By the time he graduates from Spaulding High School in June, P.J. Perkins will already have interviewed with a local aerospace manufacturing company. And the ink will barely be dry on his diploma when he collects a college certificate a few days later.
Perkins and 10 others are part of a pilot program that Republican Gov. Chris Sununu wants to expand statewide. They spend their mornings at the high school before heading across the street to Great Bay Community College, where they are earning certificates in advanced composites manufacturing at no cost to their families. In early June, they will have job interviews with Safran Aerospace Composites, a subsidiary of a company that makes aircraft engines and satellite propulsion systems.
"It's a great opportunity to go above and beyond and kind of prove some people wrong who didn't believe in me, and just show them I can actually do something," Perkins said Friday, the day after the program was mentioned in Sununu's inaugural address and said it would serve as a model for a statewide program called the "New Hampshire Career Academy."
"It has the possibility, across the state, of achieving what so far has eluded so many — a model that does not cost the taxpayers or the education system any additional money but makes a free college degree available to our New Hampshire students," Sununu said.
According to the Department of Education, the goal is to create a new charter school operated by the community college system that would receive the same $7,300 in state funding per pupil that other charter schools receive. Participating seniors would receive high school diplomas, certificates in specific fields, about 30 college credits and a guaranteed job interview with partner businesses. Those who stay on for another year could earn associate degrees.
The Rochester program, which started last fall, does not include the additional year of programming for those pursuing associate degrees. It's also privately funded, which is a testament to the community's generosity but also raises concerns about sustainability, said Dean Graziano, the school district's extended learning opportunity coordinator.
Graziano, who spearheaded the project, said it fits the state's goals of increasing the number of people with postsecondary education certificates or degrees, keeping more graduating students in the state and providing skilled workers to industries struggling to fill jobs. And it helps students, some of whom are the first in their families to take college courses, he said.
"I wanted an alternative to what our students expected," he said. "I wanted to have every hurdle removed and see how they fly. And they've done that."
With one semester behind them, participants are adjusting well to the rigors of college coursework and culture, he said.
"The coolest thing about this is when those students walk in here, they're not Spaulding High School students they're Great Bay students," he said. "That was a culture shock to them, and yet you can't imagine the confidence, the self-esteem boost."
Dylan DiBernardo, 17, has nothing but praise for the program, even though the work has been more difficult than he expected.
"I feel like being a college student at the same time as high school has actually made me more mature, and gotten me to start acting more mature," he said. "It just feels like I have a bigger responsibility than I do just at the high school."
Some form of tuition-free college is now in place in more than a dozen states, according to the Campaign for Free College Tuition. But Graziano said he wasn't aware of other states taking the same approach as New Hampshire.
State Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester, called the Career Academy one of the most significant proposals offered by the governor.
"Anything that can hold the cost of education down and give kids an opportunity makes a great deal of sense," he said. "Not every kid is going to go on to a four-year institution, but this certificate gives them a pathway to work, and the fact that they can go on to get an associate degree is another enhancement."
—Holly Ramer, Associated Press