High school graduation season begins today in Hernando County with ceremonies at two private schools. And at Wider Horizons School in Spring Hill, three of the four graduates are already experienced veterans when it comes to shaking hands and accepting congratulations.
Earlier this month, they received their associate's degrees from Pasco-Hernando Community College.
While many students in Hernando's public and private high schools take advantage of the dual enrollment program at PHCC to earn college credits, few finish degrees before they attain high school graduation.
Wider Horizons co-valedictorians Sabrina Jerrels and Melissa Holgado and salutatorian Monique Barte all accomplished the feat this year.
Tackling high school and college coursework at the same time is not easy.
"I had to keep organized, and I learned a lot of responsibilities," Jerrels said. "I had to get to (PHCC) classes. Then I came (to Wider Horizons) and helped out.
"It's really exciting. I'm the youngest, and I really accomplished something."
At Wider Horizons, Jerrels explained, if students attain a level of accomplishment in math that includes geometry, calculus and trigonometry, they are offered the opportunity to enroll full time at PHCC.
"I tried it and I liked it, so I kept doing it," she said.
Holgado said receiving a college degree before a high school diploma was "a weird feeling."
As for studying on two tracks simultaneously, "It's interesting," she said.
Holgado, 18, launched her college experience with just one course when she was a sophomore in high school.
"This was a great chance, and I just jumped on it," she said. "After starting at PHCC, I quit classes at Wider Horizons. I balanced my time."
But it wasn't the end of her Wider Horizons experience.
"Like other seniors, I volunteered with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders," she said.
She worked with the younger students in English, spelling, math and art.
Barte chose to enroll at PHCC in her junior year of high school and added to her full load of college classes this year, helping second- and third-graders at Wider Horizons with reading, math or "if they needed help with any subject."
"I had to balance my time with studying and my volunteer work," said Barte, 17. "When I knew I had a test, I would study two to three weeks before. I studied a lot, but I pulled it off."
She said she chose dual enrollment "because I knew it would save my parents a lot of money. Also, it's good to get the prerequisites out of the way. It felt really good because I knew a lot of people didn't have the opportunity."
She added: "I met people at PHCC a lot older than I am that didn't have their degrees, so I feel really grateful."
Joining the Wider Horizons graduates in commencement at 10 a.m. today will be exchange student Grace Yang of South Korea, who was enrolled at Wider Horizons for three years. Her host family has been Stephen and Heather Holop of Spring Hill.
Beth Gray may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.