Seven local high school seniors soon will don caps and gowns for their graduation, but it won’t be while getting their high school diplomas.

The students, participants in Ivy Tech Community College’s growing dual credit agreement program, will be part of the college’s largest graduating class this month — two weeks before they receive their high school diplomas.

Seniors Shakira Burks, Nyesha Canady and Arhonai Bandy from 21st Century Charter School in Gary and Whiting High School seniors Jackson Ciercierski, Marcelo Lopez, Oscar Iniguez and Brett Gibbons are among about 40,000 high school students around the state who participate in the dual credit program.

“It gives us a jump-start on college,” said Burks, who plans to get a degree in environmental engineering.

Many of the program’s participants leave high school with college credit. For example, at 21st Century 30 to 40 students will graduate this spring with some college credit, said Kevin Teasley, the school’s co-founder.

However, the seven Northwest Indiana students graduating from Ivy Tech are among only a few who walk away from the program with an Ivy Tech degree.

Burks, Canady and Bandy have earned associate degrees in general studies. Ciercierski, Lopez, Iniguez and Gibbons have earned technical certificates in industrial technology. All seven have plans, and in some cases scholarships, to continue their educations.

Canady, who plans to pursue a degree in actuary science, said participating in the dual program makes attending college seem easier.

“I don’t feel like I’m going to go to college and the work is going to be too hard,” she said.

The students all say they gained firsthand knowledge in areas such as how to register and choose classes, and they know what to expect as far as a college workload.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun,” said Bandy, who plans to pursue a degree in social work.

While the students in the program must learn to balance their high school and college studies, participating in it enables them to take college-level courses in lieu of some high school courses, said Catisha Toney, academic coordinator at 21st Century. She said classes such as English 110 at Ivy Tech count as a full year of high school English, meaning students can skip the high school course.

The Whiting High students said their certificates will benefit them in several ways. Like the girls, they have a firmer grasp on what will be expected of them when they move on to college, they said.

“I found it challenging,” Gibbons, who plans to study aviation and become a pilot, said of the dual credit program. “(College) is a different mindset. The work is much different.”

Ciercierski, who plans to become a doctor, agreed, saying the program helped him adapt to a college environment.

“Most of the work, they expect us to do ourselves,” he said.

Obtaining the technical certificate also helped teach the boys some real-world skills.

“We know what it will be like in the workplace,” said Lopez, who plans to become an engineer.

Iniguez is planning to use his degree to help him obtain a degree in mechanical engineering.

Ivy Tech reported that 383 high schools and career centers around Indiana have a direct relationship with the college this year, up from 366 in the 2012-13 school year.

Through the dual credit program, Ivy Tech saved Indiana residents more than $20 million in college tuition last year, with $1.7 million of that in Northwest Indiana.

By Carrie Napoleon, Gary Post-Tribune