Extra, extra credit Teens to graduate from college before high school

Kirby Easler (from left), Dusty Miller and Amber Douglas share a moment on the Berkeley Middle College campus. The three high school seniors will earn their associate’s degrees from Trident Tech before they get their high school diplomas.

May will be a busy month for Moncks Corner teen Dusty Miller and two of his classmates.

The Berkeley Middle College High School seniors are preparing for two graduations.

Dusty and classmates Amber Douglas and Kirby Easler have earned enough college credits in the last two years that they will receive associate’s degrees from Trident Technical College on Friday, 25 days before they graduate from high school.

They are part of the second graduating class from Berkeley Middle College, but the first class that has been able to take full advantage of the free two-year program that is a collaboration between Berkeley County School District and Trident Technical College.

“I don’t think a lot of people really understand what middle college means,” Amber said. “It’s a strange concept still.”

At the end of 10th grade, the Berkeley County students made the decision to leave their schools and switch to the middle college, then a fledgling program just getting off the ground.

For Dusty, the biggest question at the time was whether he could continue playing baseball for Berkeley High School.

Because the school is a magnet that draws from across the county, students are allowed to participate in athletics at their home school. The Middle College has students from the county’s seven high schools representing many sports.

“I decided to make the switch when I realized how many college credits I could get,” Dusty said.

Many high schools offer Advanced Placement classes, which require students to earn a certain score on an exam at the end of the year to get the college credits, and Berkeley High School this year started an International Baccalaureate program.

“I think those classes are a lot harder than dual credit classes, and only some of them transfer to college,” Dusty said. “With dual credit, you can transfer as many as you take.”

For Kirby and Amber, who have been best friends since elementary school, it was a matter of happiness.

“I was very unhappy at Timberland,” Kirby said. “It wasn’t the right place for me. This was the right place for me. It’s very self-paced and that’s what I needed.”

Amber said if she had stayed at Timberland, she would have graduated with a few college credits instead of the 61 she has now.

“I am on my own a lot more here,” she said. “I think it’s good for me to have that independence. I think I’ll be better off in college because of it.”

The program was a good transition from high school to college, said Dusty’s mom, Serena Miller.

“In college, the class schedule can be such a shock for kids,” she said. “Here, he’s still home while he’s getting used to having a college schedule.”

Principal Claire Freeman said students can make what they want of the program. For these students, that’s 60 or more hours of college credit – the equivalent of two years. To get their degrees, they also have attended Maymester and summer courses.

“High school is not a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “This is just another option for students. It all depends on the students and what they are looking for.”

With a student body of 82 juniors and seniors, the Middle College, which is housed in classrooms on the Berkeley campus of Trident Tech, has four teachers who help the students complete their high school requirements while simultaneously attending college classes. Some of the classes are traditional and others are online. Some students, like Dusty and Amber, attend classes at Trident’s Main Campus.

“They’re out there mixing with the college students,” Freeman said. “A lot of the professors don’t even know they are our Middle College kids.”

Freeman said the school prides itself on catering to individual students. While Dusty, Amber and Kirby took a lot of college courses, other students might take only one or two per semester.

Part of the Berkeley County school system, the middle college is still a well-kept secret, Freeman said.

“A lot of people don’t know about it,” she said, adding that she’d like to see the school expand to 100 students per grade. “But word is getting out and people are starting to call us excited about it.”

Many people mistakenly think the school is a “last chance” opportunity for troubled students.

“People do get the impression that it’s a discipline school,” Dusty said. “but I’m not the only kid there that has good grades.”

Some of the students are first-generation college students.

“They want college for themselves and may have thought that was something they couldn’t attain,” Freeman said. “They come away from here with clarification of what they want to do. A lot of our students can’t see very far out in their vision for the future. But this program is not for slackers. You can’t have gotten to this point and not be serious about school.”

The school has a prom and it’s own graduation and the students said it even fosters a tight sense of community while also encouraging independence.

“I don’t see as many people on a day-to-day basis,” Amber said. “There are a lot less people your own age.”

Dusty, who hopes to go into the Marine Corps. after college, had a problem when he tried to apply for an ROTC scholarship. He was denied a four-year scholarship because he had too many college credits and didn’t qualify for a three-year scholarship because he had not yet taken college ROTC.

“I’m considered a freshman, so I applied as a freshman, but then they told me I couldn’t do that,” he said.

He hopes to reapply after his freshman year.

The students said that they likely will attend college for four years despite already having the two-year degree.

Dusty and Amber plan to attend the University of South Carolina.

Dusty hopes to major in mechanical engineering and possibly minor in nuclear engineering.

Amber plans to study biomedical engineering.

“The major that I’m going into is pretty heavy,” Amber said. “Had I gone into something else, it probably would have taken two years off, but that’s not going to be the case.”

Kirby, who plays guitar, is torn between English and music and is considering the College of Charleston.