NEW PORT RICHEY
Christian Sampson admitted to sometimes being a little overwhelmed.
A Dayspring Academy junior, he and his 18 classmates had embarked upon a different path than most Pasco County high schoolers. They all attend courses exclusively at Pasco-Hernando State College on Monday through Thursday, visiting their charter school only on Fridays for guidance and academic support.
Teachers help the students, many of whom otherwise might not be able to afford college, choose their classes in what the school calls "structured dual enrollment." In the end, each teen expects to earn an associate's degree along with a high school diploma, while also making needed community connections through internship programs at local businesses.
"It's a challenge to show if we're mature enough and if we're able to handle it," Sampson said. "I decided even if it is super stressful to stick with it, because this is the opportunity of a lifetime."
The state-funded program, launched this fall after two years of preparation, arose in part from Dayspring founder John Legg's frustrations with the traditional high school model. As a state lawmaker, Legg routinely questioned the value of the 11th and 12th grades, suggesting too many students simply were biding time before college or a career.
He pushed legislation to require a collegiate high school program in every part of the state, and when none quickly materialized in Pasco, Legg put Dayspring Academy, a public charter school, on that road.
"We found there's an opportunity here," principal Tim Greenier said.
It's one that is gaining traction nationally, said Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research associate at Teachers College, Columbia University. Some of the earliest programs were developed more than a decade ago and continue to prosper, she said.
Barnett praised the idea of providing guidance counseling for the teens, as well as academic advising as needed.
"It's got to be with support, or else you're setting them up for failure," she said. "I agree with the overall idea that you can move students into college courses and have them be successful."
St. Petersburg Collegiate High School, a charter school sponsored by and located at St. Petersburg College, has seen its enrollment grow to more than 200 since it debuted in 2004. It differs from Dayspring Academy in that it has strict academic entrance requirements, and is targeted at accelerated students.
"The idea of earning two years of college for free is beneficial for families," principal Starla Metz said. "More important, it's the college readiness skills that really gives them the edge."
Dayspring Academy leaders are still feeling their way through. They regularly ask students to give feedback on their experiences, and advice on how to improve.
"We do try to take a pulse regularly to see where they're at," said counselor Jennifer Smith. "If they're struggling, we will sit with them, talk with them, help with the work if necessary. Some of them just need a voice to say, 'You can keep going.' I'm happy to be that."
One semester in, the students have few regrets.
Justin Scherer said his mom asked a few times whether he'd prefer to attend his zoned public high school.
"I feel the education is more important than having fun," said Scherer, who attends his college courses on Mondays and Wednesdays, leaving his other days for studying, club soccer and free time. "I love it here."
Eating lunch in the college cafe while waiting to go to their advanced algebra course, Scherer and friend Marcus Schuelke agreed that any early jitters they experienced evaporated as they saw old friends on campus and in classes, and found their instructors generally welcoming and encouraging.
PHSC psychology assistant professor Kelvin Faison welcomed the high schoolers to his classroom, where he often has students into their 50s and beyond.
"The older students who are returning tend to help the younger ones, mentor them," Faison said. "I like dealing with the high school students. I like seeing the transition from high school to college. They learn more about how to adapt to stress."
Student Airi Latres said she wouldn't choose any other way. And she had her opportunities.
She got her school choice application approved for one high school, and could have attended the International Baccalaureate program with her brother at another. Yet with her parents' backing, Latres decided to stick with the Dayspring program, "and I ended up liking it."
She has access to sports and extracurricular programs through Hudson High, in addition to clubs and internships through Dayspring. Meanwhile, the structured open enrollment gives Latres the course selection she wants as she looks to become a pediatrician.
"I really like the open schedule," she said.
Classmate Nathan Ramirez added that the program offers the best of both worlds — college, with a hint of high school.
"They're not holding our hands," he said. "They're guiding us to make sure we don't mess up our education."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.