BOCA RATON — Aya Tal-mason's excitement as she describes her research on cancer-fighting drugs rivals her schoolmate Paige Fries' audible enthusiasm about her recently published science-fiction novel. Fellow student Hannah Herbst recently visited President Barack Obama to explain the inexpensive generator she designed that uses plastic spoons and the hydropower of streams to charge cellphones, giving remote villagers a link to the outside world.
Not bad for a bunch of public high school kids.
The teens attend Florida Atlantic University High School, which education officials believe is the nation's only school where all students can simultaneously earn their high school diploma and bachelor's degree. The National Association of Secondary School Principals knows of no similar program.
About eight of each year's graduating class of 130 accomplish the dual-degree feat and nearly 100 percent graduate college by 19, about the time most university students are learning their town's best pizza joints. More than half enter graduate or professional school.
Perhaps the best part -- tuition and textbooks are free.
"When I was in high school, a lot of my friends would ask me, 'Why would you want to accelerate? Don't you want to move away from home and do the 'College Experience?'" said Mahalia Sanon, 18, a recent FAU High grad who's about to earn her pre-pharmacy bachelor's degree. The child of a single mother, Sanon will soon start pharmacy school -- she scored in the 93rd percentile on her entrance exam. "Now that they see I am about to graduate with no debt, they are envious."
About 700 eighth graders apply annually to FAU High and 140 are accepted based on their grades, their score on a college entrance exam and recommendations. Some come from as far away as Miami, a 50-mile daily commute each way. The state funds the school's $3.8 million budget, while students pay an annual $500 university activity fee.
FAU Assistant Dean Joel Herbst, who oversees the program for the 30,000-student university, said prospective students and parents are warned about the dedication needed to succeed at the 12-year-old school. Most students spend hours daily studying or doing research and still participate in sports or extracurricular activities. Despite the demands, only about three freshmen drop out annually, Herbst said. After that, attrition is mostly students who move.
"If your heart is not in this, you are not going to last," said Herbst, who is Hannah Herbst's father.
But the 530 students aren't just the children of the well-off and well-educated. The student body is racially and economically diverse. About a third of the students are below or near the federal poverty line and receive free or discounted lunches. Many have parents who didn't finish college.
Ninth graders are mostly sequestered in the FAU High building, a block of classrooms at the university's edge. One recent day, the freshmen were completing work top-level juniors and seniors do at typical high schools, like in-depth looks at ancient empires and genetic studies of fruit flies. But the most important courses, the students and administrators agree, are symposiums on managing time and acting like a mature college student.
Starting in 10th grade, the teens study mostly at the university — taking classes alongside students who might be a decade older — and receive dual high school and college credits. They don't get special treatment. In fact, they are told not to stand out except for excellent course work. Some try to hide their age, others don't.
"I won't lie about it. I am in an academic fraternity and everyone knows I am 17. It didn't change any friendships and I think professors actually respect you a little more because they know how hard you have worked to get here," said Ashley Amian, a high school senior and college junior majoring in political science who plans to be a lawyer.
Tal-mason, a 16-year-old pre-med major, began researching cancer drugs through organic chemistry, the course that weeds out many would-be doctors. Tal-mason, a high school senior and college junior, said she visited professor Stephane Roche's office daily, peppering him with questions until he told her, "That's not in the class. That is so high level I don't want to confuse you anymore."
The university's medical school reserves five seats in each incoming class for FAU High grads.
One stereotype bothers students -- people think they're nerds. The administration brings in speakers who emphasize that being an academic hermit will limit their futures professionally and personally, no matter how smart they are.
The FAU High students participate in all university activities except intercollegiate athletics -- some join the orchestra, others appear in plays. One got elected to student government.
The high school's athletic program has the usual sports except football (don't want these prized brains getting concussed, Herbst said) and baseball and softball (not enough interest). The high school also has homecoming, prom, talent shows and video game nights.
Fries, the novelist, is also a top-flight soccer player. The 15-year-old high school sophomore and college freshman hopes to play her sport and study film and writing at Duke University after getting her Florida Atlantic degree.
"I feel there is balance," she said.
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, notes approvingly that the FAU High students get support from faculty, have peers and live with their parents. Whatever self-consciousness they feel is outweighed by being told they are special enough to do the work.
"Being selected out for positive reasons has positive effects," he said. "If you tell a kid they are smart, they get smarter."
Herbst said interested Chinese, Thai and Dutch educators have visited the school, but U.S. inquiries are scant even though the universities' costs would be minimal. He thinks such schools would benefit the nation's brightest teens.
"I am kind of dumbfounded that (colleges) throughout the country don't have a program similar to this. The seats in every college class are not full. The teacher is already teaching. What are one, two, three, four more kids in that class? These kids bring significant value to the university and the university brings a tremendous amount of value to our program and our kids," Herbst said.