Four years ago, Arlington ISD did something it had never done before.
It opened a brand new high school on the campus of Tarrant County College Southeast, where students could earn their high school diplomas and their two-year associate's degrees by the time they graduated.
The idea was to give students the opportunity to earn college credit and essentially receive two years of college at no cost to them.
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School principal Ben Bholan admits he didn't know how it was going to go when they began to pitch the concept to students and their families.
"You hoped the interest was there," Bholan said. "But some of the things they have to give up like competitive sports and competitive fine arts -- you wonder how much of an incentive that is. We were really impressed with the amount of applicants we had -- and that's continued to be pretty stable."
Leslie Ramirez and Sebastian Rodriguez were among the first applicants.
"For me, I've always been the kind of person who likes to take a couple steps forward before everybody else," Ramirez said. "It just seemed like such a different environment, a different opportunity than a lot of things I'd heard before."
"This is perfect," Rodriguez said. "This is a way I can help my family so they don't have to pay for two years of college. So this was a way for me to get ahead of the game and further my career."
During their first two years at Arlington Collegiate High School, students stayed at the high school all day, taking courses designed to prepare them for college level classes. During their junior and senior years, they took classes at both the high school and TCC.
"I thought I was going to fly by pretty easily," Jimmy Pham, another member of ACHS' inaugural class, said. "But it was a lot harder than I thought it would be."
Despite the rigors of finishing high school and earning an associate's degree at the same time, Pham and his classmates found a way to get it done.
On Thursday, they will become the first graduates of ACHS.
"I think it's exciting to be the guinea pigs -- to see what worked, what didn't work, and setting things up for the classes to come," Ramirez said.
Of the 102 graduates, 87 earned their associate's degrees. Much to their amusement, because of ceremony scheduling, those 87 received their college diplomas before getting their high school diplomas.
Most of them -- including Ramirez, Rodriguez and Pham -- plan to attend four-year universities in the fall to complete their bachelor's degrees. All three have aspirations to earn their master's degrees.
They credit ACHS for helping them realize their potential.
"The other day I was up here talking to one my counselors," Pham said. "We were just reminiscing about the past four years and I told her if I could do this all over again, I'd do it again -- but just a little less complaining, have a little more fun, and smile through it all."
"It's exciting and sad at the same time to see the first class graduate," Bholan said. "Watching them and how much they've grown -- they've had to go through a lot of the growing pains because we didn't know how things would work out until they went through it. They set the way and set the path."
Arlington ISD recently announced plans to open a second early college high school that will have a focus on workforce development.