When Moises Luna Tubbs heard he could earn an associate degree before his high school diploma, he was skeptical.
“I thought it was too good to be true,” he said.
Thanks to the Academy of the Advanced College Experience (ACE) at Phoebus High School, he and 25 other students will receive an associate degree, in either science or social science, from Thomas Nelson on May 12. That’s about a month before they will be awarded their high school diplomas.
“We did it,” said Moises, who was named the valedictorian at Phoebus and will be attending the University of Virginia. “Getting a college degree before graduating from high school seems beyond belief.”
However, that was the objective all along of the ACE program, which is one aspect of dual enrollment and part of the Academies of Hampton, which encompasses the four city schools. (The Academies of Hampton is being honored by the College in a separate ceremony.)
“The goal of ACE was to ensure students, regardless of if they are pursuing workforce development after high school, the military or college, that they had the opportunity to leave high school with an associate’s degree,” said Patricia Williams, who is with Phoebus High School and is the principal of ACE.
Several students plan on military careers while others are looking ahead to four-year institutions. This is the first graduating cohort, and as such, "we’re kind of the guinea pigs of the ACE Academy,” Moises said.
In reality, they were more like trailblazers. Their ideas and recommendations resulted in adjustments being made to the program, making it easier for future groups.
“The one thing I commend this group on is they have hung in there while we made some pivots,” Williams said. “These students helped make changes, teachers listened to the students.”
As a result, Williams said the next few graduating classes of ACE are on pace to have between 40-95 students.
The graduating students admit it wasn’t always easy, and there were some doubts along the way. But their shared experiences helped them form a bond, which they used to get through the tough times.
“It was a hard transition and the pace picked up from the first day,” Moises said, comparing the rigors of the program to having all AP classes.
LaToya Lawson, the college and career coach at Kecoughtan and Phoebus high schools, said: “They have leaned on each other and have helped each other grow. It’s something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Added Williams: “We are truly our own little family.”
ACE allows the students to begin taking dual enrollment classes their sophomore year. Most of them learned about the program their freshman year, and some had a clear idea of what areas they wanted to study, while others did not. Almost all said the idea of earning a degree while in high school and at no cost to them was too good to pass up.
“I was interested in earning a free college degree, so I was all in,” Moises said.
The College benefits too. According to Linda Hubbard, who along with Maggie Haley is a dual enrollment coordinator at Thomas Nelson, about 50 Hampton city school students were in dual enrollment classes in the 2015-16 academic year. In 2019-2020, there were about 330.
“This influences other students who might be thinking about (Thomas Nelson), even if it’s just for a few classes or two years and then on to a four-year school,” she said.
The spotlight this week will be on the students, but Williams said the College deserves a lot of praise also.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t say how much Thomas Nelson helps us,” she said. “Just going out of the way to support us. … Without Thomas Nelson, we would not be here today.”
Dr. Jeffery Smith, superintendent of Hampton City Schools since July 2015, said the cooperation shows what’s possible when chasing a common goal.
“It’s been outstanding, and a true testament to the strength of our partnership,” he said.
The graduation for the ACE students begins at 8:30 a.m. on May 12 at the Peninsula Workforce Development Center on Thomas Nelson’s Hampton campus. Thomas Nelson’s annual spring graduation ceremony will be virtual beginning at 10 a.m. on May 13.
For more information about the dual enrollment opportunities at Thomas Nelson, and to listen to a podcast with some of the students and staff of the ACE program, go to tncc.edu.
The ACE graduates: Gianna Bartholomeo, Treshawn Billups, Jonathan Blount, Anniyha Bren, Samuel Chenkin, Aniya Clinton, Shakir Dawan Jr., Jocelyn Eam, Kenneth Ferguson, Kamya Gray, Dequis Greene, Michael Johnson Jr., Shyzziah Lopez-Rodgers, Moises Luna Tubbs (valedictorian), Maya Miller, Cameron Moss, Jordyn Neidecker. Kaitlynn Nelson, Jaylen Oquendo, Danayjah Padilla, Christina Pfuhl, Micah Sharp, Destiny Summers, Janee’ Thomas, Tatiana Wheeler. Ayanna Wilson.