GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Gulfport High School graduation will be May 23, but 13 of those students waiting for their diploma already have a college degree.
All thanks to an educational pilot program that has put Gulfport High School in the record books, and put students in the fast lane for higher education.
It took a moment for Gulfport High School senior Catherine Gainey to adjust.
"I thought, like, I was taking some college courses until I sat down at graduation, and there was like a 70-year-old lady two-people-down from me, a guy going to State next to me," she said. "And I was like, 'Oh, my gosh. Like, I'm in an actual college graduation.'"
She and 12 other students at Gulfport High School are the first in the state to receive their associate's degrees from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before getting their high school diploma. They graduated last week.
Their journey began as juniors.
Catherine remembers the conversation with her counselor.
"Her opening line was, 'How would you like two years of college done and us pay for it?' And my mom kind of looked at me and was like, 'Ummm, yes!'".
This strategic plan between the schools started about six years ago.
"They have this free chance at an education, that some of the kids may or may not be financially able to go to college," said GHS program coordinator Lien Beale. "So, as a result, this is just an awesome opportunity for some of the kids to get those first two years under their belt."
Students split their time between the high school campus and the Jefferson Davis Campus.
"I think their overall GPA was like 3.2," said Principal Mike Lindsey. "One of our students was elected into the Hall of Fame. One of them was Mr. JD. They were on the homecoming court. So, not only did they just go and take classes, they became part of the community college experience."
Kristiana Payton was worried at first that this could take away from her high school experience.
"It really didn't," she said. "I'm a cheerleader. I'm in band, track. I was very involved in my high school and my college life. So, that's why I did it. And it was two free paid years of college. So, why not take it?"
Allison Rivers said it took a lot to get through the process.
"Lot of sleep. Lot of crying," she said. "But in the end, it worked out. So, it was all good. It was all worth it."
Officials say 21 students will be in their final year of the program next school term.
Lindsey said the school district began budgeting funds for the tuition money when the plan was originally established.