Now in its second year, Chapel Hill Collegiate, Chapel Hill High School's early college high school, in collaboration with Tyler Junior College, has 47 sophomores and a new class of 60 freshmen.
A new class will be added each year so, eventually, Chapel Hill Collegiate will have students from freshman through senior years, ultimately giving students an opportunity to earn an associate's degree from TJC by the time they graduate from high school.
Chapel Hill Collegiate Administrator Karen Bender, also a CHHS assistant principal, said recruitment for the program is held during the students' eighth-grade year, then an information session is held for parents, and students apply through a blind application process.
"The entire process is scored on a point system. There are no names attached. In our first year, we had 135 applications for the 53 spots," Bender said.
Per state requirements of early college high schools, the program is free for students. TJC has waived the tuition and fees and Chapel Hill ISD covers the cost of textbooks and other supplies.
Chapel Hill sophomore Lauren Lewis was part of the first class of freshmen to enter the program in fall 2014.
"I think we started a little terrified because we were high school freshmen taking college classes, and we weren't sure what to expect," Lewis said. "Since we were the first group, we didn't have anyone to look to as an example."
Chapel Hill Collegiate students spend part of their day in an area dedicated solely to the program. They take their academic classes together, likely core subjects, then mix with the rest of the high school population for lunch, electives and extra-curricular activities.
"I'm also a cheerleader," Lewis said, "so even though I'm in the early college program, I like that I'm still able to participate in extra-curriculars."
Some academic classes are college level, and students can receive high school and college credit simultaneously.
"I can honestly say it's been a great experience," Lewis said. "We've definitely learned a lot, we've become friends with people we probably wouldn't have known otherwise, and I think we're taking the idea of college a lot more seriously."
TJC President Mike Metke was part of a group of TJC and Chapel Hill ISD officials who recently visited the program.
"You're not just college students," Metke said to the Chapel Hill freshmen and sophomores gathered in a classroom, "You're Tyler Junior College students."
Metke then asked the students what college majors they were considering, and answers ranged from nursing and dentistry to architecture and occupational therapy.
"I want to be a physical therapist and work with people with special needs," Lewis said. "I want to help people."
The early college sophomores are also learning to be helpful to their freshman counterparts, thanks to the program's buddy system.
"Each sophomore is assigned a freshman student that they help throughout the year," Lewis said. "I have two freshman ‘little sisters.' That's what I call them."
Asked what bit of advice she first gave her freshman buddies, there was no hesitation.
"Turn. In. Your. Work," she said. "That was the most important thing I told them over the summer. That was something I learned kind of late. This is not like high school, where you get a few points off and that's it. This is college, and the stakes are higher.
"This program has definitely taught me that college works at a much higher level and the expectations are higher."