Students choose an unconventional approach to graduation
Tess Minnick walked out of her first block class for the last time in January 2006, ending her high school career months before her peers. As she pushed the school doors open, leaving the memories of high school behind, Minnick sighed with relief - she had been eager to leave high school for years.
While the vast majority of students graduate after four years of high school, resource counselor Marcia Johnson says that a handful choose to graduate early each year. According to county policy, students must earn 22 credits in order to receive their high school diploma. For early graduates, earning all the necessary credits while also meeting Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) requirements is difficult, considering the obstacles they face along the way. While the process can be daunting, these Blazers find that it's worth it to be able to get ahead and leave early.
Junior Allen Ng, who hopes to graduate a year early this June, has pursued this option since the beginning of his freshman year. Ng decided to drop out of the Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet before the second semester of ninth grade so he could take more Advanced Placement (AP) classes later on in high school. Ng wanted to be sure he was challenging himself, and earning college credit in high school seemed like the best way to do it. "It's just the inner me that wants to be better than where I am now," he says.
However, even with a heavy workload for his four AP classes, Ng says that high school is no longer challenging enough and hopes that the intensity of college-level academics will be more rewarding.
Laura Cosgrove, associate director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Maryland, says that it is important for early high school graduates to have exhausted all other options before deciding to leave high school and apply to college. "Another year of honors and AP classes would make a student more academically competitive," she says.
Unlike Ng, Minnick wasn't looking to get a head start on her college education. Instead, graduating early allowed her to leave behind her painful memories of Blair.
During her freshman year, Minnick says she was sexually assaulted by one of her peers. After rumors spread about the incident, she began to feel alienated and depressed. Haunted by painful memories of the experience, Minnick longed to be able to leave Blair. "I just wanted to get high school over with," she says.
A problematic process
Taped across the front of Johnson's desk inside her office, a colorful sign reads "Don't just do enough to get by; do enough to get ahead." Getting ahead is exactly what students must do if they want to graduate early.
Students who hope to complete high school in less than four years must decide their sophomore or junior year, Johnson says. Students must fill out a standard application and write a paragraph about why they want to graduate early and what opportunities they plan to pursue after high school, all of which must be approved by the principal. This, Johnson says, is the most important part of the application. "The hope and goal is that the student will go to college," she explains.
For junior Jenny Garcia, who hopes to finish high school in the spring, completing each and every requirement necessary to graduate early has been very confusing. As of December, Garcia knew she still needed to take the SATs, but didn't know if she could do so in time to apply for college. "How do you transition from thinking to doing?" she says. "I feel like I am falling behind in the application process."
Tying up loose ends
There is one obstacle in particular that all early graduates must surmount - fulfilling his or her final English credit. Once a student reaches senior year, the only class that must be completed is English 12, says Johnson. But because Blair only allows students to take one English course at a time, would-be early graduates must attend night school or summer school, a process that Minnick found less than fulfilling.
Minnick recalls many dull and repetitive evenings spent in night school. After finishing the simple assignment written on the board, she would sit quietly and doodle in her notebook, struggling to tune out a dispute between her teacher and one of the many students who never did their work
Minnick found night school disappointing because the class environment precluded her from enjoying or engaging in English, usually her favorite subject. "I feel, sometimes, kind of robbed," she says.
Jumping through hoops
While Minnick struggled to stay awake in night school, Ng had to fight for his right to even enroll in extra classes. When, in his sophomore year, Ng requested to be placed in an English 11 night school course. His request, however, was rejected, he says, because priority is given to students who need to retake a class they previously failed. Ng then applied for a first semester summer school course in English 11, for which he was also rejected.
Ng says that one morning, the summer before his junior year, he attempted to enroll in summer school once again for the second semester of English 11. He was told to fill out a summer school request form that he had already completed. Frustrated by all the formalities and worried that he would be unable to fulfill a necessary credit, Ng pulled out his Student Rights and Responsibilities booklet and began to defend his right to summer school.
Ng found the red tape to be both unnecessary and discouraging. "It seems like you're being pushed out of the way from advancing," he says.
While the decision comes easy to some, for many students, leaving high school early is complicated by a mix of emotions. Many are afraid they will miss out on certain traditions like senior prom or graduation. For Garcia, walking across the stage at graduation is one rite of passage that she refuses to miss out on.
When she finishes high school, Garcia will be the first of her siblings to graduate on time, much less early. "My mom always says that I am her last hope," she says. "I just want to walk the stage to make my mom happy."
Minnick, on the other hand, doesn't mind having missed her graduation ceremony. Trimming a semester off of her high school career has changed her life significantly, she says. Minnick now works for the Arthur Murray Dance Company. She believes that leaving behind her high school years has allowed her to mature and move on.
"If I had put myself back into the school system, I wouldn't be where I am today," she explains. "I feel that I have grown so much."
Somewhere in between
Montgomery College's Early Placement program
For juniors looking for another way to advance their academic lives, Montgomery College (MC) offers the Early Placement Program. Students can attend their high school classes in the morning and take MC courses in the afternoon or attend a full day of high school and take classes in the evening. Most MC classes are available for Early Placement students, who can register for the winter, spring or fall semesters
Although tuition and other fees are the same, special scholarships are offered for Early Placement students. Seniors wishing to apply must have above a 2.75 GPA and the permission of an MC counselor and a parent, while juniors must have above a 3.00 GPA and the permission from their school principal in addition to permission from a parent and a counselor. Application forms can be found either in Blair's career center or on the Early Placement web site, http://www.montgomerycollege.edu/admissions/Others/earlyplacementprogram.htm.
Finishing early for a fresh start
Various colleges across the United States offer programs specifically designed for juniors interested in graduating early to get a head start on college. Earlier this year, a junior at Blair applied to one such program, called the Resident Honors Program, offered at the University of Southern California (USC). Unlike students who simply graduate early, applicants accepted into the Resident Honors Program do not graduate from high school. Instead, they leave after their junior year and may either receive a high school diploma after one year at USC, or pursue a General Equivalency Diploma (GED).
Program director Peggy VonHelmolt says that when accepting applicants, only juniors in the top one percent are even considered. "The program is for exceptional students who are ready for college early," she says.
Clarkson University offers a similar program, also designed for outstanding high school students. Upon entering the Clarkson School, juniors are able to skip their senior year. Students accepted into the university through early admission, are able to choose a major, just as any other college freshman. They then go onto receive about 30 college credit hours throughout their first year.
The program sets out to provide its student with a nurturing environment, both socially and academically. To promote cooperation and a sense of community, all students within the program live together on campus, under the supervision of house advisors.
Once these students complete their first year at Clarkson University, they are then able to either continue on with their education at Clarkson, or, using the assistance of program advisors, apply to a different school.
Cassie Cummins. Cassie Cummins is an 11th grade CAP student whose life is made complete with a hot cup of coffee and a long nap- preferably with Abe Lincoln by her side. When she's not doing homework or pining over her loss of sleep, she enjoys watching … More »