District 300 students first to earn high school diplomas and 2-year college degrees
For most students, graduating high school already is a tremendous feat marking the culmination of 12 years of study.
But 10 students from Dundee-Crown, Hampshire and Jacobs high schools have the added distinction of being the first in the suburbs to simultaneously earn high school diplomas and associate degrees.
The students received their degrees Friday from Elgin Community College. Then on Saturday, they walked across the stage of the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates to collect their high school diplomas.
These students were part of Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300's Accelerate College program, which allows qualifying high school juniors and seniors to take a full year of college classes tuition-free in partnership with ECC, while visiting their high schools weekly to check in.
"It's very exciting," District 300 Superintendent Fred Heid said. "They are getting their college diplomas at the same time they are graduating high school, tuition-free, which is a huge savings for families. The program taught them how to be successful in a traditional college classroom."
District 300's Accelerated College program was the inspiration for a 2016 state law allowing Illinois high school students to earn college credit while in high school, ultimately making college tuition more affordable. Community college districts now can voluntarily enter into Accelerate College partnerships with any school district within their boundaries. Coursework completed by high school students in a community college is transferrable to Illinois' public universities.
Now, other suburban school districts, including the state's second-largest -- Elgin Area School District U-46 -- have followed District 300's model.
The district pays roughly $8,000 yearly per student enrolled full time at ECC, which is what it costs to educate them in high school. The only fees families incur are for books, Heid said.
Anna Yessica Tello, 18, of Carpentersville, a senior at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, studied political science at ECC. Her biggest challenge wasn't the rigor of college classes, but rather time management and adjusting to different instructors' expectations.
Through the program, she learned to be independent, manage her time wisely, and develop social, organizational and "many more skills that I didn't realize I was lacking in," she said.
Tello went from being shy and quiet to speaking up for herself. At ECC, she joined the Aspire 1G club advocating for first-generation college students, initially as the club's information officer and now president.
"This program has very much exceeded my expectations," Tello said. "I've learned and grown a lot more than I thought I would have. Every day my schedule is really changing. Being able to experience that now while I'm still at home is very comforting."
At Jacobs, Tello struggled to stand out. Now, having an associate degree right out of high school gives her an edge over her peers, she said.
This fall, she will be studying government and international politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, with the goal of attending law school afterward.
Heid expects program enrollment to grow next school year -- 59 students are enrolled this school year, though up to 90 can participate. Officials anticipate 21 graduates will receive their ECC associate degrees next spring.
"Right now, the only obstacle that we run into for growth is transportation," said Heid adding, the district might consider busing juniors who don't drive to ECC for classes four days a week.
Also starting this fall, District 300 will begin offering college-level courses at its high schools taught by district teachers who have acquired the endorsements for teaching college-level coursework. Dundee-Crown and Hampshire will offer English 101 and 102, and Jacobs will offer history.
"Wouldn't it be great if every one of our high schools would have a wing for college coursework?" said Heid.