published Sunday, May 26th, 2013

2 diplomas in 2 weeks: Coahulla Creek valedictorian pulls off rare Georgia double

Lilian Sanchez prepares to walk across the stage at the graduation ceremony at Coahulla Creek High School in Whitfield County, where she was named valedictorian. She has already graduated from Dalton State College, where she has been taking classes while attending high school.
Lilian Sanchez prepares to walk across the stage at the graduation ceremony at Coahulla Creek High School in Whitfield County, where she was named valedictorian. She has already graduated from Dalton State College, where she has been taking classes while attending high school.
Photo by John Rawlston.

ABOUT "MOVE ON WHEN READY"

The Move On When Ready Act, House Bill 149, allows eligible 11th- or 12th-graders in Georgia who are enrolled in a public high school to take all their courses at an eligible college, university or public technical college and receive credit at both institutions. Tuition, books, fees and materials are paid for by the Georgia Department of Education.

The program is being adopted around the country. The General Assembly of Tennessee enacted a Move On When Ready Bill in July of 2012.

Students must have attended a public school in the state the year prior and must meet the academic requirements of the postsecondary institution they will attend.

DUAL ENROLLMENT IN TENNESSEE

Getting a high school and associate's degree simultaneously is not as unusual in Tennessee, at least at Chattanooga State Community College, according to Robert Denn, dean of School Relations and University Articulation.

Middle College High School, a Hamilton County school that allows students to attend Chattanooga State as students, graduates a couple of dozen students each year who finish with both degrees, Denn said.

"It is a full-time high school that is on the college campus," he said. "We graduated 66 students in this May graduation and about half of those earned their associate's degree."

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga offers dual enrollment classes, but on a much smaller scale than Chattanooga State, according to Ginny Reese, director of noncredit programs in the department of Continuing Education.

DALTON, Ga. — Forgive Lilian Sanchez for not knowing your name.

She's been busy.

Sanchez graduated Friday night from Coahulla Creek High School, though she never attended a class there and set foot on campus less than a dozen times.

And even before graduating from high school, she earned a college degree.

Technically enrolled at Coahulla Creek, Sanchez spent the past two years as a full-time student at Dalton State College, earning dual high school and college credits through the state's Move On When Ready program.

So when she strode across the stage Friday night, she became a rarity in Georgia education: A student who received a high school diploma and a college degree at the same time.

In fact, she received her associate degree in psychology from Dalton State on May 10, two weeks before getting her high school diploma.

Earning both a high school diploma and a college degree at the same time is unusual in Georgia, according to Dalton State Assistant Director of Admissions Katherine Logan.

"Getting all of the classes needed to do both required a lot of work and dedication from Lilian," Logan said.

Creating a schedule of classes that would meet Sanchez's high school credit demands and those of her desired associate degree in psychology was challenging, Logan said.

"That was her goal, though, and we made it work," she said. "She is a hard worker and very committed."

Sanchez graduated as Coahulla Creek's valedictorian. Upon entering the school's airy, glassed-in library last week at Coahulla Creek to talk about her accomplishment, she said, "This is my first time coming in here. It's nice."

Finding a seat under the three-story-high windows, Sanchez smiled a lot and fidgeted with her long black hair while answering questions about how she was able to graduate from college before graduating from high school.

"I haven't been a ghost," she said. "I didn't expect to be valedictorian, either, but they told me I'd earned it."

Fourteen years ago, she couldn't even speak English.

•••

Born in Mexico, Sanchez moved with her family to Dalton in 1999, at age 4. Her father works in construction and her mother is a baker. Neither is a college graduate.

Sanchez attended local elementary schools in Dalton, where she learned to speak English and acquired a love for learning. During her freshman and sophomore years, she attended Whitfield County Career Academy, now Northwest Georgia College and Career Academy, preferring its projects-based method of learning.

"I've always been more of a hands-on learner," Sanchez said.

Her sophomore year, she found out about the Move On When Ready program and enrolled at both Dalton State and Coahulla Creek. MOWR is one of several dual enrollment options that allow high school juniors and seniors to attend a postsecondary institution full time while earning credits at both simultaneously.

"I was ready to move on, so the name says it all," she said.

In the Move On program, the Georgia Department of Education pays the college some of the money it would have given to the high school for each student in the program, so the student attends college basically for free.

She chose Coahulla Creek, which opened in 2011, because the curriculum was being designed around projects-based learning, she said, and if she needed help or support, she felt the school could offer it.

As a student at Coahulla Creek, Sanchez could have attended any social event the school offered, but she chose not to. Sanchez said she enjoyed being around older students and didn't miss the other things.

"I went to the Snow Ball [at Coahulla Creek], the Christmas dance, and it wasn't for me," she said. "I've never been a person who needed friends."

She admitted it took a couple of weeks to get acclimated to Dalton State. Her parents drove her to school the first year and she often sat quietly by herself, studying while waiting for them to return. Eventually, some older students who attended her church spotted her and began including her in conversations and gave her rides home or to church.

"They always picked on me, of course, because of my age, but they were nice," she said.

Even with those friends, she said she "knew, like, four people at graduation" from Dalton State.

"It was awkward," she acknowledged.

But graduating from Coahulla Creek, where she made only rare appearances, could be equally odd, she said, especially when it came to delivering her valedictory address.

"I will have to introduce myself."

•••

Dual enrollment, or early college entry, has been growing in popularity over the years as students found they could earn college credits while still in high school. The most recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 82 percent of high schools reported that they had students enrolled in dual enrollment, with about 2 million total enrollment.

Logan said Dalton State typically has 75 to 80 students a year taking dual enrollment classes, with about half of those attending the college full-time. Most of those students start as high school seniors, she said.

Teryn Long, 2013 valedictorian at Murray County High School, said several factors motivated her to take 12 credit hours in the fall and 13 in the spring at Dalton State through the state's Accell program. It is similar to Move On, but allows a student to take classes at both the college and the high school if they choose.

"My senior year was going to be mostly [Advanced Placement] classes anyway, and you don't have to take the AP test and it counts as college credit," Long said. "I got a free year of college under my belt and it was better hours and I could spend more time with my family."

Long's brother, Tyler, was the subject of the internationally released documentary "Bully," and his suicide three years ago -- which his parents say was caused by bullying -- affected her decision to not spend her senior year at Murray County High, she said.

In Sanchez's case, she plans to use her associate degree in psychology as a "steppingstone" to a career in school counseling. She plans to stay at Dalton State, taking more psychology classes in the fall but may eventually get her master's degree somewhere else.

Now that she is a high school graduate and has her associate degree, her next priority "is to get a job."

Or two.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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