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This article appeared in the Glenwood Spring’s Post Independent By Will Grandbois.

Photo of three high school students taking part in CMC's Career Academy

High school seniors Alberto Rodriguez, Lane Gwatney, and Brooke Esgar experiment with circuits in CMC’s career academy. Photo: Will Grandbois.

While most Garfield County School District Re-2 teens are sleeping in Friday mornings, two dozen of their fellows are getting a head start on life after high school.

Colorado Mountain College’s new Career Academy, a new approach to concurrent enrollment, is under way at the Rifle campus.

Designed to take advantage of Re-2’s four-day-a-week schedule, it pulls kids mostly from Rifle and Coal Ridge, but a few students at Grand Valley and Yampah Mountain high schools have managed to make it work as well.

So far it looks like a hit. Both the Early Childhood Education and the Solar Engineering tracks are completely full with a waiting list.

“We weren’t sure they’d take us up on coming to school on Friday,” admitted campus dean Rachel Pokrandt. “It says something that they’re willing to give us their day off.”

The program, Pokrandt says, gives a great new energy to a campus that’s usually pretty quiet on Fridays.

In one room, a group of high schoolers are fiddling with circuit sets, building a baseline for lessons on everything from robotics to solar installation.

“It’s pretty cool; it’s very hands-on,” said Brooke Esgar, a Coal Ridge High School senior who has considered pursuing a career as an electrician. “I figured I’d try it out and see if I liked it.”

If students are so inclined, the credits they earn can go toward a certificate or degree, or simply serve as experience for a job right out of high school.

“They start out small, and it builds into this incredible two-year program,” said instructor Chris Ellis.

Likewise, students in the ECE program will get hands-on practice in reading out loud and running circle time, as well as a major step toward a certificate or degree.

“I always liked being ahead in school,” said Kyra Schofield, a junior at Rifle High. “I want to be a teacher, and I thought this would be a good opportunity.”

Many of CMC’s programs are structured to provide a variety of short- and long-term goals, an approach that Pokrandt said often gets students interested who wouldn’t otherwise consider college.

Career Academy also takes the opportunity to address the rising need for remediation in incoming college students by including a math class with the engineering program and English with education. It’s also an excellent way for students to qualify for the Colorado Department of Education’s ASCENT program, which helps fund the first year of higher education for students graduating high school with at least 12 college credits.

Even if a high school diploma is as far as students go, Pokrandt sees it as a success.

“High schools used to have a lot more career and tech offerings, but those programs are expensive to run,” she said. “I think community college has a unique role in opening possibilities.”

Right now, the completely free program is funded entirely by the college’s successful concurrent education program, which has allowed a handful of students to graduate high school with an associate degree. In the long run, Pokrandt hopes to find another funding source so the program can bring in more students and add more courses, like a medical track.

“We have an obligation to our students to show them many different paths and let them try things,” she said. “Even if they never become educators or solar installers, hopefully it will inspire them to find their passion.”