At Dolores high school, some highly-motivated students are in college before they even graduate.
And when students in the Concurrent Enrollment Program do graduate, they've already earned tuition-free college credits.
"It gives them a step up and helps them financially because the school pays for the tuition if they pass the class," said Dolores Schools Superintendent Scott Cooper. "We offer rigorous college-level courses taught by highly qualified teachers with masters degrees in their field."
The school partners with Southwest Colorado Community College in Cortez, and Pueblo Community College and Fort Lewis College in Durango.
Six teachers at Dolores are qualified as adjunct professors for Pueblo Community college in Durango.
The courses are taught at the high school during regular school hours. Or students in the program travel to SWCCC and FLC to take courses alongside college students.
In the last two years, 95 high school seniors and juniors fulfilled advanced courses in language arts, math, and science that are typically taken by college freshmen. They can earn up to 30 credits or more, equal to one year of college.
"I got my entire freshman year out of the way by earning 32 college credits," said Kaitlyn Howerton, who just graduated from Dolores. "It took good time management and hard work. I really had to push myself, but now I feel ready for a more focused education in my field."
While fulfilling her regular high school classes, she also commuted to Fort Lewis College and SWCCC to take courses in education, math and science. She is enrolled at Utah State University and plans a career in elementary education, with a specialty in deaf instruction.
"Working with the teachers and students at FLC who were dedicated to my career choice really solidified what I wanted to do," Howerton said.
Her best friend and co-valedictorian, Elana Bernholtz, also took advantage of the Concurrent Enrollment Program at Dolores High. She successfully completed college-level courses in biology, anatomy and pre-calculus.
Bernholtz was accepted into the Colorado School of Mines, and will work towards a degree in biomedical engineering.
"I'm nervous but excited about college. But I definitely feel taking that extra step better prepared me for the next level," she said. "The teachers for the college courses were really good and pushed us to challenge ourselves and learn the material."
Cooper explained that opportunity for students to take college-level courses replaces the Advanced Placement programs typical of high schools.
"We felt partnering with area colleges was a better fit for our students, parents, and teachers," he said. "Especially for financially-strapped parents, it's a money saver."
Dolores high specifically recruits teaches with master's degrees for the program. For college-level instruction, they are paid an additional $500 per class.
"The courses are more demanding and take more planning by teachers," Cooper said. "It gives advanced students the chance to study tougher topics, and our masters-degree teachers are really on their game."