Early College High School - Palmer

Students walk in from a lunch break at Early College High School on May 15. The unique public school meets on the downtown Palmer campus of Trident Technical College. Paul Bowers/Staff

There are easier ways to earn a high school diploma than graduating from Early College High School.

But for the students who stick it out, the reward is great. Each could graduate from high school with two years' worth of college credits under their belt from Trident Technical College, transferable to most large colleges and universities in the state.

"It'll be great for me to be 18 years old with an associate degree. Where are you going to find that?" said Kaylyn Jones, a member of the inaugural freshman class.

A first of its kind in the Charleston County School District, the public school is finishing its inaugural year. The freshman class was recruited from students from across the county who ranked between the 40th and 60th percentile in their eighth-grade classes. They attended classes on the downtown Palmer campus of Trident Technical College.

For the small staff and student body, it's been a grind.

The students crammed eight core academic classes into their first year, knocking out biology in the first semester and chemistry in the second. They're working to get their high school requirements out of the way so that this fall, they can start taking college-level courses alongside college students at the Palmer campus.

The school started with a freshman class of 96. By mid-May, that number was down to 79.

Students left for several reasons, but the pressure of the first year was a factor in some cases. According to Principal Vanessa Denney, 10 students simply didn't show up for the first day of school after orientation. Others moved away, landed in the juvenile detention center or were moved to Daniel Jenkins Academy for behavioral issues.

Even the ones who stuck around admit they've considered quitting.

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Early College High - Vanessa Denney

Vanessa Denney is principal of Early College High School. Paul Bowers/Staff

"I did consider it," said Jones, "and then I talked to my mom and my dad about it, and they said, 'Well, you know your granny is already bragging about you, right?'"

"I struggled, especially in biology, because we were going at a very, very fast rate. But I got through it," said John Dobson, huddled with two classmates studying for a chemistry test on stoichiometry on a recent afternoon.

Some of the students will be the first in their families to take college courses. The allure of starting college with 60 credit hours already completed is enough to keep some of them from quitting and returning to a traditional school.

And then there's the financial advantage: Two years of free credits also would save an undergraduate student almost $50,000 at the University of South Carolina — based on the current housing rates and cost of in-state tuition.

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait pitched the idea of Early College High School to the school board based on her previous experience in Horry County, where she helped create a similar program on the campus of Horry Georgetown Technical College.

Charleston County Schools budgeted $657,000 for Early College High School in its first year, enough for a bare-bones staff of four teachers, a principal, a guidance counselor and a secretary on a single hallway at the Palmer campus.

The budget for next school year will jump to $2.16 million, so the school can hire new staff and serve its rising sophomores, as well as an incoming freshman class. The sum also covers tuition for the Trident courses.

One of the new teachers coming on board is 21-year-old Ben Flo, a science teacher who already knows the ins and outs of Early College. He graduated from the one in Horry County in 2015. He's set to graduate with a bachelor's degree and a Master of Arts in teaching from Coastal Carolina University in June.

"I hope to inspire the kids that come to Early College," Flo said. "It doesn’t matter how smart you are, and it doesn’t matter where you come from."

In addition to science courses, Flo will help teach AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a college-readiness course that he calls a crucial part of the Early College model. The course helps students map out a route to college and then a career; it teaches note-taking and study skills, according to a model pioneered at a San Diego County high school in 1980.

Going into next year, Principal Denney is making some tweaks. The school will no longer cram biology and chemistry into the first year. After 17 students failed the ACCUPLACER test for college course placement this spring, the school started sending them to a daily "ACCUPLACER boot camp" taught by a Trident instructor.

"It's about adding support. You're not there yet. What do we need to do to get you there?" Denney said.

Denney knows her students struggled this year. She's had frank conversations with many of them about the difficulties and rewards.

She also has shared her own struggles. On the day of the spring dance, Denney received a diagnosis of Stage 1c breast cancer and needed surgery. The day after Spring Break, she called all of the students into the hallway and told them. She called another meeting later in the year to announce she would be undergoing chemotherapy.

"It's my job to show them how to deal with adversity every day — not just tell them," Denney said.

One day, after leaving campus for a meeting at the district office, she returned to find all of the students in the hall with pink ribbons streaming along the walls. They had set up a microphone and took turns offering her words of encouragement.

"I didn't realize that it was as good for them as it was for me," Denney said. "Kids that don't speak up were on that microphone. Seeing how they had grown over the year was really special."

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Early College High School - studying

Early College High students (left to right) John Dobsonm, Taliya Brown and Nadia Washington study for a chemistry test on stoichiometry on May 15. Paul Bowers/Staff

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.