LAFAYETTE — Education leaders committed Thursday to expanding the Early College Academy, which enables Lafayette Parish high school students to attend South Louisiana Community College and earn a high school diploma in tandem with a two-year associate’s degree.
The program, a partnership between the school system and SLCC, began in 2008 and produced its first graduating class of 30 students in May. The Early College Academy is open to any student who will be entering ninth grade in the fall.
As more jobs demand some type of postsecondary education, programs such as the Early College Academy boost students’ options after high school, said Billy Stokes, executive director of the Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
By 2020, 60 percent of the workforce will need some type of postsecondary education, based on a study by the National Center for Workforce Development, Stokes said.
“In Louisiana, it will be 51 percent,” Stokes said. “Here in Lafayette, we’re already at 62 percent. Statewide, we need to be doing these kinds of programs so kids can get a postsecondary degree.”
The center is tracking the program and, during a news conference Thursday, presented preliminary data on students who enrolled in the program in the past four years.
“We want to chronicle the movement of these children and show it is possible to compress six years of education into four years,” Stokes said following the presentation.
Stokes said the center is also tracking students to determine whether they continue their education and obtain a bachelor’s degree or if they enter the workforce.
As with all the Schools of Choice programs, students must apply for the Early College Academy program; selection is made via a lottery system.
To be eligible for the program, students must score at least basic in both English language arts and math on their eighth-grade Louisiana Educational Assessment Program test.
Students said Thursday the program appealed to them because of the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree at little or no cost to their parents and for the head start on a four-year degree. Students attend classes from noon to 6:30 p.m. on the SLCC campus.
Freshman Adairre Castille began her first semester at the academy last month. She aspires to be a plastic surgeon and specialize in facial reconstruction.
“This will cut down on the time I’m in school,” she said.
Students are grouped together in the same classes in their first few years on the college campus, but in their junior and senior years, they may only take one class or two as a group, junior J.P. Boudreaux said.
He said he’s the only Early College Academy student in three of his four classes this semester.
The aspiring film student plans to attend the University of Louisianas at Lafayette for two years to complete a bachelor’s degree in history, then wants to go to film school.
Those students who complete the program with a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher receive a scholarship of up to four semesters from ULL. University President Joseph Savoie committed to the scholarships in the program’s early stages and in August, four of the 30 May graduates began fall classes at the university on scholarships, according to the report.
Lafayette Parish School Superintendent Pat Cooper and SLCC Chancellor Natalie Harder said Thursday they’re both committed to expanding the Early College Academy program despite space issues at the community college campus and available funding.
Harder said the college, which recently merged with regional technical college campuses, also is in discussions with parish school superintendents to expand the program across the Acadiana region.
A booming enrollment at the college has its one-building Devalcourt Street campus at capacity, but that will not deter the program’s growth, Harder said.
“It can’t be about the financing and the building. It’s got to be about going forward,” Harder said.
Cooper said he plans to meet with the School Board in a retreat soon — no date has been set — to discuss system issues, as well as the potential to go to voters with a bond issue next year to address school facility needs.
He said a facility for the Early College Academy should be part of any bond issue.
“This is a program that works, so we have to expand it. If we want to grow this program to 1,000 students, we have to have a facility. This is an ‘A’ high school,” Cooper said referring to the school’s accountability rating from the state Department of Education.