Academy combines high school, college for Eudora student

Bria Carder, a senior from Eudora High School enrolled in the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science at Fort Hays State University.

Here are the high school seniors who are members of the 2011 class for the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science at Fort Hays State University. Bria Carder, a senior from Eudora High School, is in the second row, second from left.

Bria Carder can still go to prom, still hang out with friends at Cardinals football games and still look forward to sitting for her senior pictures.

Even while living and attending classes 245 miles away.

Carder, a senior at Eudora High School, is in her second year as a student in the Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science, an accelerated program for high school students to complete high school while attending Fort Hays State University.

The program, established by the Kansas Legislature, aims to give high-achieving students an outlet for taking challenging classes, conducting graduate-level research and accumulating at least two years’ worth of college credit — benefits designed to help stem a “brain drain” of promising high schoolers leaving Kansas while boosting prospects for the state’s economic and social future.

For Carder, the academy program simply gives her an opportunity to branch out, grow up and look ahead, essentially starting college while still completing high school.

“It’s basically just for students who aren’t challenged enough by high school or students who have a particular interest or gifts in areas of science and mathematics,” said Carder, who acknowledged having previously sought challenges in Eudora outside the classroom, mostly through leadership in student organizations and playing sports. “With my career goals, this was the best choice for me.”

‘Light-years ahead’

Rather than boosting her GPA even further above 4.0 in Eudora, the prospective pediatric neurologist has opted for amassing dual credits at Fort Hays. She is among 46 Kansans receiving state-financed tuition, books, fees and research-related expenses on campus, with the academy paying its bills using base state aid per pupil redirected from home school districts plus another $500,000 or so allocated by the Kansas Legislature.

The public investment leaves students to pay room and board — they all reside in Custer Hall, upstairs from the university’s police department and the academy’s administrative offices — as the high schoolers live and study and dream as full-fledged college students.

“We tell the kids when they come to us: ‘The sky’s the limit. You can advance as far as you can advance,'” said Ron Keller, the academy’s director. “They can move light-years ahead.”

Keller proudly notes that a student from St. John High School left the academy last year with three patents pending related to an artificial tree for carbon sequestration. Another student from Sabetha High School is working on extruded grain products for shipment to Third World countries, including some items in containers that not only rehydrate the food upon arrival but also biodegrade once emptied.

“If people would sit around and listen to these kids and what they want to do in the future, you’d realize what a fantastic opportunity this is for some of our higher-achieving kids who want to go way beyond what they may be able to do in their current situations,” Keller said. “We’re going to see great things from these kids. They want to make a difference, and they want to get out there and do things that are positive things for people within the state and the state itself.

“These are kids that are going to make a difference.”

Heavy course load

Carder doesn’t shy away from such expectations — she intends to earn medical and Spanish degrees, then conduct mission work in South America — and is pushing herself to meet them.

Her 19-hour schedule for this semester includes Calculus 2, calculus-based physics, biology and two labs. She also is taking Biochemical Research, a 600-level course in which she’s researching two high-tech topics: copper toxicity and chemical causes of muscular sclerosis in humans.

She’ll “graduate” from the academy program with at least 68 hours of college study to her credit. That ceremony will be at Fort Hays on May 5, two weeks before she and her Eudora High classmates will be scheduled to pick up their diplomas back home.

The diploma isn’t something she’s taking for granted, either.

“That’s been one of my recent struggles, or problems,” Carder conceded, with only a hint of a chuckle. “I’m supposed to take a technical education course — Home Ec. or something — to finish off my high school requirements. But I’m like, ‘Can’t I just use one of my four extra science classes for that?'”

Academy leaders, district officials, school board members and others likely will find a way to make sure Carder graduates on time, with all the rights and responsibilities her diploma will diploma confer.

Growing the program

Meanwhile, another 150 or so students statewide and elsewhere — the academy includes a few international students who cover all of their own tuition and expenses — will be busy reviewing academy requirements and mulling whether to apply by the Feb. 1 deadline to enter the 2012-13 class.

“Obviously, the program can be very beneficial for the right students,” said Paul Walrod, a counselor at Eudora High.

And academy officials are busy making their case to secure more financing from the Kansas Legislature. Officials want to accept more students, and that would mean closing a widening gap between declines in per-pupil funding and increases in tuition costs.

“We’re looking to grow the program,” said Ann Noble, the academy’s financial director.

Carder, of course, will be done by the time the next class enrolls. By then she plans to be studying pre-med and Spanish at a state school, or possibly Stanford University, and getting on with a life she’s already enjoying a head start on.

She would encourage others to follow the path that she, fellow Kansans and a handful of international students, who pay all of their own tuition and expenses, have chosen.

“It’s an experience that makes you grow up a lot,” said Carder, who has discovered the convenience of Easy Mac, the microwavable macaroni and cheese she eats most every night. “You have a lot of newfound responsibility on your shoulders. …

“The program’s not for everyone, but if you have the right motivations … it’s great.”