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By Sara Bongiorni
Marcus Turner has big plans, even heroic ones. The Broadmoor High School freshman hopes to study technology in college to prepare for a career as a cybersecurity expert for the U.S. Army—either that or a pilot for the U.S. Air Force. Military service runs in the Turner family. The ninth-grader’s grandfather was in the Navy. He is a member of Junior ROTC at Broadmoor. He is thinking about West Point or the Air Force Academy after high school graduation in 2024.

Technology is another natural fit for the 14-year-old honors student. He started tinkering with a computer at home when he was 11 or 12. He likes deciphering how the machines work as much as gaming. “For me, computers and technology are fun.”

Marcus is getting a jump start on that college technology degree as one of four students in the Early College Academy’s freshman class.

A partnership of Baton Rouge Community College and the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, the curriculum blends traditional high school and college-level classes to give students the opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at the same time.

Students choose a pathway to one of two associate’s degrees so far—information technology or automotive technology—but the program will add options as it grows, including a process-technology curriculum in 2021-22.

The goal is to equip students with specialized skills essential for high-wage jobs that are in high demand in the regional economy if they decide to go to work right after high school.

The program is the first of its kind in Baton Rouge, and it is of special interest to the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which for more than a decade has worked to expand educational opportunities in the Ardendale neighborhood north of Florida Boulevard.

In fact, the new program extends a landmark project in that effort: the 2018 opening of the state-of-the-art EBR Career & Technical Education Center, CTEC, on Lobdell Avenue in the heart of Ardendale.

Early College Academy students divide their school days between their traditional high school campus, where they take core classes and participate in sports, clubs and other activities. The other half of the day is spent at the high-tech CTEC campus, which offers industry-shaped training in manufacturing, building trades, technology and other high-skill vocations.

Students interested in automotive technology get training at the McKay Automotive Technology Center next door at BRCC’s Ardendale campus. The center’s 2017 opening was another milestone achievement in the Foundation’s long-running work to improve education, housing and quality of life in Ardendale.

Early College Academy students are the first freshmen to take classes at CTEC, whose students until now have been rising high school juniors and seniors. Each of CTEC’s 154 students earn some kind of college credit or industry certification, but only Early College Academy students complete an associate’s degree by high school graduation.

The launch of the Early College Academy is worth noting for another reason. Officials got it up and running amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. Two years of planning culminated in the March announcement of a memorandum of understanding between BRCC and the EBR school district to start the program this fall. The pandemic closed schools in Baton Rouge the same week.

It was a major disruption, but not a derailment. School officials worked to get word out about the program over the summer. They had hoped for 20 students but ended up with four, all honors students at Broadmoor, in what is essentially a pilot program. Classes were online at first, gradually transitioning to in-person instruction.

“It will grow in time,” said Summer Dann, CTEC’s executive director.

This year’s freshman class includes Breana Sanders, 14. She says she didn’t intend to enroll in the new program. Her mother signed her up. “It was a surprise,” she says.

Breana is an avid reader of Harry Potter books and loves math and science, but she was nervous about the idea of early college, including a computer coding class. It took her about a week to gain confidence. “I like the idea that a computer has its own language,” Breana says. “There’s a logic to it.”

She thinks about going to work as a computer technician after high school but wants to keep her options open. “We’ll wait and see,” Breana says.

Benjamin Hall was inspired to study automotive technology by a car-repair wizard on YouTube. His father and grandfather are also sources of inspiration: both worked as mechanics.

The 15-year-old swimmer and musician wants to go to college to study physical therapy. Working as an automotive technician after high school will help him pay for college, life and fixing up a 1994 Chevy Corvette—his favorite car. “The hands-on experience I’m getting is honestly my favorite part of school,” Benjamin says.

Sha’Lisa Paul, 14, began playing around with computers at age 10. She is an avid photographer who brings her camera when she takes her chihuahua on weekend and afternoon walks. She is always on lookout for flowers and other signs of nature in the city.

She looked right at home at a computer screen covered in glowing lines of code on a Tuesday morning inside one of CTEC’s sunny classrooms. “It’s a learning process,” Sha’Lisa says of coding.

She thinks about a future working in technology, but becoming a nurse, maybe going out of state to study for an advanced degree in nursing, also appeals to her.

While its first four students are all honors students, the Early College Academy is open to ninth- and tenth-graders with a C average. “The biggest thing is to have a lot of love for what you’re pursuing,” says CTEC director Daphne Hughes-Alex. “That’s what’s important.”