DARLINGTON, SC (WMBF) - Eight high school students in the Pee Dee will receive their Associate of Arts degree even before they graduate from high school.
All eight completed the early college honors program from Florence Darlington Technical College and walked across the stage at the Florence Civic Center Thursday evening. Seven are Darlington High School graduates and one student is from Wilson High School in Florence.
The high school students took part in transferable general education courses such as biology, English, history, math, psychology, philosophy, political science and Spanish. A little more than half of the classes are taught online and the rest are taught at the high school. Students must meet a certain GPA requirement.
The program has grown each year since it started in 2004. Darlington High School Principal Dr. Greg Harrison was the driving force to add enough classes this year to make an Associate Degree possible. He said the class of 2016 is the first to have the opportunity to receive the two-year college degree.
"The current students graduating, the seven that we have graduating this year, they went above and beyond," Harrison said. "They said, 'I want an associate's degree also,' so they went to summer school and did a lot of summer work. So they worked a little bit harder than the students that will follow them because it wasn't available when they were in tenth grade."
The program allows high school students to earn up to 74 college credits to transfer to any public college or university in the state. Two of the Darlington High School graduating students, Alexis Ramirez and Russell Summerlin, said the driving force for them to apply was to save the thousands of dollars college classes will cost.
"I basically finished my pre-requisites that I have to take before I take my credits that will go towards my major and now that's over with I can basically just go into my major," said Ramirez.
She plans to major in biological sciences at the University of South Carolina.
Summerlin is the first in his family to pursue a college degree, let alone graduate with a two-year degree while still in high school.
"It's fair to say I didn't really know what I was doing when I got into the program," he said. "I was just dumbfounded. I didn't know what an associate's degree was and I got in it and before I know it was in over my head in studies and said, 'Well, I will finish,' and here I am."
Summerlin received more than 60 hours of college credit in the program and plans to enter the military before majoring in criminal justice at Francis Marion University.
"It's a great program, but if you can't deal with a lot of studying and devoting your time - and I mean 40 hours at a time studying and doing your homework and studying for that next test - then it is too much to handle while balancing high school classes," he said.
"We're just really proud of these students for putting in the hard work, determination and effort to walk across the stage and get their high school diploma and college diploma at the same time," Harrison said.
There are plans for the early college program to add a two-year Associate of Science degree for those students in the medical field, in addition to the Arts Degree.
Eligible students can start taking college courses as early as their freshman year for the 2016-2017 school year.