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Students will earn a high school diploma along with 60 hours of college credit for a certificate or an associate degree in four years.

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FARMINGTON – San Juan College High School spent their last day of the innovative school’s first semester volunteering at local non-profit organizations.

The students, who are taking college classes while still in high school, spent part of their day at the Farmington Boys and Girls Club, cleaning and fixing up the building. Later that afternoon, some students spent time at the ECHO Food Bank helping staff prepare for the holiday season before leaving on winter break.

It was part of "Griffin’s Giving Back" day, named after the school’s mascot, a fantasy creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

After years of planning, the 25th early college high school in New Mexico opened in August for the 2016-2017 school year. It’s also the only early college high school in the state that is a partnership between four public school districts and a college.

The initial class of 80 students were selected through a lottery system. About 120 eighth-grade students applied from the Aztec, Bloomfield, Central Consolidated and Farmington school districts.

In four years, students will earn a high school diploma along with 60 hours of college credit for a certificate or associate degree.

The SCJHS leadership team including office staff and instructors feel like they’ve accomplished a lot in starting up the new school, Principal Don Lorett said.

He says he also is proud of students meeting or exceeding the expectations established for the new high school.

“We’re very proud of our students’ hard work,” Lorett said.

Lorett also attributed the high school's success to the work put in by members of the the Early College High School Planning Committee, which is comprised of representatives from the college and the Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington school districts.

The committee was awarded a $349,000 planning grant in August 2015 and used the grant to hire staff and help develop the high school.

A number of students described the environment at the start of the semester as slightly chaotic with everyone adjusting to the brand new high school.

The high school is located on San Juan College’s main campus on the first floor of the Learnings Common building and is operated by the Farmington Municipal School District.

What surprised first-year students including Camara Palmer from Aztec and Lillie Geiersbach from Farmington was the accelerated pace of the curriculum.

“It was a lot more stressful than I originally anticipated,” Geiersbach said.

Nonetheless, Palmer said she was looking for a challenge. She felt some middle school courses were not too challenging and she would constantly study ahead in all her classes to keep busy.

The school operates on a block schedule with four high school courses then a college course.

Students were enrolled in San Juan College’s Student Success course for the first semester. It is a three-credit course that focuses on providing students methods to learn and succeed in college and in life.

The students said they learned a number of things including how to handle stress and some basic study skills.

“I learned how to manage my stress coming into the new school and I learned how to create interpersonal relationships and maintain them,” Palmer said.

The staff are still tweaking the operations of the early college high school.

For the upcoming Spring semester, the students will not be taking a college course for their fifth-hour class.

A planned Computer Science course was difficult to implement as the students are assigned Apple MacBook Air laptops and the software for administrating the class was designed for the Windows operating system.

Lorett said staff did not feel confident enough to have students take the course right now and will move the course to the student's second year.

More importantly, it provided an opportunity for the staff to focus on career exploration and provide one-on-one tutoring with students.

The extra time will help students determine a career pathway that will guide the degree or certificate programs they plan to pursue, Lorett said. The students will have a chance to sit in on San Juan College classes and determine if it's an area they are interested in.

Which is what Kirtland resident Wade Hatch was looking for with the early college high school concept.

Hatch said he was interested in becoming a biologist and will gear his college courses towards that career pathway.

If he attended a regular high school, Hatch said he would not get the opportunity to choose specialized courses and would have more of a “cookie cutter” experience.

Lorett said being able to operate as a smaller high school allows the staff and instructors to become more familiar with the student body.

SCJHS will enroll 80 students a year ultimately reaching a full enrollment of 320 students.

“Students feel like they are being supported with their challenges in education,” Lorett said.

The students say they feel the support of their instructors.

Geiersbach said for the amount of pressure the students are under, there is an equivalent amount of support from people who want them to succeed.

“The teachers push you to do your best and care about your well-being,” Geiersbach said. “It’s such a caring environment.”

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

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