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Students earn college degree first

While most high school students are preoccupied with going to the mall on the weekend or the beach during the summer, one small group of area students has forfeited weekends and summers to study.

All that hard work is about to pay off.

Five Suffolk seniors will graduate on May 14 with their associates degrees – nearly a month before they graduate from high school.

“I’m so proud of each and every one of them,” said Jenine Joyner, mother of a student in the program. “They have fought tooth and nail to accomplish this.”

Four of the students attend King’s Fork High School and one, Joyner’s daughter, attends Lakeland High School.

The students are all enrolled in a dual-credit program through Suffolk Public Schools. The four-year program allows the students to high school community college credits concurrently. During the program, students complete the 24 high school credits required for an Advanced Studies Diploma, as well as the 61 college credits needed for the PDCCC General Studies Associate’s Degree.

“The Associate’s degree program is a wonderful opportunity for students,” said Dr. Phyllis Sharpe, the Suffolk Public Schools administrator in charge of the program.

“It is a challenging program in which students have to complete their high school course requirements in addition to the college course requirements. The program allows students to experience the structure of a college campus, as well as the procedures that are specific to college.”

Motivations for starting the program differ from student to student. For one girl, her mother found out about the program and thought it would be a good option for her. Another said her parents know little of her involvement with the program, but that she wanted to enroll to get ahead in school. Still another girl said she went to her parents with the idea because she wanted more challenging classes.

“I’m hoping if all my credits transfer, they’ll save me time in my studies and money for family, because I won’t have to go through the two years of general classes,” said Angelica Bautista, a senior at King’s Fork.

For whatever reasons they began the program, the students share a common thread of perseverance. The classes were more challenging, the course work more rigorous and the schedule — at times — brutal.

Catelyn Joyner, a senior at Lakeland, hasn’t had a summer off since the eighth grade.

“I recall one night, I stayed up until 3 a.m. because I had so much homework between all my classes,” Joyner said. “I took night classes from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. So, I’d go home, shower and do my homework. It got kinda tough a couple days.”

“Last night I didn’t even get home until 10:05 p.m.,” said Lindsey Mayes, a senior at King’s Fork. “My college chemistry class lasted until 9:45 p.m., and this morning I left the house at 7 a.m. for school.”

Correct information, coordinating college and high school courses, lack of a support system and getting questions answered were other challenges they encountered with the program, according to the students.

“On Monday, we had a meeting and talked to [school administrators] and [Paul D. Camp administrators],” Mayes said. “When we asked them who we were supposed to go to with questions, they passed the responsibility around. Luckily, my mom had already been to Paul D. Camp, and she was able to help me figure things out throughout the years, but being the first group has been a challenge.”

Sharpe said, as with any program, the administration is continually reviewing and modifying procedures to enhance the education experiences and will factor parent and student suggestions into annual program evaluations.

Despite the challenges and obstacles they faced, the students’ hard work is about to pay off. Not only will the students have as much as two years of college completed, they also feel they are more prepared for the course loads, necessary study habits and social skills.

“One of the most significant things I’ve gotten out of the program is leaning to operate in a college environment,” Mayes said. “I learned to stand by myself without help from others.”

“A lot of the dual credits I did required me to working with Blackboard — the college online system,” Joyner said. “When everyone was freaking out about going online and working with it, I already knew how to work it. It really prepared me for that. It’s a really complicated system if you don’t know it. Also, (the program) helps you socially, too. You have to go out of your shell and meet new people and talk to your teachers.”

Joyner, Mayes and Bautista are all waiting to hear back from some of the colleges they applied to, but all have ambitions to pursue a higher education.

“This is the kind of program that if kids are willing to put in the time and effort to accomplish it, it can really work for them,” Bautista said. “But you have to be committed. And not many students are like that.”