By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Akron's Early College High School on Sunday graduated its first class of seniors who have earned about two years of college credit in addition to their high school diplomas.
Brandon Farr, who turned 18 last week, will start next fall in the University of Akron's College of Education with more than 55 credits under his belt, including all his prerequisites.
Farr wants to teach middle school students history and English. He might get his first teaching experiences before he can legally drink a beer.
''We actually have a couple of students who will be doing their student teaching at 20,'' said Yvonne Culver, the school's counselor.
Farr, voted by his peers for the school's ''Manhood'' award, is one of 62 graduating seniors out of the 100 initially selected in 2007 for the innovative program when they were in eighth grade.
''We really grew as a family, as a class,'' Farr said. ''We are the first. We are the legacy class.''
Akron Early College High School is one of 10 early colleges in Ohio and part of the national Early College High School Initiative.
Students in the schools who are the first in their families to go to college simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate degree or up to two years of credit toward a bachelor's degree without paying tuition.
The Akron Early College High School is housed on the first floor of UA's Polsky Building in downtown Akron and works with the universi
ty's Summit College.
The school admits 100 students a year. This year, 277 eighth-graders have applied for 100 spots in the freshman class.
Students complete most of their core high school classes in two years, which frees up their junior and senior years to take mostly real college classes.
They start taking at least one college class in their freshman year. By their junior year, they're taking only one or two high school classes and the rest are college courses.
''We're the only Early College in Ohio that does that where freshmen take college classes,'' said principal Marilyn Bennett. ''Several of them are based in a high school and college professors come in to them.''
The graduating seniors already have earned anywhere from 40 to 72 credit hours, which the district purchases from the university at a reduced rate.
No housing, book costs
UA tuition is $4,473.60 a semester for Ohio residents carrying a 12 to 16 credit load. Early College students aren't paying for campus housing or books, either.
But the freedom of college life proved to be too much for some students. This year's legacy class began with 100, but lost 38 students along the way, mostly in the third year when many were sent back to their home schools for poor academic performance in the college courses.
''The first semester of their junior year was when we lost 16 kids,'' said social studies teacher Cheryl Connolly. ''That freedom it was a killer.''
The staff of 10 teachers plus a special education teacher improved those numbers with the next group. This year's junior class lost only eight students out of the original 100.
''When those kids were sophomores in my classroom, we hammered it into them that if they need help, they need to come to us,'' Connolly said. ''If you see your friends not succeeding, come and tell us.''
It took the students awhile to blend into campus life.
Fire drills required
The monthly fire drills at the Polsky building (and two other buildings the Early College High School uses) probably didn't endear them to the university community, but state law requires high schools to have fire drills. The latest one happened on Friday.
The elevator issues proved to be more troublesome.
''We had a very big problem with that in our class in ninth grade,'' Farr said. ''We weren't allowed to use the elevators ninth-grade year because they knocked over an elderly woman.''
The staff learned to coach the students in basic elevator etiquette and basic good manners such as keeping their voices at a reasonable level.
But the best elevator story was the time that some students and their math teacher, Mona Kotran, were trapped for 20 minutes.
Culver was there to counsel the students about their ordeal when they emerged, but they were calm. Their teacher had used the time to do some math tutoring.
The more the students adjusted to college life, however, the more they didn't want to be identified as Early College, especially when they were doing better in some classes than the regular college students.
''When you have the 100 on the test and they got the 60, they don't like to hear that you're only 16,'' Farr said.
Janee Kelly, 17, said she appreciated being around older students.
''You're around people who are also in high school, but you are also around mature adults who are here to learn,'' Kelly said. ''And you learn how to respect authority that way.''
She earned a general associate degree so she could lock in her credits before transferring to Ohio's Miami University this fall, where she plans to study bioengineering with a pre-medical concentration.
''We were all talking about how weird it's going to be,'' she said. ''We're going to have to go and pay for our books now and pay for our classes and we're so not used to that.''
The winner of the ''Womanhood Award,'' Markayla Powers, is another one of the 16 students who have earned an associate degree at the University of Akron and will attend a second university after graduation this weekend. She's headed to Ohio State University to continue her education.
Most graduates will go on to more college, and some will go into military service. Olin Clay IV hopes to find a job with his two-year mechanical engineering degree.
''One of our top students is graduating with his associate's degree in mechanical engineering and he's just going to work,'' said Culver, the school's counselor. ''He said his plan is that he'll get on with a company that will pay for the rest of his degree at some point.''
Even the students who didn't stick with Early College and returned to their home schools aren't leaving Akron Public Schools empty-handed.
''Out of those 38, I am aware of only two who are not graduating from their traditional high school with their traditional class,'' Culver said. ''So they did make it, they just weren't ready for college at age 14. But they are graduating from high school with some college credits. Even for them, the program had a lot of benefits.''
The Class of 2011 matured together over their four years as the program's guinea pigs, and so have their teachers.
'We're becoming a model early college,'' Culver said. ''We've had people come in from Delaware, we've had people come in from Texas, we have some people coming in [this week from Maryland]. We are unique in that we are embedded within the college campus.''