Small town high school helps kids achieve big dreams
Vienna students jumpstart their futures by earning associate degrees before high school graduation
VIENNA, Ill. (KFVS) - Thousands of Heartland graduates are walking the stage to get their high school diplomas or college degrees, but a dozen students from Vienna High School are marking both milestones within a week of each other.
On May 12, Vienna High School senior Cambell Douglas wore two tassels on his mortarboard as he shook hands to collect his associate degree from Shawnee Community College. Both tassels say, “Class of ‘23,” but one was maroon and white, the other – orange and blue.
“I’m graduating with seniors - people who were seniors when I was a sophomore,” said Douglas. “It’s a really cool experience to be able to do that.”
Douglas is one of 12 Vienna High School students who graduated from community college before receiving their high school diploma.
The students took full advantage of the school’s Career-Connected Early College Program, taking both dual credit and college level courses through Shawnee Community College and Southeastern Illinois College.
Now, with an associate degree from SCC, Douglas is so far ahead that when he steps foot on campus at Southern Illinois University in the fall – he will be able to fully focus on his agribusiness major.
“It’s pretty awesome in my opinion to get a two-year head start,” said Douglas.
“When you go in, you don’t have to take freshman English or that freshman math class anymore. You’ve skipped all that and I think that’s amazing,” said Vienna High School senior Elisabeth “Libby” Thomas.
Thomas also earned her associates from SCC, and said she has a very specific plan for her future.
“I want to go to Murray [State University] and I want to be a registered dietician specializing in diabetic patients,” said Thomas.
Thomas is among a handful of the SCC graduates, and Vienna soon-to-be graduates working toward a career in a field experiencing nationwide staffing shortages.
“There’s definitely a shortage, and healthcare is a field where you’re always going to be able to find work,” said Thomas.
Vienna High School Superintendent Joshua Stafford said the high school works with its students extensively to chart a course to careers in high-demand fields such as nursing, pharmacy or education.
“All of our juniors and seniors have assigned one-on-one career coaches that are on our staff to have those discussions about - ‘What will your future look like? What would you like to do?’ There are a ton of career options out there. Where are the high-demand careers that you can get into easily, high-wage, high-demand careers and there are a lot of those where we have a shortage of employees.”
Stafford said with student loan debt levels skyrocketing, thinking ahead in high school is increasingly important because time is money when it comes to college tuition.
“One of my colleagues says, ‘Unfortunately at times university can be a very expensive career exploration activity.’ And that’s not what it’s meant to be.”
A 2022 Federal Reserve Report on the economic well-being of U.S. Households shows 30 percent of all adults have incurred at least some student loan debt, and numbers from the National Student Loan Data System show the average student loan debt load is $37,338 per borrower. That’s a figure Stafford said can be drastically reduced by taking college-level classes in high school.
“I just hate to see people in a situation that they’re in their 30s and 40s still paying on student loan debt. It’s just unfortunate,” said Stafford. “Early programs address a lot of that because you’re getting that jumpstart. You’re getting that leg up to cancel out a lot of that student debt because you don’t have a need for it.”
“Instead of going for six years and paying $15,000 on tuition every year I will only pay $5,000 with my scholarship, and I’ll be going three and a half years instead of the full six years.”
Getting a jump on tuition was especially important for Vienna senior and SCC graduate Kali Browning.
“I really wanted to spend as little money on undergrad school because of law school,” said Browning. “A $500 book at university might be $1,000 in law school. It’s why I’ve done this program so I could spend less money now than in the future.”
Vienna High School has been building its early college program for the last decade, and Stafford said they intend to continue to expand course offerings in the future. Stafford said while not all students have earned an associate degree, 90 percent of students in the class of 2023 are graduating with at least a few college credits on their transcript.
“Our job as a K-12 is to equip our students in such a way that they’re able to go into great careers, raise families, and be productive citizens. That’s what the taxpayers have entrusted us to do.”
“It is just so crazy because we’re such a small town and then we have these big opportunities,” said Browning.
Students from Vienna High School who obtained their associate degree include seniors Kali Erin Browning (SCC), Sydney Elyse Corzine (SCC), Cambell Philip Douglas (SCC), Sarah Beth Flick (SCC), William Kaden Glisson (SCC), Dylan Conner Johnson (SCC), Izabella Grace Langston (SCC), Jillian Renee Stevens (SCC), Elisabeth June Thomas (SCC), Grace Ann VanAusdoll (SCC), Natalie MaRay Zoeckler (SCC), and Macie Braelyn Dalton (Southeastern Illinois College).
The students will receive their high school diplomas on Friday, May 19 at the Vienna High School commencement ceremony.
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