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Union County Early College graduates first students

A group of Union County Early College High School students, the first to graduate from the five-year-old school, relax on the school's campus at South Piedmont Community College, talking about plans after graduation. Pictured, from left, are Stephen Helbig, 20, Bobby Brown, 17, Paige Moore, 18, Angelique Polk, 18, and Destiny Reaves, 18.

Thirty-two Union County Early College (UCEC) High School students walked down the aisle this week, not only with a high school diploma, but also with a two-year college degree.

Students got their high school diploma in a ceremony Thursday (May 12, 2011), at South Piedmont Community College, and their associate's degree the following day in an SPCC graduation ceremony held at the Ag Center in Monroe.

This was the first graduation ceremony for UCEC, a five-year program that allows students to earn a high school diploma and associate’s degree, while incurring none of the normal costs associated with attending college.

UCEC, located at South Piedmont Community College, began five years ago with 60 students entering as freshmen. The following year, three more joined the class as sophomores. About half of those dropped out the first year, going back to their high schools for a variety of reasons.

Of the 63 who would have been the first graduating class, only 28 remained. Add four more students (who came in the second year and graduated early) and you have 32 "Legacy Graduates" getting their high school diploma, with 23 of those also getting an associate's degree from South Piedmont Community College.

The nine who didn't get their associate's still walk away with enough college credits to greatly reduce their college price tag.

This first graduating class is called the "Legacy Class" because they will leave a legacy of being the first graduating class. "It was a new program," said 18-year-old graduate Paige Moore. "We were the first group to go through and anything that started, started with us."

Moore will have an associate's degree in Art, with plans to attend NC State University, majoring in political science with a concentration in international studies. Her goal is to work with a government agency that deals with other countries or to work as an ambassador.

Moore said going to Early College allowed her to show her parents and grandparents that she wasn't taking her college education for granted. "They've worked hard to set money aside for me and it was the way I could help out."

Destiny Reaves, 18, is getting an associate's degree in science, with plans to attend Western Carolina University for her bachelor's in nursing. "I'm the youngest of three children. My parents have two other children to pay for college. I knew that going to Early College would help my parents because I would have the two-year degree when I graduated from high school."

Not all students walked away with an associate's degree. Bobby Brown, 17, came to Early College in its second year of existence. He will graduate with a high school diploma and 28 college credits. He has been accepted to the Nashville Auto Diesel College in Tennessee and plans to get a degree in auto diesel technology.

"It's a big transition from the eighth grade," Brown said. "When you come in, you have to learn how to write college papers, how to be college ready. It's a big jump from middle school. Even our high school classes are pretty much honors classes."

Students who attend Early College move at a faster pace than regular high school. "The early colleges high school has to prepare them well enough that they can move right into the college courses," said school principal Victoria McGovern. "We add projects and papers to increase their writing and reading capability. It's a deliberate attempt to accelerate learning during the first two years of high school."

The goal is to get the Early College courses rigorous enough to get its students to pass a college placement test in four semesters. "We're trying to get them through a college placement test in two years where a comprehensive high school is designed to do that in four," McGovern said.

What makes this even more remarkable is that students who attend early college aren't necessarily the high flyers in school and are likely to be the first in their family to go to college. "Typically we get students who were never in honors courses and were never pushed or prodded to do well in them," McGovern said.

"The students have really exceeded my academic expectations," McGovern added. "I knew it was a worthy goal, but I wasn't sure how I was going to get them there. An early college doesn’t come with a set of directions. You have to make it work within your unique singular setting. My early college is very different from the one in Stanly County, for example. Some start at 10 and go to 5 p.m. We start at 9 and go to 4 pm. How you utilize the space and the faculty and the courses availability is the challenge."

McGovern, who is retiring after this school year, worked three years past when she could have retired to see the first class through.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Video by: Don Mace, Web Communications Coordinator
Posted: May 13, 2011 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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