By REBECCA WEBSTER
Recorder News Staff
JOHNSTOWN -- Nestled in to a small classroom attached to the Fulton-Montgomery Community College library, 11 Amsterdam High School students were beginning their normal Friday.
Each day, these high school juniors have the opportunity to spend half of their day at the F-MCC campus, learning the intricacies of taking college courses and getting a feel for being on campus.
And in 2014, when they graduate from high school, they will be some of the only students leaving AHS with more than 30 college credits under their belt.
This is the Smart Scholar program at AHS, an early college high school program started in the district just about two years ago.
Al Mattice, an AHS English teacher who serves as the program teacher coordinator, said it provides students with not only the opportunity to obtain college credit for free, but the opportunity to grow.
"We ask them to give us as much as they've got to give," he said. "(They have) to be committed to doing the work and to seeking the help, and to really giving the effort."
To be eligible for the program, students must either qualify for the free and reduced lunch program or must be the first generation in their families to attend college.
The teachers and guidance counselors suggest names of ninth graders to take part in the program beginning in the second half of their freshman year.
"We have a parent meeting where we really introduce teachers that participate in the program, but also what the goals of the program are and how rigorous the program is going to be," Mattice said. "Then you have to make sure that they (the students) want the program and you have to really encourage them and show them what they can get out of the program."
The first cohort of students involved in Smart Scholars are now in their junior year at the high school.
What started as a class of 23 students, is now down to 15, shrinking for a myriad of reasons.
One of the juniors remaining, Carlos Alberto Mercado, Jr., said the initial process when he was a freshman was a bit of a shock, knowing that as the years progressed he would be spending less and less time with his cohorts at the high school.
"It was mind-blowing at first, but you know, once I got on track with it, it was fun, meeting people, and being in new places," he said. "The overall experience had been good so far."
Mattice said that as the years move on, the students spend more and more time at the F-MCC campus, easing their way in to being a college student.
Freshmen stay entirely at the high school, but participate in field trips to colleges, guest speakers, and team building exercises to feel comfortable with their Smart Scholars cohort, and that first summer they participate in a freshmen experience course.
As they move into their sophomore year, they continue participating in aspects of from their freshmen year, but begin to work more and more with their Smart Scholar peers.
"We're happy to have an advisory course for the 10th graders as they are only in the same social studies and English classes," Mattice said. "It's in place of a study hall and focuses on teamwork, communication, cooperation, the way you present yourself."
The following summer again provides an experience on the college campus.
And as the students move in to their junior and senior years at AHS, they spend half of their school day at the college earning college credits and half at the high school taking their math, science, and physical education requirements, Mattice said.
Their half-day at the college is spent in a TRIO classroom attached to the library, where this year Mattice teaches English and AHS teacher Douglas Kaufman teaches social studies to the students.
Four students this year are even taking a college English course in place of the high school class for a full three college credits.
Marilyn Rodriguez, a junior Smart Scholar, said what she enjoys most is getting to be, "ahead of the pack."
"We do things that not all other 11th graders can do. We take college classes," she said. "By the time we're done with this, we're already going to have a year off our back for college."
"What I love about it is I put my education forward."
Many of the juniors agreed.
Gabrielle Mitchell, another junior, said she's just happy to know that her first few months of college won't be as tough of a transition.
"We won't have that awkward first couple of months where you're trying to learn how to take college classes, what college expects from you, and just what college is like," she said.
But with those advantages do come some challenges because, as Mattice said, the program is rigorous.
"Even if you fall at times, we're going to be there to pick you up, but you still have to want it," he said.
Junior William Toro said he now understands what it feels like to have a college workload.
"There's a lot of papers that need to be done, lots of reading that needs to be done and they really expect you to do it," he said. "It (the program) prepared me a lot."
And part of that preparation came from being involved in F-MCC and AHS's partnership program, Upward Bound.
As the Smart Scholar program began just a couple of years ago, it was aided by Upward Bound, which provided the summer experiences and tutors and mentors right within the high school.
All Smart Scholars were required to be part of that program.
Though the Upward Bound initiative lost its funding this year, the college found out quite recently that they received the Liberty Partnership Program grant, a similar program grant to Upward Bound.
"Even though they've (the F-MCC program) changed a little bit and morphed into a similar, but new type of entity, I hope to keep up that same relationship with them because I really think that they foster a lot of good habits and a strong work ethic," Mattice said.
It also helped to foster a sense of family in the students, he added.
With F-MCC aiding the development of this relatively new program at the high school, Smart Scholars has become a unique opportunity for the students involved, Mattice said.
"This program gives students a variety of personal tools: Organization, time management, confidence. I think that it also gives them outlets where they can seek help and it teaches them to be advocates for themselves," he said. "It gives them an arena to form a bond with their cohort. They know they're a special group and they can feel proud together as they move from one year to the next."
Mattice added that it gives them a chance to see themselves, and their peers, grow.
"Sometimes it's difficult to quantify what a program can do for its students, but I think that the intrinsic motivation that this program can foster means everything."