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Union County Early College has largest graduating class to date

`Aja Crayton, 17, who graduates with an associate’s degree of science, speaks to fellow students at the Early College graduation ceremony. (Below) Omar Mercado, 19, takes his high school diploma from Union County Early College principal Tim Conner. Omar will also graduate with an associate's degree in science.

“Graduates move your tassels to the right side. Faculty, friends, family, honored guests, it’s my pleasure to present to you the Union County Early College graduating class of 2015. Let the celebration begin.”

These words, spoken Friday, May 8, by Union County Early College Principal Tim Conner, was followed by rousing cheers and graduation caps being tossed into the air, signifying the first 2015 Union County Public Schools graduating seniors to walk across a stage and begin life after high school.

This year’s Early College graduating class is the largest in the school’s six-year history. Located on the South Piedmont Community College campus, Early College is a unique high school experience in that it normally lasts five years rather than four like most high schools.

When seniors graduate, however, they have the opportunity to walk out the door with an associate’s degree. Of the 71 graduating seniors, 49 will receive associate’s degree, 57 will continue their education at a four-year college, three will serve in the armed forces and four will enter the workforce. Early College graduating seniors have been offered more than $2 million in scholarships.

Upper classmen in the Early College program attend classes on the same schedule as their SPCC peers, which is convenient since its located on the SPCC campus.

“The philosophy is that every class is an honors class,” said Principal Conner. “We have almost no electives. It’s an academic program. They’re taking three or four honors classes a semester. It’s a pretty intense program.”

After high school, Early College graduates have an advantage. “Students will enter college as freshmen, but will have credits like they’re beginning their junior year,” Conner said. “There’s a maturity level there that’s not present in other freshmen. They know how college classes work.”

The trade off – an early college high school usually doesn’t offer sports or electives like drama or art classes.

“I knew there wasn’t going to be art or theater classes, but I was fine with that,” said graduating senior Omar Mercado, 19, who lives in the Porter Ridge cluster. “I felt like since we were doing all the main subjects, all the time, I would retain all the material from the prior semester better; just building on top of what I’d just learned. That really helped me.”

Omar, who will graduate with an associate’s degree in science, will enter the pre-med program at Liberty University in Virginia, with plans to be a pediatric oncologist. He said he felt Early College was a better fit for him than the traditional high school.

“I would be saving my parents two years of college tuition,” Omar said. “Everything was free here. I felt it would give me a jump-start into a four-year university.”

`Aja Crayton, 17, who lives in the Sun Valley district, will graduate with an associate’s degree of science. She plans to attend UNC-Chapel Hill and major in biology, with a double minor in political science and Spanish. Her plans are to be an OB-GYN, and one day, a North Carolina Senator.

She attended school during the summer months so she could graduate in four years, rather than five like most in an early college school. “I’ve always been an over achiever,” she said, smiling.

`Aja said the Early College experience has had the rigor she expected, but there were a few things she didn’t expect.

“It’s been more rewarding than I thought it would be because it’s made me a better person,” she said. “It’s prepared me for life issues such as how to adjust to changes in life.”

Sarah Tucker, 18, who lives in the Porter Ridge cluster, will graduate with an associate’s degree in science. She will attend the University of Alabama to study engineering.

Sarah feels that because students have to apply to get into Early College, they have a different attitude than most high school students. “You want to be here. If you don’t want to be here, you don’t last.”

The difference is also felt in other ways. “We have so many people here who are so diverse and so open. We have the type of community that supports each other, not just academically; no matter your ethnicity or sexual preference. We don’t have the problem of bullying. Everyone just gets along. Even if you’re not friends, no one is hateful to others. It’s such a comfortable place to be. I believe it’s the maturity level of the students.”

This is Conner’s first year as principal at Early College, but he says he has become a big believer in the value of the program, for the right student.

“If you’re a person who wants to spend your high school career being a cheerleader, playing volleyball or being part of a lot of clubs, then this isn’t the place for you,” Conner said. “But if you’re a person who wants a positive experience, plus a strong academic program, and wants to have an associate’s degree before you go to college, then this is the place for you.”

Conner says he feels attending Early College is more like being in the “real world.”

“We have lots of different types of personalities and lots of different types of people who would struggle in a larger school because people don’t understand them. Here, they understand them. Here, you can be yourself and people don’t put you down for it.”

The average high school in Union County has approximately 1,230, while the larger high schools like Porter Ridge, Cuthbertson and Marvin Ridge, having an average of 1,550 students. UCEC has a total 343 students.

“Students get to spend more time together so they get to know each other more intimately,” Conner said. “No matter how you cut it, you’re not going to get to know 1,500 kids, but when there are 80 kids in your class; you’re in their same classes, same activities, the same clubs, and you’re more likely to get to know each other.”

Sarah said the smaller numbers can be beneficial. “Even if you’re not friends with everyone, there’s not the clicks you have at other schools, so it’s a safer social environment,” she said. “I like academics and I like being in a place where everyone else likes academics, too.”

“I’m not just a number here. I’m Omar.”

During the Early College graduation ceremony Friday, `Aja, one of the commencement speakers, shared some inspiration with her fellow graduating seniors, an attitude that seems to be prevalent among Early College students.

“Push yourself each day,” `Aja said. “Never settle. Make each day better than the last. Do whatever you set your mind to and don’t let anyone stop you. On behalf of this class of 2015, let’s go out there and make a difference in this world.”

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe - UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: May 13, 2015 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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