Members of the Martin County Early College Academy are shown with Martin County Board of Education member Roger Van Harless, Sheldon Clark High School Principal Dr. Lonnie Laney and Joshua Ball, director of college relations at Big Sandy Community and Technical College. Trent Vanover looks like a typical 16-year-old high school junior, but hes distinctively different.

Hes one of 10 Martin County students participating in the Early College Academy on the Mayo campus of Big Sandy Community and Technical College (BSCTC). Vanover is one of more than 80 students in Floyd, Johnson, Martin, Paintsville Independent and Pike County schools to participate in the innovative program that allows students to earn substantial college credit, including an associate degree, during their junior and senior year of high school.

Oh, and its free, which is music to the ears of Vanover who hopes to open his own business someday.

I am getting a great head start, said Vanover. This is challenging and its giving me a feel of a college environment without overwhelming me.

Vanover added that the academy has instilled pride among the school and community.

Im honored to be a part of the very first class of the Martin County Early College Academy, he said.

For Cassidy Gauze, 16, it was an easy decision. One of five children, Gauze knows the jump start at college will ease the financial burden on her and her parents.

To get a jump start like this debt free is amazing, said Gauze, who wants to become an elementary school teacher. Im glad to have this opportunity, and I want to make the best of it.

Dr. Devin Stephenson, president of BSCTC, offered his congratulatory wishes to the Martin County students.

They are indeed a part of something special, something remarkable, he said. Our commitment to our Early College Academies is to provide an outlet for some of our best and brightest to excel and get a jump start on their road to higher education.