By now, college students at Brenau University are familiar with seeing 16-year-olds in some of their classes.
But the sight of high school-age students will likely be more common this year as Brenau Academy begins its transition to an "early college" in which teens could earn two years worth of college credit by the time they receive their high school diploma.
"This is one advantage we've always offered to students who take high school classes here, but now it's becoming more formalized," Lenna Applebee, assistant dean at Brenau Academy, said.
Brenau Academy was founded in 1928 as an adjunct and possible "feeder school" to the higher education institution. Starting this August, academy students will no longer take high school-level courses but will instead have access to the full range of courses offered to students at
the Brenau Women's College, an undergraduate division at the university.
"In the past, we've had this very traditional high school program, where students have taken classes with high school teachers," Applebee said. "What we're doing now is kicking it up a notch. They will complete the credits they need for a high school diploma through college classes."
The new focus stems from a recommendation following several months of study by a committee of top-level Brenau academic and administration officials. The university Board of Trustees approved the recommendation at the end of 2010.
Following a national trend, enrollments at the female-only prep school have declined precipitously in recent years to fewer than 40 students, several of whom receive significant financial assistance. It would take more than 80 students to sustain full academy programs.
"The high school enrollments have continued to decline and it's not an economically viable model for us anymore," university spokesman David Morrison said.
Moving to an "early college" model won't necessarily be new to the campus, however. The program has been available to high school students for two years on a formal basis, and informally for several years.
"By the proximity of the prep school to the campus, girls have always had advantages," Morrison said. "If they had an elective spot on their academic schedule they could go in and take a college course and get high school credit for it. They've always nibbled around college stuff at the prep school."
Many of the academy students have also had exposure to a college living as they reside in campus dorms with fellow high school students. Junior Kelsey Biernath, originally from Atlanta, has lived in the dormitory since 14 and is currently enrolled in college-level classes.
"We have a leg up on anyone going to college because we've already had this experience. It's one less thing we have to get used to," she said.
Her classmate, Sierra Greene of Gainesville, is a commuter student, which is an option for students living in surrounding areas. By the end of her high school career, Greene is expecting to earn her associate's degree.
"On the first day, everyone is really nervous because no one has had this kind of experience before. But through the year you grow and become more self-motivated," Greene said.
High school students at the academy have performed well with college-level academics, Morrison said. For one, a 17-year-old 2010 graduate surpassed junior- and senior-level students in biology and won a top English award in last year's spring awards convocation for Women's College students.
Applebee said the program is likely to draw high achieving students with an interest in accelerated classes.
But early college high schools aren't for everyone. Unlike comprehensive high schools, activities such as prom are unavailable and the social atmosphere is different.
"It's for those who are motivated by a different kind of experience and who aren't necessarily interested in the typical high school trappings. They would rather focus on the academic side and get through," Applebee said.
Applebee adds that many students thrive under the early college approach.
Although high school courses such as Advanced Placement are a great opportunity, enrolling in an actual college course could prove more beneficial, she said.
"I've worked in college admissions and the college planning side and it's fantastic to say to college admissions staff members, I know my student can perform academically in the institution, because she has already. She's making A's and B's in college classes," Applebee said.
Administration will spend the next year fine-tuning the early college concept at Brenau University and resolving issues such as financial aid and eligibility and course requirements.
Applebee hopes the transition will draw more attention to the academy program.
"I think in many ways we're a hidden jewel," Applebee said. "I hope this transition will let people know we are here and there is a tremendous opportunity for young women who are achieving at the highest levels in their own backyard."