At 16, they’re getting driver’s licenses and borrowing the car. By 17, they are earning college degrees and entering the workforce armed with trade certifications. Sometimes, they earn enough credits to graduate from college before they even cross the stage for their high school diplomas.
This is the reality for many local students, thanks to a program that’s giving them opportunities to tiptoe into the world of adulthood and college, with a little hand holding and a whole lot of choices for a brighter future.
Jan Netherland Blackburn, high school coordinator for Augusta Technical College, remembers when the dual enrollment program was first rolled out. Then, under the moniker of “Move On When Ready,” the program offered instructors who’d teach college courses at the high school. In 2015, as an admissions assistant, Blackburn remembers thinking, “Let’s give these kids a real college experience.” At the time, no one imagined how quickly or immensely the program would grow.
Sicily Stimpson greets the public with a warm welcome and the knowledge of a seasoned pro. Anyone visiting the Burke County Clerk of Court’s Office would think she’s a record clerk like her coworkers. But she’s not. The 17-year-old is finishing her final semester of coursework and internship. In May, the former home school student will graduate with an associate’s degree in criminal justice. Then, she’ll take the GED test to earn her high school diploma.
While listing the various classes she’s been required to take to reach this point – math, English, psychology, criminal and constitutional law, juvenile justice, methods of criminal investigation, to name a few – Sicily says the internship at the clerk’s office has been the best part of her academic career thus far.
“I currently do a lot of filing and packing files,” she says, “but my favorite days at the courthouse are the ones where I get to sit in court hearings. Sentencing court is the most interesting to me; I like hearing the judges’ reasoning and justification for certain sentences for the crime committed.”
This internship seems a perfect fit for a young lady who’s always been drawn to the criminal justice field but wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do.
“I didn’t have a solid plan until a semester ago of what I truly wanted to do,” she recalls. “Nothing felt right. Then, as I was studying constitutional law, it hit me – I was going to be a lawyer. I loved learning the different laws and legal tactics, and let’s face it, I know how to talk.”
And while she spends her Tuesdays and Thursdays at the courthouse before heading to evening classes, Sicily also works for a carpenter on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and takes two additional online courses.
“As for the weekends,” she says, “I give myself those days to spend time with my family and take a breath before the busy week.”
Clerk of Court Radeta Smith says it has been a pleasure working with Sicily through the dual enrollment program spearheaded by Augusta Tech’s Blackburn and Gregory Coursey Jr.
“Throughout her internship, Sicily exhibited a sincere and profound interest in understanding the day-to-day business of the clerk’s office, her role and her assigned tasks. Her internship duties included filing, record storage prep and in-court job shadowing,” Smith says. “Sicily holds the key to a bright and successful future. She could very well be one of the future lawyers who will practice in the courtrooms of our new judicial center.”
As students file into the classroom and sign their names on the attendance sheet, Blackburn explains that dual enrollment has grown exponentially since its inception. What began with 35-40 students at Burke County High School has become a program constantly changing and expanding – one that currently boasts 165 students at ATC’s Waynesboro campus alone and includes students from BCHS, Edmund Burke Academy, Faith Christian Academy and the Home School Association.
Some parents and students still aren’t quite sure what the program entails, and Blackburn says the best way to find out is to seek advice from the student’s high school counselor. “Dual enrollment isn’t for everyone, but for those who qualify, for those who want to get a taste of what college is like, this is the way to do it.”
The program allows high school students to enroll in college classes in an environment that is individualized and based on their specific needs. And it’s completely free, albeit the classes that have a program specific fee, such as the welding or cosmetology programs. ATC also loans students the books required for reading and is constantly adding classes to its lineup Blackburn says, motioning to the students around her. This particular history course is a new venture for the program – a class taught via satellite with a professor at the Thomson campus. As she speaks to her students using computer technology through the WebEX system, she encourages them to develop good study habits and reading comprehension. She points them to links on their interactive board, places to read about the Korean and Cold wars, while saying, “I’m right here if you need me.”
Though most students who enroll in the program do so with the intention to transfer to a four-year university, many others see dual enrollment as a pathway to graduation. Still others sign up for the industrial programs offered and will go on to find jobs offering $40+ per hour, right out of high school.
There are currently 28 classes offered that will transfer to other schools within the Technical College System of Georgia and University System of Georgia.
EBA senior Joey Wall is ready to go to work as soon as he walks across the stage in May.
“I started the program my junior year,” he says, recalling that it took the whole year but he finished with a basic shielded metal arc welding certificate, something many in the workforce wait to pursue until after they’ve graduated from high school. “I loved the experience. My professor was very understanding about my busy sports schedule, and I developed a good relationship with him.”
Now, Joey jokes that he can enjoy his last several weeks of high school while his friends stress out over college.
“Knowing that all my friends are dealing with scholarship applications and will have to go through more school after high school, I don’t have to; It’s something I can brag to them about.” In all seriousness, he says he recommends the program to all underclassmen. “It’s an awesome feeling.”
And welding isn’t the only trade program offered at ATC. Fellow student Alasia Bonner will trade in her shield for a mouth mirror after graduation as she explores the dental assistant program. Other options include nursing, the automotive industry, cosmetology and the culinary arts.
“Nothing is impossible,” Blackburn, a dual enrollment parent herself, says, adding that there is now even a bus system that shuttles students from BCHS to ATC throughout the day. “We have sort of become the talk of the town in the Augusta Tech world. This is what this program was designed for – for rural area students to be able to be exposed to college where they normally wouldn’t have that opportunity. Now they have it. We are able to offer it right here in Waynesboro.”
For more information, parents and students should contact their high school counselor or call Blackburn at 706.437.6801.
This story first appeared in The True Citizen.