Collegiate Academy at CHS proudly sends 30 into life with degrees

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/CHS
The graduates, from left to right: top row — Terrica Hughes, Ashana Etzweiler, Marco Sanchez, Juan Puentes, Jaylee Rangel, Ricardo Paniagua, Shanecia Miller, Britney Ortega, Marleidys Codesal and Melissa Manning; bottom row — Selinda Puentes, Melissa Lopez, Caroline Sweet, Grayson Brooks, Cinthia Magana, Mariah Thomas, Iris Ruiz and Camryn Curry.
The graduates not in the picture are Jon Basquin, Daniela Betancourt, Trent Brown, Andrea Carrasquillo, Yaxini DeLeon, Jose Granados, Tajanay Gray, Francisco Pardo, Shawna Platt, Louis Roberts, Diana Ruiz and Betsy Velasquez.

CLEWISTON — Thirty Clewiston High School seniors who participated in the Collegiate Academy (CA) received their associate’s degrees last weekend in Fort Myers, even before they officially graduate from CHS next week. That’s because those young men and women participated in the Collegiate Academy through a dual enrollment program at CHS and make up the CA’s first graduating class.

These 30 students have a better idea where they’ll be going and what they’ll be doing after high school graduation than their cohorts do. (That has to relieve a lot of anxiety along the way.) No, these kids worked extra hard for the past several years to earn something vastly better than a leg up on their competition — they’ve got a flying start on life.

Jose Roquett is director of the Collegiate Academy, and he explained how this “tremendous opportunity” works, what it does for the students and further future plans for the academy’s offerings.

Multiple benefits to kids, parents, community
“It is a new development, the state colleges working with students to get their associates degrees, their AAs,” he said. “We’re particularly lucky because on the coast, students end up having to go to college campuses in order to be able to participate or get the most out of the program. Here, for us, we actually can include CHS students on campus; 11th and 12th graders are the ones that are able to participate. They become full-time dual enrollment students, which means they’re taking college classes — they’re earning both high school and college credits — and, by the end of their high school senior year, they’re eligible to complete … their two-year college degree.”

Mr. Roquett was direct and fired up about just how much this means to Hendry County students. “So this year, we have, in our inaugural class, 30 students benefiting from our program, getting AAs — saving them each easily $10,000 in tuition over the two years, and textbooks. This is savings that are going to their parents, to the community; and this is the Hendry County School Board, the school district, actually paying for the school cost, the textbook costs. So really, we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Mr. (Paul) Puletti, our superintendent, for developing and creating this program with FSW (Florida SouthWestern State College) administrators, and to Mr. Puletti and the board for continuing to invest in a strategy that is very costly for the school district.”

And these students in their last two years of high school are seeing the benefits:
“This year and last year, we’ve had students graduate and be accepted at universities across the state — UF, Polytechnic, FSU, UCF, USF, FGCU, FAU, FIU. Our students are able to benefit from participating in athletics. In fact, not only do they participate in athletics; it’s a college schedule, the way that our kids go to school. Just like any other college schedule, they could have each class two days a week for an hour and 20 minutes each day, and for the rest of the week they’re open during that time slot. Our students have a total of five classes. They end up having about 10 to 12 hours of open time during the school day where they spend in the library doing homework, getting assignments done (for our athletes’ benefit)…”

Pipeline starts in soph year
Recruiting starts early.
“What we do is, ninth and 10th graders, we are preparing them to try to become a member of the CA. Students need a 3.0 GPA, and they need college-ready scores on the PERT Math, Reading and Writing (exams). The PERT stands for Post-secondary Education Readiness Test. It’s what colleges use to figure out how much a student knows,” Mr. Roquett explained.

And it’s attracting the hardest-working, brightest kids, he said.
“So for our freshmen at the end of the year — this is coming up on May 17 — all of my freshmen with a 3.5 GPA or so, or better, I give them the PERT tests to give them a chance to qualify. Usually from this first group, very easily I get 12 or 13 students that already qualify as freshmen to participate in the Collegiate Academy.

“Then during their sophomore year, I test sophomores and juniors with a 3.0 GPA. I test them quarterly, and that’s how by the end of their sophomore year, we have … this inaugural class of 30. Right now, we actually have 34 students, sophomores, qualified and signed up to participate in the CA next year; we actually have about 16 or 17 other sophomores who have a 3.0 GPA and have already passed two of the tests, so they’re working really hard to qualify by passing this last test. If they’re able to qualify, we have the potential of having a class of 50!”

And plans are in the works to further expand this program.

“A couple of months ago, our program actually extended the benefits and we struck up a partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University, FGCU, so every single Clewiston High School senior who graduates with his or her associates degree and earns at least a 3.0 GPA is also automatically awarded a $5,000-per-year, three-year scholarship to FGCU to finish their bachelor’s degree. That’s a total there, in addition to the FSW scholarship, a $15,000 scholarship to FGCU. So the benefits of the program only continue. That means that, every year, 30 CHS seniors can have almost their full college paid for, really a cost easily of about $25,000…”

But life doesn’t get suddenly different for students in the CA.

“From 10th to 11th grade, nothing changes for our students,” Mr. Roquett said. “They come to the same school they’ve been going to, some ride the bus, some drive, some take rides with friends, with the same friends, they have the same lunch, they participate in all of our events, and all of our events, just as everyone else is, except they’re earning college credits in addition to their high school credits.”

There are other benefits to the CA program besides the AA degrees and the scholarships. The college study habits instilled have provided a great boost in student performance.

“Last semester,” said Mr. Roquett, “CHS students earned 1,267 college credits. Of those, 83% of students’ grades were As and Bs, and 49% were As, so the overall GPA was 3.38, unweighted — very strong. Even better, our first semester ever, our students earned a 3.54 GPA, it was the highest amongst all of FSW’s cohorts. They have some collegiate high schools on their campuses, and those students, in fact one of those campuses was ranked in the top ten of high schools in the state of Florida. Our students outperformed those students in our very first semester. So our students are hanging tough with the best students in the state.

Assistance with this article from Nicole Reid, news director of WAFC-FM in Clewiston, is gratefully acknowledged.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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