They were the guinea pigs, the test subjects. Four years later, less than a month before they are to walk across the graduation stage to receive their high school diplomas and associate’s degrees, eight remain.
The eight barely knew each other when they first met in the hallways and classrooms of ACEC, a collaboration between Anson County Schools and South Piedmont Community College (SPCC).
“The first day I was nervous,” said 19-year-old Alisha Sellers. “I didn’t know anyone.”
Collectively, they represented all of Anson County. Socially, economically and racially, the eight were a hodgepodge of what Anson High School had to offer.
Each one had his or her own reason for trying out the new school that meshes high school courses with college courses to allow students to graduate from high school and earn an associate’s degree with five years of study. Unlike future classes, this first class got the job done in four years!
Some were drawn to the idea of two years of free college. Some felt they didn’t fit in at a large high school.
“My parents wanted me to come to (ACEC),” said Ross Carpenter, 19. “I didn’t have the money for college. I realized what kind of an opportunity it was.”
And that’s what ACEC represented for the eight—an opportunity, although, sometimes, it felt more like an experiment.
The group said class schedules would constantly change, even lunch and recreation periods weren’t reliable in the beginning. “It was something new on a weekly basis,” said Ryan Tillman, 19.
Forty-nine freshmen joined the eight in that inaugural year, but everyone looked to the sophomores for guidance.
“They tried everything on us,” 18-year-old Paul Goodwin said. “Every day, it was something different.”
Everything had to be tweaked and reorganized. For the school to work, faculty and students had to adapt and make changes. That was easier said than done.
“It took me two hours to get home in the beginning because there were only two buses for 50 students,” Goodwin said. “After that first week, I told my dad he was going to have to pick me up and I’d pay for his gas.”
Each day got better and the students adjusted. Thoughts of “I’ll give it one more day” were replaced with “this is my school,” said 19-year-old Chelsie Robinson.
Classes were small and the students felt closer to their teachers. “You got more one-on-one time,” Sellers said.
Slowly, the students broke free from their shells and underwent positive transformations.
“Before, I thought I had to be a part of the crowd,” Robinson said. “Here, I could stand on my own and be more independent.”
All said they became more outgoing and learned leadership skills. “When I came here, I was shy, naïve and I had no confidence,” Elizabeth Goins said. “Now I’m optimistic and I feel like I can do anything.”
Goins will be a student speaker at SPCC’s graduation ceremony on May 14. She was one of two Academic Excellence Award winners from SPCC this year.
For 19-year-old Tiffany Henry, the change in schools meant a change in attitude. She said she could no longer just “do whatever I wanted without thinking.” She added, “It pushed us to grow up faster.”
Tillman agreed. “It brought us into the real world,” he said.
Early college is an academically rigorous course of study that pushes each student to develop the skills necessary to be successful in college and careers. It’s a five-year high school experience in a college setting resulting in a high school diploma and associate’s degree—or two years of college course credit.
By December 2008, they completed all high school classes and focused solely on college courses. By all accounts, high school is very much over for them. And the transition to college wasn’t as hard as they expected.
“Because I was an early college student, I was already taking college courses,” said 19-year-old Presha Marsh. “I was more prepared to take on the responsibility.”
Compared to other students his age, Carpenter said, “It was easier on us.” He said the same friends who criticized his decision for choosing ACEC were now just starting at SPCC.
“Now that my friends are here, they tell me they wish they would have done what I did,” Carpenter said. “They’re behind us in school now and they have to pay for their college.”
That gamble of whether or not to venture out into the unknown has paid off for the group.
Besides advancing their education, they’ve grown close to one another. They don’t feel alone.
They bicker and tease one another like brothers and sisters. They make plans to visit each other when they all move away to universities and other institutions next year. And, yes, they’ve been accepted into various programs in schools such as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro and UNC-Pembroke.
They discuss their future careers—doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers and automotive technicians. They encourage one another. They’re not those eight strangers they were four years ago. The group shares a bond, and whether it grows or weakens over time is their decision. But the bond belongs to them and them alone.
The class graduates Thursday, May 14, at 6 p.m. at the Union County Agricultural Center in Wingate.