Kai Smith was more excited than normal for school to resume Thursday, knowing her junior year is going to be drastically different than the past two years of high school.
Instead of riding the bus to her previous school, Smith drove herself to Chattanooga State Community College, where she is enrolled in the Hamilton County Department of Education's new Polytechnic Academy.
"This is so much better," Smith said. "It's just a really good opportunity."
Smith and about 30 other students from across the county are enrolled in the Polytechnic Academy's inaugural class, which allows students to earn a high school diploma along with college credit. Students chose between mechatronics, chemical engineering, construction or computer information technology programs, and after graduating high school, they will be able to earn an associate's degree from Chattanooga State within a year.
Smith said she wasn't crazy about the traditional high school setting and having to sit still all day, and she's glad school will now be more hands-on as she moves through the chemical engineering track. It's also great to be on a college campus and treated like an adult and working toward a career, she said.
On Thursday, Polytechnic students and their parents were given an orientation into the program and told some of what to expect.
Kristi Slack, a math instructor at the Polytechnic Academy, said high school students can typically earn between nine and 15 dual-enrollment college credits, but in this program they'll earn nine credits in just the first semester.
"I love this because it's sort of a half-step between high school and college," Slack said about the program. " When our students graduate the program, they'll be workforce ready."
The Polytechnic Academy, which is a partnership between Hamilton County Schools and Chattanooga State, is helping prepare students to take advantage of the well-paying jobs in the county that require a certificate or technical degree. In the future, the program is expected to expand to include more students.
The school system's Mechatronics Akademie at Volkswagen also expanded this year, adding another batch of 25 juniors to the program, which brings the number of students enrolled there to about 50.
Jimmy Biernik, a junior, said he's glad to be at the Polytechnic Academy because it's giving him the chance to learn how to use industrial lab equipment and prepare for a career in chemistry.
Biernik said he will miss some of his friends he went to school with at East Hamilton Middle/High, but he's glad students remain linked to their home schools, allowing them to participate in school programs, events and athletics.
Michael Norwood, who plans to go to medical school, said he was motivated to enroll in the program because it's giving him a jump-start on his career. After graduating high school, he wants to take advantage of Tennessee Promise and finish an associate's degree for free at Chattanooga State before going on to a four- year school.
"The money that I'm saving I can use for school later," he said. " This is a an awesome opportunity. And I think you should always take opportunities when they are presented."