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Fast track gives jump on careers

At the beginning of this school year, Breezy Thekkethala was a high school junior. On Wednesday, she will be a high school graduate. Sometimes, it can be confusing.

"Last year, I had all sophomore classes," she said. "This year, I experienced a completely different change. I came up to the '91 class and met all these different people."

But what is a little confusion when it means finishing high school in just three years?

"Any time you do something early it's better," said Miss Thekkethala, 17.

She and 21 other Pinellas County students have passed up their peers by attending school nearly year-round since the end of their ninth-grade. They will be the first graduates of the Early Graduation Option (EGO) program at Boca Ciega High School.

EGO is one of the four so-called magnet programs open to students throughout the county, regardless of which school they are zoned to attend. Miss Thekkethala, for instance, otherwise would have attended Countryside High in Clearwater.

She also would have had her summers free. But suntans lost will have been worth it, she said, when she begins her medical residency by age 24.

And though Jimmy Eckart, 16, also wants to get a jump on medical school, there is another reason: "I wanted to catch up to my (18-year-old) sister."

Such a competitive attitude is common among EGO students, said Jeanne Lanier, who coordinates the program.

"They're very motivated," she said. "A lot of these kids want to be challenged more quickly."

Seventeen-year-old Kham Khoumphonphakdy, a would-be pharmacist whose family moved from Laos 10 years ago, said she has reason to be impatient: "I want financial independence to help my parents out."

Of the 25 students who started EGO in 1989, three dropped out _ one whose grade-point average dipped below 2.5 and two because the distance from their homes in North Pinellas was too great, Lanier said.

"Sometimes I wish that I hadn't (signed up), because a lot of my friends won't be graduating this year," said Justin Lloyd, 17, who plans to study engineering and physics. "But I'm going to college and that makes me feel better."

These students pioneered EGO after completing ninth grade at their zoned schools. Most of the 225 EGO students following behind them came straight from eighth grade. Eighth-grade applicants must have a minimum 3.0 average and ninth-grade applicants must have a minimum 2.75 average to be considered.

During the regular school year, EGO students attend classes with other Boca Ciega students. They also must take two summers of special classes and at least one night class at a community school.

So an EGO student could be a junior in the fall but be a senior by January.

"What do we sacrifice? Time going out. Summers of sleeping and watching soap operas," said 18-year-old Patricia Chambers, another aspiring doctor.

"It's all going to pay off in the end," said Tiajuana Crum, 16, who wants a career in computers.

Despite the extra effort, other students who have completed four traditional years of high school tease them about not paying their dues.

"You're not a real senior," Miss Chambers has heard them say. "I just tell them I'll see you marching down that same aisle."