More than 1,200 students graduated from Roane State Community College this semester, but one group of students is reaching this milestone well before their peers.

42 high school seniors from Roane and Anderson counties received their associate's degree today before they got a chance to walk across the stage at their high school graduation.

“I can’t believe I’m actually get my associate's before I even get my high school diploma,” graduate Alexis Wade said.

The thing is, these students began attending classes at Roane State full time when they were 16 years old. It's all thanks to an idea that catching on in parts of the country, which many are calling "Middle College."

The idea is simple: A community college partners with K-12 school districts to allow selected high school students to take nothing but college courses for their final two years that will satisfy both the college's and high school's course requirements for graduation. This allows high school students to focus entirely on college-level classes for their junior and senior years, and gives them a 2-year head start if they wish to continue their higher education.

Roane State selects sophomores from Roane, Anderson and Campbell County high schools who've been recommended for the program by their guidance counselors and administrative staff based on GPA and pre-ACT test scores.  The full qualifications can be found at this link.

Students accepted into the program attend class at Roane State during the mornings and can still participate in their high school activities and sports in the afternoon. 

“It was a huge confidence booster for me and I needed that," graduate Jessica Stroud said."I am incredibly thankful to Roane State for offering this program. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without it. It helped me find my passion.”

Roane State adopted the idea and began accepting high school students for its program back in 2014. Last year's first graduating class consisted of 20 high school students, but as you can see that number more than doubled for this year.

“It  says a lot about our local school system that we're looking out and trying to find the opportunities for kids that want to advance," Roane State Middle College program director David Lane said.

The success of the program has caught the eye of the Tennessee legislature. It's exploring options to make Middle College programs more accessible across the state.

The senate passed a bill which would give students participating in the program $600 each semester to pay for tuition, books and other costs. The bill is currently working its way through committee in the House, and Lane said he thinks it would go a long way to provide more students with the chance to take part in the program.

As far as tuition goes right now, Roane State said it's paid through a combination of out-of-pocket funds, private scholarships and a yearly $1,200 Tennessee dual enrollment grant funded by the state lottery. Roane State said no student has ever been unable to participate because of financial need.

As they wait for their high school graduation, high school students like Dakota Harris can take pride in getting a head start for their future.

“If this program has taught me nothing else, it’s that you can’t have goals that are big enough. You can always dream bigger and this program got me there, and I couldn’t be more thankful," Harris said.