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102 high school students in Kern County will graduate with an associate degree

Of the thousands of students who receive their high school diplomas in Kern County this spring, 102 of them will also be earning an associate degree from Bakersfield College. As impressive as that number is, it's expected to grow in the coming years.

The Early College program, which allows high school students to take college courses at BC or their own high school without paying a cent for tuition or books, now spans 36 different high schools in some form, according to Kylie Campbell, director of the program. 

This year 8,000 high school students participated in the program at schools ranging from the comprehensive schools and continuation schools in the Kern High School District to private schools like Garces Memorial or charter schools like Valley Oaks Charter School.

But this year's 102 high school graduates represents the fruits of the first partnerships in the Early College program that were forged in rural Kern County. All of this year's graduates hail from outside Bakersfield: Wonderful College Prep Academy in Delano, Wasco High School, Delano High School and Arvin High School.

BC piloted its program in these communities where there are steep barriers to attending college. Students are typically first in their family to attend college, mostly field workers who can feel like the idea of college is remote. And sometimes in the rural corners of the county, it has been too remote and far away.

This year is an especially important graduation ceremony for Arvin High School. In 2018, its first cohort of freshmen began taking college courses and now those students are graduating. Six seniors will graduate with an associate degree in communications, and an additional 13 others received over a 3.5 GPA and enough classes to earn them a communication certificate of achievement. This is also the first cohort to graduate in the Kern High School District.

Arvin High School Principal Ed Watts can't say enough wonderful things about the Early College program or the students who have taken advantage of it. 

"It really launches kids ahead," he said. "And it’s free. Out here that’s vitally important because kids don’t have resources."

He said when students are provided resources, they're appreciative and they take advantage of it. 

"They just soar," he said.

One of the Arvin High students graduating with her associate degree this year is Eduarda Angeles. She will be heading to UC Berkeley in fall but she's not alone in her cohort in heading to a competitive college.

The first group of Early College students became a tight-knit group through taking courses together, Angeles said. They're all proud of each other for their achievements in high school and where they're headed in fall: UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz and one student received a full ride scholarship to Swarthmore.

"Arvin High has a lot of smart, hard-working students," she said. "It doesn’t get broadcast enough."

Five years ago, Watts said that then-BC president Sonya Christian along with leaders at Kern High School District met to launch what would become the Early College Pathway for high school students in Arvin.

Under the model, there would be 60 slots each spring for freshmen to begin their journey to getting their associate in arts in communication studies, which would also fulfill their general education requirement for the UC or CSU system. They would take these classes after school and during the summer.

But since the launch of the Early College pathway at Arvin in 2018, the school has also been adding dual enrollment classes — college classes that students can take during the school day. That means 360 students this year are graduating with college credit.

When Bakersfield College first launched its Early College program, it was in part because of the county's poor track record in college preparatory course completions, transfers to UC or CSU campuses and college degree attainment.

"Once a kid has a college plan in their pocket, they’re much more apt to keep going," said Watts.

Angeles said that the Early College experience pushed her to think about higher education in a way she might not have. 

"It was an eye opener in chasing after more advanced education," Angeles said.

She's thinking about attending the business school at UC Berkeley once she finishes her undergraduate degree. With all the credit she has, she could theoretically do it in the same amount of time as her peers getting their bachelor's. She likes the idea of getting involved in the world of business and STEM — and Berkeley isn't far from Silicon Valley, she notes.

"There are a lot of things I can see myself doing," she said.

This year six students are graduating with their associate degrees at Arvin High, but Watts expects that number to grow.

In fall 2023, BC plans to open its satellite campus across the street from the high school. Watts said the school plans to make it possible for students to walk across the street to take a specialized college course by aligning their schedules.

But the increasing number of high school students taking college courses is happening all across Kern County, Campbell said. 

Alejandro Hernandez graduated from Delano High School in three years with his associate degree thanks to dual enrollment courses he took at his high school and classes that he took at BC's satellite campus in Delano. Hernandez wanted to waste no time in completing the coursework he needed to move on to the next phase of his life: heading to UC Berkeley so that he can enter a STEM field.

"I want to encourage what I did for more people," he said. "It saved me three years of my life."

What Hernandez did took a lot of planning and initiative, but Campbell said that the program is trying to knock down barriers to make it easier for students like Hernandez who want to create their own pathway. As time goes on, she sees students taking on heavier loads like him, saving years of college and debt.

"Students are graduating with more and more units," she said.