EAST LAKE — Their only connection to high school these days is the football team.
There are no school tones instructing them that it's time to change classes. No teachers are standing in the hallways ensuring that there's no monkey business.
For four of East Lake High's varsity football players, the only time they come on campus is for football. But that doesn't mean they are sidestepping their education. In fact, they've ratcheted up their learning a notch.
Seniors Tanner Anderson, Dominick Schiavo, Blake Teel and junior Sonny Shamsi are students at St. Petersburg College.
Not only will Schiavo and Teel have high school diplomas when they graduate next spring, but they also will get associate of arts degrees.
Anderson will have at least 30 college credit hours when he graduates from high school. When Shamsi graduates in 2012, he too will have an associate of arts degree.
"It's one of those things where I'm challenging myself," said Schiavo, 17, a fullback. "When I graduate, I'll have 64 credits that will all transfer to college."
Teel, a defensive tackle, agreed.
"At first, I was not too sure of leaving high school and all my friends," said Teel, 17. "But I just couldn't pass it up. Two years of college and it pays for books and all. I like it and I'm glad I did it."
A collaboration between St. Petersburg College and the Pinellas County School District enables high schoolers to participate in one of three programs to earn college credits while in high school.
The college waives the tuition and the school district buys the books. The program saves a family between $8,000 and $10,000 in college fees, said Larry Webster, the early college/dual enrollment coordinator.
Schiavo, Teel and Shamsi are in the early college program, in which students spend their final two years of high school at one of SPC's three campuses. They have to take at least 15 hours of college courses a semester.
Anderson is in the early admission program, which allows high school seniors to earn at least 30 college credit hours for the year.
"Being away from campus, I'm not able to socialize as much and it takes away from the fun that everyone thinks about when they look back on high school," said Anderson, 17, a defensive back. "But it helps with the learning process because you are not distracted as much."
The third option is dual enrollment, which allows students to take three classes a semester at SPC but spend the remainder of the day at their respective high schools.
A 3.0 grade point average is required to participate in all three programs.
Webster said 90 percent of the students who participate complete the programs. "It's very successful and a highly regarded program," Webster said.
The program is not for all high school students, said Jan Kessinger, the early college program guidance counselor.
"They have to have a great deal of maturity," Kessinger said.
His first semester in the program, Shamsi was a little nervous, but, he said, he believes he's made the right decision.
"I was thinking 'hopefully I won't do that bad and that I'll get good grades,' " Shamsi said. "The teachers expect you to be a lot more mature and to handle your work. I am away from friends, but it's worth the separation."
Students in the program can play on their designated high school athletic programs. They also can participate in social clubs and attend prom, something that the football players plan to do.
But for these students, it's football that keeps the high school experience alive beyond the gridiron.
"Most of my friends are on the football team anyway and I get to come back and hang out with them at practice every day," Schiavo said. "I still get to connect to East Lake in many ways, but football has been the connection."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.