James Nito and Anne'sea Simmons didn't just receive their high school diplomas Friday during Whale Branch Early College High School's graduation ceremony.
They also earned associate degrees from the Technical College of the Lowcountry.
They were part of the second graduating class at Whale Branch High, which opened in 2010 under a partnership with TCL that allows students to take college courses and potentially earn two-year associate degrees or college certificates at no cost to them.
Nito and Simmons were just the third and fourth students to graduate with both diplomas and TCL associate degrees -- 210 students have graduated from Whale Branch, which did not have a graduating class the year it opened. Last year, Ariana Davis and Tanasia Hamilton each graduated with a diploma and an associate degree.
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School and district officials expect more of the school's students to earn TCL degrees at future Whale Branch graduations.
"We anticipate 10 to 12 students will graduate next year with college degrees," principal Priscilla Drake said.
Assistant principal Chad Cox said the school didn't expect to have college-degree recipients until 2014, when the first class that started the school as freshmen graduates. He explained that students who didn't start at Whale Branch in their freshman year had limited time to earn college credit.
Nito and Simmons each took two to three college classes over three summers, in addition to their college-level classes during the regular school year, to earn their college degrees. That allowed them to graduate with about 70 college credit hours each. An associate degree requires completion of about 60 credit hours.
Nito, class valedictorian, will attend Winthrop University on two scholarships and plans to study computer programming. Simmons plans to attend Coastal Carolina University on multiple scholarships, with a goal of becoming a pharmacist. Simmons said she is the first in her family to go to college.
"Hallelujah!" said Simmons' mother, Maxine Daise, of her daughter's accomplishments. "It has been a blessing and goes to show that all of your hard work pays off."
Four other Whale Branch seniors were recognized Friday for earning certificates from TCL in general education and liberal arts. A certificate requires about 24 credit hours.
Of this year's 87 graduates, 20 completed college classes and earned more than 500 college credit hours.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.