Alexis Turner and Eli Box have a lot in common.
They are both focused and goal-oriented. Both are thoughtful, articulate teens with definite plans what they want to do with their lives.
They are both high school seniors at Golden Triangle Early College High School, two of the 54 students who will become the school’s first graduating class next spring.
As soon as Monday, hundreds of students in the Golden Triangle will begin their senior years of high school, but for the seniors at GTECHS, their final year in high school is not only a personal milestone, it is a validation of an experiment in education that began three years ago.
“We were kind of like the guinea pigs,” Turner said, reflecting on her three years at the school.
GTECHS, a dual-enrollment high school/community college program located on the Mayhew campus of East Mississippi Community College, became the first of its kind in Mississippi when Turner and Box joined 59 other students as the first freshman class there in fall 2015. Although part of the Lowndes County School District, GTECHS students come from Clay, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties, as well.
The school added a class each year, and this year, for the first time, GTECHS has a full complement of 225 students in grades 9-12.
Since GTECHS opened, five other early college high schools have started in Mississippi.
Different goals, backgrounds come together
For all the traits Turner and Box share now, the two could not have been much different when they first became classmates three years ago.
Turner is black. Box is white. Turner went to middle school in New Hope, Box in Caledonia.
Turner felt invisible at her old school. Box got plenty of attention, mostly for the wrong reasons.
Turner had to convince her dad to let her apply at GTECHS, while Box had to be persuaded by his mom to apply.
That students from different backgrounds, interests, talents and personalities could thrive at a school that does not include so many of the things that students bond around in traditional high schools — sports, band, clubs and campus organizations — is an affirmation of what GTECHS Principal Jill Savely calls “a different way of doing high school.”
Savely said that half of the seniors will have earned associate’s degrees — either academic or career tech — by the time they graduate. The others will be well on their way toward that goal. In both cases, students will jump-start their post-high school education without any cost to their families.
Savely, who left her job at principal at Columbus High School for the same position at GTECHS three years ago, said the biggest take-away has been the growth of the students.
“I think the overarching thing I can say is that kids are capable of so much more than we give them credit for sometimes,” she said. “If you open the door for them just a crack, they’ll go barging through it. In a traditional school, sometimes you feel like you are constantly pushing kids toward goals. Here, we have to tell them to hit the brakes a little bit.”
Turner said she was intrigued by the GTECHS concept from the start.
“I was in algebra class one day and a lot of my friends asked me, ‘Are you going to that new school?'” she said. “I hadn’t heard anything about it because I wasn’t there the day before when they had passed out the fliers. One of the girls handed me the flier and I started reading about how you could earn your associate’s degree at the same time and I thought, ‘Maybe this will challenge my brain a little more. I’m already bored just sitting here in middle school. Let me try something new.”’
Turner went home, printed out the application, filled it out.
“When mom came through the door, I said, ‘Here. Sign this.'”
Turner said her mom, Tamela Turner, was supportive. Her dad, Alex Tuner, was less sure.
“He thought I’d miss out on the whole high school experience,” Alexis said. “But I just knew this was something I wanted to do.”
Box was far less enthusiastic about the idea.
“I really didn’t see anything in it at the time,” Box said. “I was just coming out of the eighth grade, and at that point, you’re kind of confused, maybe even a little stupid. I didn’t think it would lead anywhere and I was pretty sure it would be hard.
“… Once I finally looked past my own nose, and I realized how much money we would be saving, how much we would be able to put toward my education, I was like ‘all right,'” he added.
New school, new challenges
Both Turner and Box said they expected to be challenged in a way they had never been. Trying to compress four years of high school and two years of community college into four years was not always easy.
“Sometimes, I think it was almost too challenging,” Turner said. “Tenth grade was tough. I was about to pull my hair out. I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this. Let me just go back to New Hope.’ Then I would talk to my teacher or Ms. Savely and they encouraged me to keep going.”
Box said he learned to push through the tough times and never seriously regretted his decision.
“Even if you are struggling in a class or having trouble with a teacher, in the grand scheme of things, that’s going to happen anywhere you go,” he said. “I had a couple of teachers — they weren’t mean or anything — but they were stricter than others. You have to take it as a learning experience. You have to work through it.”
For Turner and Box, the struggles were well worth it. Both believe the environment at GTECHS made the focus more intently on their goals. The exposure to college, and the responsibility of choosing their own academic paths while in high school, helped them mature.
“It made me grow up faster and start thinking about what it was that I wanted to do with my life,” said Turner, who will graduate with an associate’s degree and plans to study secondary education at Mississippi State next fall.
Box, meanwhile, has already completed his coursework for an academic associate’s degree — becoming the first Mississippi student to earn that degree as a high school student.
With his high school course work also behind him, Box is now taking classes for his career tech degree in electronic and automation control. After that, he plans to enroll at Mississippi University for Women where he’ll pursue a degree in business administration.
More than anything else, Box said, GTECHS gave him focus.
“When I was in eighth grade, I was a trouble-maker,” he said. “I didn’t start fights, but I’d bicker with people and I didn’t get along with a lot of people. So coming here, I don’t think I sacrificed anything that was positive. I purged myself from a lot of the negativity in my life. Here, I think — or I like to think — that people look at me and say, ‘This kid has his head on right.’ No one would have said that about me when I was in eighth grade.”
Likewise, Turner, the once-neglected middle-schooler, bonded with her classmates and has enjoyed the social aspects of her high school.
“Here, everyone is noticed,” Turner said. “We are all family here. If you don’t have friends, come here. We’ll treat you like family.”
Developing the school’s identity
Savely said the seniors have helped define the school to the broader community, particularly among potential students.
“When we started, there were a lot of misconceptions about who we were. Some people thought we were another (Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science),” she said. “Other people thought we were an alternative school.”
Last year, when this year’s seniors took the ACT required of all Mississippi public school juniors, her class posted an average score of 19.3. The state average, Savely said, is 18.
She said the support GTECHS has received from EMCC has been instrumental in the school’s success.
“We really couldn’t do this without them,” she said. “From the minute we set foot on campus, they’ve been there to help in any way we ask them. They’ve been phenomenal.”
A special class
In the coming years, GTECHS graduations will no longer be the novelty this class represents.
For that reason, this year’s seniors will always occupy a special place in Savely’s heart.
“This class is always going to be different from any of the ones that follow,” Savely said. “We were all brand new together in this. We’ve grown and learned. We’ve laughed and cried, tried things that worked and tried things that didn’t. And just when you think the kids have done everything they can do, they surprise you and do more.
“It’s been the most rewarding, fun, exciting, challenging thing I’ve ever got to do,” she added.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.