Granite City High School graduate Chris Keehler got a running start on his college education by starting it while he was still in high school.
For the last two years, Chris, 18, of Pontoon Beach participated in Southwestern Illinois College's Running Start program, which allows qualified high school students to take college classes at the community college. This differs from traditional dual credit programs as students in Running Start only attend classes at SWIC, and their college courses also count for their high school requirements.
Chris graduated with both his high school diploma from Granite City High and his associate's degree from SWIC last month.
"Being able to get two years ahead of the rest of my classmates is just something that I thought I would never be able to do," he said. "I know it's something that's going to be invaluable to me. I loved every minute of it."
SWIC's Running Start Director Valerie Thaxton said students must join Running Start at the end of their sophomore year as it's a two-year program that starts junior year.
"It's a program for a select group of high school students," she said. "They have to meet all of the traditional college student requirements to participate."
To take part, she said students must have a 3.0 grade point average on 4.0 scale or a 4.0 on a 5.0 scale; one year of high school algebra; and one year of high school geometry.
Granite City High School was the first metro-east school to pilot the Running Start program.
Thaxton said it has proven successful with eight of the 10 students graduating on time from both high school and SWIC.
Keehler and seven other Running Start students actually graduated from SWIC first on May 15 and received their high school diploma from Granite City High on May 30.
"They are sitting at a pretty good point right now," said Cindy Gagich, director of secondary education at Granite City School District 9.
She said the District 9 school board was supportive of the program from the onset. "The board of education is pretty open to some out of the box thinking as far as programs," Gagich said. "We were excited to partner with SWIC to be the pilot program, which laid some really good groundwork for the other high schools to build upon."
SWIC's Running Start is modeled after a program in northern Illinois, Thaxton said. After researching the program, she brought it to the attention of SWIC President Georgia Costello.
"The Running Start program offers a truly unique opportunity to high school students in the area," Costello said in a released statement. "It was wonderful to watch our first class walk across the stage at this year's commencement, and we look forward to seeing even more students join the program as we expand to several other high schools in the district this year."
Students in Running Start are required to pay tuition and fees, which is $3,150 a year per public school student if the participating school district doesn't subsidize the cost for families. The cost does not include book rental fees.
Thaxton said the cost for home schooling families to participate in Running Start is more at $4,000 for the 2014-15 school year since SWIC has to handle the registration process, which is overseen by personnel at participating public high schools.
Students in Running Start are still permitted to participate in high school activities and can be active in clubs and organizations at SWIC as well. However, they aren't permitted to participate in intercollegiate sports.
"They really have the best of both worlds," Thaxton said.
Keehler continued to wrestle at Granite City High School while attending classes through the Running Start program at SWIC.
Keehler's first semester at SWIC-Sam Wolf Granite City campus was "kind of nerve-racking," he said. SWIC classes were more challenging than the classes Keehler was used to taking at his high school.
"The work is a lot harder. It's a lot different than high school. It was just shell shock when I first came here," he said. "I barely needed to study through high school. Whenever I came here I needed to put a lot more work into it. I really had to put forth the effort for the grades I did get. It was a lot of sleepless nights trying to get all my homework done."
SWIC associate professor Winnie Kenney of O'Fallon said in her experience, the Running Start high school students are ready and prepared for community college courses. Kenney teaches English composition and World Literature.
"While the Running Start students are able to work independently and in small groups to keep up with the demand and rigor of the courses, in whole class discussions, some are more reticent than others to participate," she said. "Those that do readily participate are able to interact well with other community college students, exchanging ideas about the course material. Those that do not, often look to their small, peer review group for such an exchange."
Keehler described Running Start as a "really neat experience. I got to know so many new people that I never would have met if it wasn't for me doing the program," he said.
The Running Start program, Keehler said, was a "blessing" for him and his family. "I thought we were going to struggle to get me through school, through college," he said.
The pilot program was at no cost to the Running Start students at Granite City High as the district covered the tuition. Now, Gagich said the district no longer covers the tuition, which must now be paid by families of students in Running Start.
