll as students at Central Virginia Community College (CVCC).
The students graduate from CVCC with an associate's degree a couple of weeks before they get their high school diploma from their base high schools. They take the college courses in lieu of the regular junior and senior year high school classes.
Dr. Muriel Mickles, CVCC's vice-president for academics and student affairs, is the mother of the Early College program.
She said Bedford County had the first early college program and still has the highest participation rate.
This year, students at Jefferson Forest High School will have a new early college option.
Previously, Bedford County Early College students have gone to class at CVCC's Bedford campus. An Early College pilot program at JFHS will let them stay at the high school. A portion of the high school, adjacent to the library, has been set aside for the 16 students and CVCC faculty. The Early College students will be separate from the rest of the JFHS student body. They will have a separate parking area and each will have a security card that allows them to enter by a separate entrance directly to the portion of the school set aside for them.
Being physically in the high school building makes it easier to participate in high school electives in the afternoon, such as band and drama. The curriculum is also different. It's a math- and science-heavy curriculum, so much so that all students had to complete precalculus before they could apply. The thought is that this will be helpful for students planning to go on to major in math or science in college.
Like the regular Early College program, it's taught by CVCC instructors. Also, as in the regular Early College program, they are college students and are treated like adults. They are told, up front, what is expected of them and they have to meet those expectations on time. Help and tutoring are available, but there is no hand-holding.
"They will be treated like college students," said Dr. LeeAnn Calvert, the JFHS principal.
"The expectation is that they will perform like college students," said Dr. Mickles.
Early College classes start at 8 a.m. and finish at 12:15 p.m. Then, the students are free for the rest of the day. They can eat lunch at the high school, or they can go wherever they want.
Early College makes a financial difference. The cost to the students is 40 percent below what somebody in a typical four-year college would pay. One major savings for the students is that the school division will loan them the textbooks they will use. College-level textbooks are expensive.
There is another advantage to Early College. Dr. Calvert said this will give the students a chance to take their first year college classes in a class of 16 students instead of one with more than 400 in it.
Dr. Patrick Gatti, who heads the CVCC Bedford Campus, said most Early College graduates enter a four-year college with junior status. Many have earned a master's degree within three years of high school graduation. He added that CVCC has agreements with a number of universities that guarantee admission to Early College graduates. In addition, Lynchburg College, Liberty University and Randolph College have scholarships available for them.
Dr. Cherie Whitehurst, the school division's deputy superintendent of schools, said Early College students are already used to college culture when they enter a four-year school.
It also looks good on a post college resume. Dr. Whitehurst recalls the reaction of an employer when he looked at a young woman's resume.
"You have an associate's degree a week before you graduated from high school?" he asked.
The young woman got the job.