Some of Rock Valley College’s newest pupils will have a college degree in hand before ever walking across the stage at their high school graduations. This fall, 47 students enrolled in Running Start, a partnership between the Belvidere School District and Rock Valley College. Twenty-five high school juniors from Belvidere North and 22 from Belvidere enrolled at Rock Valley and will graduate in two years with a high school diploma and an associate degree. Other states have similar programs, but this is the first in Illinois, said Diane Nyhammer, Rock Valley’s vice president of academic affairs.

Some of Rock Valley College’s newest pupils will have a college diploma in hand before ever walking across the stage at their high school graduations.

In fact, these students haven’t taken the ACT or Prairie State Exams yet. Some just got their driver’s licenses and are negotiating curfews.

This fall, 47 students enrolled in Running Start, a partnership between the Belvidere School District and Rock Valley College. Twenty-five high school juniors from Belvidere North and 22 from Belvidere enrolled at Rock Valley and will graduate in two years with a high school diploma and an associate degree.

More than 100 students applied for the program, and 54 tested into it last spring. Of those, seven chose not to follow through.

The Belvidere district is paying RVC $5,507 per student out of its general operating budget for the students to be educated, Belvidere Superintendent Michael Houselog said. The students pay only for books.

The program isn’t for everyone. It’s geared toward advanced students who want the workload and can handle the extra pressure of college at 16.

First semester is supposed to be the feeling-out period, said Doug Dobbins, high school connections program director.

“None of them would be here if they couldn’t handle the academic load,” he said.

Rock Valley officials made it clear: At some point, students would have to make the choice between high school and college.

Students in the program can still participate in high school athletics, theater, clubs and organizations, but if there’s any overlap, college comes first.

At Rock Valley, students can participate in extracurricular activities other than athletics.

RVC President Jack Becherer successfully ran a dual-credit statewide program in Washington. Other states have similar programs, but this is the first in Illinois, said Diane Nyhammer, Rock Valley’s vice president of academic affairs.

“If they finish all of their requirements for Rock Valley, they will have their AA degree before they graduate from high school,” Dobbins said. “It’ll be a matter of a couple of days.”

On the students’ first day of school, Houselog looked more like a proud father than a superintendent as he watched several of those in the program descend from a school bus onto the Rock Valley campus — not all the students drive themselves, and parents asked if a bus could be available for transportation.

“They look like the same people, but their experiences are going to be so different from other high school students’,” Houselog said. “The first priority for me was to challenge our best and our brightest. We were doing a lot of things for certain kinds of kids, but we weren’t challenging them. We see this as a way of doing that.”

Houselog said from an economic standpoint, he wants new residents to the region to choose Belvidere as their home and its school district as the road to their children’s success.

“We want to be the school district that people choose to go to,” he said. “We offer unique, different kinds of programs and really meet the needs of a range of kids. This was something that offers something special to make us be that school of choice.”

It took some planning to make the program work, Dobbins said.

“It wasn’t like apples to apples,” he said. "Once we figured that formula out, it worked out pretty easily.”

Students have classes five days a week and take a full load. To earn an associate degree, a student must accumulate 64 credits.

In some cases, students will have an abundance of credit hours; in other cases, it’ll even out.

This is a trial run of the program. Dobbins is looking forward to reports after the first semester and the first year. Next fall, new Belvidere juniors will enroll in the program.

It’s possible it could expand, too, because other area superintendents have expressed interest, Nyhammer said.

Cathy Bayer can be reached at cbayer@rrstar.com or (815) 987-1395. Betsy López Fritscher can be reached at bfritsch@rrstar.com or (815) 987-1377.

Some of the students involved

Gabrielle Bays
Gabrielle Bays felt like high school was holding her back. She didn’t study much because making good grades was easy, but a math teacher at Belvidere North inspired her to look into the new Running Start program. She believes socializing is best done outside school, and she is serious about her studies.

“I feel like I fit in here,” Gabrielle said. “At the high school I felt like I was kind of being held back at times. We didn’t necessarily view ourselves as being smart, we viewed ourselves as being normal kids, but we didn’t study as much because it came naturally to us. When the offer came, we thought, ‘Wow we’re going to be challenged.’ We want to do this because that’s what we wanted ever since high school started.”

She’s considering a career as a child advocate lawyer and is thinking she’ll attend Southern Illinois or Northern Illinois University.

“I feel like I’m growing up fast, but it’s a good thing,” she said. “I’ll be ahead, and I’ll be able to get my career going earlier than normal. It’s a good advantage they’re giving us.”

Samantha Norgard
Last year Samantha Norgard was a cheerleader and a sophomore at Belvidere North High School. Fast-forward to just a year later, and cheerleading is in the past and she’s a freshman in college, still acclimating herself to a relaxed college environment.

“It’s very casual,” the 16-year-old said. “I saw somebody just walk out of class. You’d get yelled at for that (in high school).”

The nontraditional education plan with Running Start appealed to her. She signed up and never looked back.

“I was like, yes, two years, out of the way,” she said. “It seems kind of unreal because we’re jumping so far ahead.”

After Rock Valley — and high school — she’s considering culinary school because she likes to bake, but she also wants to teach, she said.

But before that happens, she has the ideal dual-graduation present in mind.

“I keep telling my dad the 2010 Camaro is the perfect gift,” she said. “It’s two graduations in one.”

Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis was ready to bypass high school and jump into college after just a short time at Belvidere North.

“Some people really, really like high school,” he said, but it’s just not for him.

He had to attend freshman and sophomore years, but now he’s bypassing his final two years with Running Start, a dual credit partnership with the Belvidere School District and Rock Valley College.

He’ll attend junior and senior years of high school at Rock Valley, and earn his associate degree and high school diploma together.

Michael likes the free time between classes, and not having the same classes every day.

He plans to transfer to a four-year college and probably study biology.

Garth Beyer
When people ask Garth Beyer about his schooling, he likes to tell them he’s a junior and a freshman.

He’s technically right. The outgoing 16-year-old is a junior at Belvidere North High School and is also two weeks into his freshman year at Rock Valley College through Running Start.

“It was pretty much all at once,” he said. “You’re going to get your license, going to be going out more, get a job soon, going to college — all before 18.”

The program immediately appealed to him, and he listened to his gut: “Yeah, let’s do this.”

His dream job — for now, at least — is to be a history teacher and an entrepreneur.

He’s the first in his family to attend college, and he’s going about the process in an unconventional way with the family’s support.

“We’re in this program for a reason,” Garth said. “Our parents trust us.

How it works

Qualifications: Belvidere students must have a 3.0 grade-point average and pass the Rock Valley College placement test. More than 100 students applied last spring, and 54 passed. Seven students chose not to attend the college.

Objective: Students are enrolled simultaneously at Rock Valley and Belvidere School District 100. They attend classes at RVC and will graduate in two years with a high school diploma and an associate degree.

Who pays: The Belvidere district is paying RVC $5,507 a student out of its general operating budget. The students have to pay for their books.

Who might succeed: Students who want the workload and can handle the extra pressure of college at 16.

The future: Other area school districts are expressing interest.