Twins Kierra and Krystal Hayes, 17, do everything together.
They started kindergarten together and now they will graduate high school together. But before they receive their high school diploma, the two will graduate with an associate's degree from East Mississippi Community College.
Four years ago, Kierra and Krystal left West Point and started high school with 59 other freshmen in the Golden Triangle Early College High School `s inaugural class -- which on May 11 will become its first-ever graduating class.
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"We were all for it," Krystal said. "It was a chance to get a two-year degree. A lot of people have to pay out of pocket."
Kierra and Krystal announced to their classmates during a GTECHS college and career celebration on the campus that they will stay together once more.
"We are going to Alcorn State," the two exclaimed on stage April 26.
Kierra and Krystal accepted a full ride to Alcorn State, not as freshmen, but as junior transfers into the school's nursing program.
For Principal Jill Savely, stories like these are the mission behind GTECHS.
"The goal is for students to earn as many college credits as they can handle," Savely said. "For some, that's a full associate's degree. It's whatever they are ready to do and they're capable of."
GTECHS is a dual-enrollment high school/community college program located at the EMCC Mayhew campus. It became the first of its kind in Mississippi when the first freshman class enrolled in fall 2015. Although technically part of the Lowndes County School District, GTECHS students come from Clay, Noxubee and Oktibbeha counties, as well.
Students apply and 60 are chosen in a lottery for each incoming freshman class.
Kierra and Krystal said the decision was made, with their parents' approval, once they heard about the application.
"Our parents were all for it," Krystal said. "They were our biggest supporters and with us the whole way. They wanted to make sure we graduated with our associate's degrees because that's what we came for. When it got so hard, they were right there with us."
Moving from a traditional high school to GTECHS wasn't difficult for Kierra as long as she had her sister by her side.
"It wasn't much different than going to high school," Kierra said. "Most of the EMCC teachers didn't even know we were in high school. I just went in and did my work like anyone else. We weren't treated any different."
With the first class graduating May 11, Savely said what started as an experiment will end with success. The seniors' average ACT score was 19.8, higher than the state average of 17.8.
Of the 54 graduating seniors, 41 attained associate's degrees and three earned career technical certificates.
During Friday's ceremony students announced to their classmates where their paths continue, with 41 planning to attend a four-year university, seven to finish degrees at community colleges, and six entering the workforce or taking a gap year.
Savely said she hopes subsequent classes share similar successes.
"They have set the bar really high," Savely said of the seniors. "They have lots of college hours, they've earned a lot of associate's degree or career technical certificates. The younger students have seen these students struggle and overcome obstacles. They've been excellent role models."
A FAMILY FIRST
Brooklyn McCullough, 17, knew when she was leaving Caledonia for GTECHS, she would be leaving a family tradition along with it.
"My dad thought I wasn't going to have fun and it wasn't going to be his high school experience," McCullough said. "But I think he's seen me grow and how much I love it here and he's proud of me now. My mom took a lot pride in what I was doing."
McCullough will graduate with an associate's degree, becoming the first in her family to graduate college.
"My grandparents have been my biggest supporters," McCullough said. "Of course whenever they were growing up, going to school wasn't a huge deal. It's exciting to know that I am starting something."
In August she will transfer as a junior to Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Leaving Mississippi behind, graduating from EMCC with plans of one day entering the medical field, McCullough said, is all thanks the GTECHS application she submitted when she was in eighth grade.
"It has been amazing and I love everybody here," she said. "It makes me sad that we all have to leave each other. I love everybody here and it's been like a family. When we all came in, we were all babies. Not only our students but our faculty. It was a new experiment with us. I can't imagine it tuning out any different. We did the best we could in each moment and everybody made the best of it. Luckily, this has been a miracle factory for a lot of us. I'm very proud of myself."
A SPECIAL CLASS
The seniors did more than just excel in the classroom. They helped establish GTECHS' identity, including choosing the wildcats mascot and the school colors.
"We intentionally made them connect with GTECHS," counselor Lisa Elmore said. "They had to have ownership in this place. We didn't care what color they chose. We knew the ownership in the school was a big deal.
For the seniors, getting to this point wasn't always easy, Savely said, but the students learned to "struggle productively."
"These kids came to us straight form the eighth grade not having any idea what they were getting into," Savely said. "I always felt like they were taking a huge risk. They left everything that was comfortable to come to a place with no data to say what the experience was going to be.
"They didn't have the role models (in classes ahead of them)," she added. "They just did it anyway."