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Cleveland High School English teacher Anita Adkins, left, discusses aspects of the Tennessee Valley Early College program with Cleveland City Schools administrators and education board members. The program would allow participating high school student to earn Associate Degrees in mechatronics, business and other fields through a partnership with Cleveland State Community College.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Cleveland City Schools is the first to join Tennessee Valley Early College, a new early degree program through Cleveland State Community College.

The four-year program, which incorporates dual credit and dual enrollment courses, allows students to graduate high school and Cleveland State simultaneously.

In a recent meeting, the city school board voted 7-0 to commit $32,000 to build the program over a two-year period, which would launch with the high school freshman class of 2016-17.

"This is an opportunity for students, through their four years in high school, to either finish with an associate's degree or something close to that," said Cleveland State President Bill Seymour.

Tennessee Valley Early College's current pathways include mechatronics — a blend of mechanics and electronics often aimed at robotics applications — and business, as well as a general transfer for students planning to attend a four-year university. A pathway for health sciences is under development.

The program is part of an effort by Cleveland Schools to explore personalized learning options and will provide students with hands-on project-based learning, said Anita Adkins, a Cleveland High School English teacher who played a role in coordinating the program for the school system.

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Although any student may apply to participate in the early college program, educators said they expected it would particularly appeal to motivated middle-achieving students.

"We just have an expectation that program applicants will be hard-working middle students who know what they want," Adkins said.

School officials praised the program's availability to those students.

"This is really a great way to meet the needs of a portion of the student body that we feel that we haven't necessarily been meeting the needs of," said Cleveland High School principal Autumn O'Bryan, who cited initiatives that are already in place for low- and high-achieving students.

"I can't think of a better way to spend money than to offer greater opportunities for Cleveland students," said Dawn Robinson, chairwoman of the city school board.

Cleveland school officials said they anticipated a Tennessee Valley Early College enrollment of 35 students with each freshman class, amounting to approximately 140 total program participants between grades 9-12 by the time initial early college enrollees are seniors.

The annual estimated cost will be $197,400 once the program reaches that point, according to projections.

City school officials said they are researching ways to offset some of those costs and have expressed hope that proposed increases to Tennessee Promise funding would significantly reduce expenses.

The worst case scenario is that parents would split tuition costs with Cleveland Schools, paying approximately $2,700 for their child to earn a two-year degree by the time they graduate from high school, said Martin Ringstaff, director of Cleveland City Schools.

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

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