In August, one senior and seven juniors from Granite City High will participate in the program. "It tends to fit a small niche of students," Gagich said.
Keehler will attend Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in the fall. He plans to major in criminal justice and psychology. He aspires to be a law enforcement officer.
Keehler's advice for future Running Start students is to work hard and never miss class. "I've seen a lot of students that just skip classes and that's something you can't do here," he said.
Last school year, three other area high schools joined Running Start -- Mascoutah, Marissa and New Athens.
Mascoutah High School Principal Sandy Jouglard said Mascoutah District 19 jumped at the chance to give high-achieving students "an opportunity to expand their knowledge base and their horizons."
District 19 subsidizes the program for its students. Last year, Jouglard said participating students and their families had to pay only $600 of the tuition. This coming year, the juniors in the program will pay $787.50 of the tuition. Participating public school districts still receive full state aid for every student in the program.
"The cost benefit is just phenomenal for those families," Jouglard said.
In all, 62 Mascoutah High students -- 28 seniors and 34 juniors -- will participate in Running Start this August.
"They get a jump-start on all of the other college students around the United States," Jouglard said. "They have the ability to start at a university ahead of two groups of kids."
She also said it's a great opportunity for students who are more independent workers and thinkers. "They can blossom and flourish in their own realm," she said.
New Athens High School senior Jacob Hundelt is in the Running Start program. He attends classes at SWIC-Belleville campus. This summer he's taking a macroeconomics class, and he starts German 102 next month. Running Start students can take up to eight credit hours during the summer at no additional cost.
"I love the fact that I can do it," he said of completing his high school diploma and associate's degree at the same time.
Jacob, 17, of New Athens said he was eager to get a "head start" on college. However, he said the courses at SWIC are difficult. "I really have to step up my study habits," he said.
He enjoys the class variety at SWIC and meeting new people. "I enjoy the freedom the most. I love the fact ... I can come in at 10 (a.m.) and be done at 2 (p.m.)," he said. "I really enjoy the campus atmosphere. It really creates a sense of freedom that I really like."
He also likes the laboratory experience during science classes at SWIC. "I transitioned from one lab a year," Jacob said at New Athens High, "to two labs a week here. It blew my mind. It's so much fun." He has taken two chemistry classes so far at SWIC.
Jacob continues to stay involved at his high school. He plays percussion in the school band and takes part in theater productions at New Athens High. He also participated in a play at SWIC in the fall.
After completing high school and his associate's degree, Jacob plans to attend a four-year university and major in computer engineering or computer science.
"I tell everyone who asks me at my high school that the program is great and I love it," he said. "I really think people would enjoy it if they put in the time and effort to do it, but it takes giving up certain things."
This coming school year students at three more metro-east high schools -- O'Fallon Township, Belleville East and Belleville West -- will take part in Running Start.
"For the right student, this is a wonderful opportunity," said Martha Weld, director of curriculum and instruction at O'Fallon District 203.
OTHS was invited to participate last school year, but Weld said the district opted to examine and research it for one year. "We wanted to really look at it and make sure it would be a true benefit to our students," she said.
Twenty OTHS students are slated to participate in Running Start this coming school year. Each school sets its own criteria for its Running Start students.
At District 203, Weld said students must have a 3.5 grade point average or higher, be in line to graduate on time and complete honors geometry.
Like District 203, Belleville School District 201 has 20 students participating in Running Start this school year -- 11 from Belleville East and 9 from Belleville West.
"It's a great program for students who are looking for a challenging opportunity and want to get a jump-start on college," said Andrea Gannon, director of curriculum and human resource at District 201. "It's a great opportunity. We are looking forward to partnering with SWIC."
To participate in Running Start, District 201 students must have a 3.0 cumulative grade point average and completed geometry.
Thaxton estimated Running Start will have more than 100 high school students participating this coming school year.
"Academically, it's a very challenging opportunity for them," she said.