CLAREMONT — A new public charter high school program will enable New Hampshire seniors to begin earning an associate degree at a local community college, including River Valley Community College in Claremont, while completing their requirements for a high school diploma.

In an Op-Ed on Friday, New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said the new program, called the New Hampshire Career Academy, is a “first-of-its-kind partnership” that offers students “a way to earn a high school diploma, an associate degree or certificate, and a job interview” at no costs to families or taxpayers.

The concept may not be entirely “new” as the commissioner claimed. For example, River Valley Community College already provides a near-similar program in Running Start at Stevens High School. Additionally, the Career Academy is a public charter school initiative, so the program may compete with school districts, as well as career-technology education (CTE), for funding resources.

But for community colleges, expanding opportunities to give students a faster entry into the workforce is always welcome.

“We are consistently looking for ways to partner with our area high schools to allow students to receive college credit,” Alfred Williams, president of River Valley Community College, told The Eagle Times. “This program, like all of our programs with area high schools, will allow families to reduce indebtedness for college and meet our goals of having graduates stay in New Hampshire.”

Like Running Start, the Career Academy is a “dual enrollment” program, where seniors simultaneously earn credits toward their high school diploma and an associate degree. The Career Academy is a two-year program that includes an additional “super-senior year” of school to finish with an associate degree and diploma.

“The State of New Hampshire would cover the students’ costs at the community college, and students would graduate a year early without a penny of tuition or college debt,” according to Edelblut.

Six New Hampshire community colleges, including River Valley Community College, are participating in the Career Academy. Each college will offer a different concentration of courses.

River Valley Community College, with campuses in Claremont, Lebanon and Keene, will provide study in its Allied Health Programs, which includes a total of eight professional paths: LPN, respiratory, occupational therapy assistant, physical therapy assistant, radiologic technology, medical laboratory technician and medical assistant.

Williams said that with a growing need for medical professionals, River Valley Community College is always supportive of initiatives that help students graduate as quickly as possible.

“We understand the high demand for our allied health graduates and are supportive of programs that will provide more graduates to meet the employment demands of our service area,” he said.

Enrolling in the Career Academy

Unlike Running Start, which River Valley Community College provides at the high school, Career Academy students take all their courses, including those for high school credits, on the college campus.

Additionally, students must first enroll into a participating public charter school to participate in the Career Academy. In the inaugural 2020-2021 school year, only one charter school — the North Country Charter Academy, in Littleton — is participating. The Department of Education says on its website that more schools are expected to join in subsequent years, but only 40 students statewide will be accepted into the Career Academy in the first school year.

Lisa Lavoe, principal of North Country Charter Academy, summarized the enrollment into the Career Academy as a “three step” process. First, the student gets enrolled in the charter school. Second, the charter school informs the community college whose coursework the student wishes to take. Third, the community college must accept the student into its program.

However, applying doesn’t guarantee that a student will meet the eligibility for acceptance, Lavoe said.

“We emphasize that the student can demonstrate readiness to us,” Lavoe explained. “These are college-level courses and aren’t being modified.”

Evaluations of applicants will include looking at student transcripts and speaking with the principal or guidance counselor at the sending school to ensure the student is ready to handle the coursework.

While the community college provides the courses needed for high school credit completion, Williams said these are the college’s own courses and not high-school targeted. In other words, a Senior would take one of River Valley Community College’s English courses if needing high school English credits.

Additionally, seniors will need to be at least 17 years old to enroll in the Career Academy at River Valley Community College, since the college requires students to be at least the age of 18 when beginning their clinical work, which would begin in the student’s second year.

Enrollment for next fall’s New Hampshire Career Academy classes is now open. Current high school juniors would contact Nate Greene, Administrator of the Bureau of Educational Opportunities at Nathaniel.Greene@doe.nh.gov or (603) 271-5252. Slots in this year’s inaugural class are limited, so interested students should get in touch as soon as possible.

Lavoe said that so far no students have enrolled in River Valley Community College’s program.

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