Last year on the Friday before school started, Santos Espino-Reyes got the call he had been waiting for – a slot had opened up at Charlotte Engineering Early College – and just like that, his time on the waiting list with 190 others was over.
It was a dream come true for Espino-Reyes, 14, who aspires to be a mechanical engineer and some day work inside Apple’s camera division.
“Engineering in the world is basically everything,” he said. “So when I heard that we would be learning the principles of engineering, I thought, OK, that’ll be a pretty good start for me.”
CEEC is not for teenagers looking for the typical high school experience. There are no lockers, no sports, no arts programs, no cafeteria, no gym and no school dances.
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And yet there’s a waiting list. Last year, 500 students applied through a lottery for the 100 freshmen spaces available, with just fewer than 200 deciding it was worth a shot to be added to the waiting list. Espino-Reyes was the last student plucked off that list for the inaugural year.
The school’s 2015-16 freshman class has a waiting list with 350 prospective students.
“The interest is there,” said Charlotte Engineering Early College Principal William Leach.
CEEC is the first early college-high school of its kind for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and a joint venture between the school district, UNC Charlotte, and the North Carolina New Schools Project.
The five-year program focuses on STEM courses, with particular emphasis on engineering and sustainability. The school’s building is nestled on the UNC Charlotte campus, close to its Energy Production & Infrastructure Center.
Students will take 24 high school credits in their first two years, then switch to college-based courses, if they’re ready, earning up to 60 college-level credits during their final three years, tuition-free.
“What it allows you to do is, hopefully, if you get the 60 hours you can go right into the College of Engineering,” said Leach. “Instead of taking high school courses they may not be interested in, we want them to focus on getting the college credit instead.”
Inside the hall of a half-dozen classrooms, students work in collaborative groups, rolling their desk chairs back and forth between computers while working on projects.
For many, the kind of work and environment feels like a natural fit.
“Last year we got 2 inches of tape, six straws, two cups and we had to build a bridge for 10 pennies without breaking the bridge,” said sophomore Alona Bates, 15, of University City, explaining one of her favorite lab assignments. “Ours was horrible.”
“When I was young, I used to break things, and then, to not get in trouble I would always have to find the solution to fix them again,” said Espino-Reyes.
Next year, both Bates and Espino-Reyes will most likely be taking college courses on campus with college students.
This year, they’ll take monthly field trips for lunch at campus dining facilities. They’ll be given GPS assignments to locate certain buildings. They’ll also take a few seminars to prepare them for the skills needed to succeed in college-level classes.
It’s a bit unnerving, said Espino-Reyes, but also exciting.
“It’s going to be based on us, how we make it, not based on our professors or teachers,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll keep my grades up.”
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer: email@example.com