Four years ago, a group of eager freshmen about to start at Schenectady High School walked onto the Schenectady County Community College campus for the first time.
They were the first class to be offered free college courses throughout high school. If they worked hard, they were promised, they could earn 20 college credits — more than a semester — all for free.
It was dubbed the Smart Scholars program, and at first, high school teachers worried their students would wither in the rigor of a real college class.
But Friday, 58 of the 100 original students graduated. All had earned at least one college credit. Ten earned at least 20 credits, and one completed 31 credits — an entire year of college, said Valerie Smith, who was hired by SCCC as its Smart Scholars team leader.
Yogindra Cecil graduated with 10 college credits, though he thinks only one of the classes will be useful for his nursing major.
“Public speaking is required, so that knocked that off, plus it helps in the future if I decide to change my major,” he said.
He added that he loved the class. “It was amazing. I had a fear of crowds. Now I’m going to give a speech [at graduation] that I’m pretty excited about,” he said.
Justice Calo completed just 6 credits, but he carefully picked the courses: psychology and criminal justice. He plans to major in one of the two.
“I’m getting ahead,” he said. “They tell you, too, how much it would cost so you see how much you save.”
He was also pleased that Smart Scholars students were offered help with studying for tests and other college tasks.
“It was a big help,” he said.
One of the goals of the program was to get students ready for college, Smith said. The program recruited students who were statistically less likely to go to college.
“With the first course, we teach them time management,” she said. “We show them, ‘This is a college course, thus is how you operate.’ ”
Then the program encourages them to take general education classes, such as western civilization or speech.
“They’re going to have to take it anyway. We try to give them as many of those as we can to get them out of the way,” she said.
All were offered a six-week session of college classes every summer, and any student at the high school could also take college classes during the school year. Those classes were offered at the high school in exchange for high school-level work. Students took college biology and business math, among other courses, and those who passed got full college credit.
“It’s all free,” Smith said.
The program was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Schenectady Foundation and state grants. It has continued with each freshmen class.
“Each year just gets better and better, because we get better and better,” Smith said.