MOORPARK — Although the popular image of young teenagers in college may be of precocious kids with freak mental powers, the reality is much different, say those who know better.
Most students who begin college before graduating from high school are ordinary intelligent teens simply looking to get a jump on their education.
"You don't have to be a genius or anything," said Jeff McElroy, a Moorpark College student who graduated from Moorpark High School last spring after two years spent on both campuses. "If you're college-bound, you're ready."
In the morning, McElroy took classes such as Advanced Placement history, honors English and chemistry at Moorpark High. Afternoons and evenings, he spent studying such subjects as music, philosophy and sociology at the community college.
His efforts will probably save him time and money. McElroy, 18, hopes to transfer in the spring to UCLA, where he will have enough credits to enter as a junior.
Like others around the state, Ventura County's three community college have quietly accepted hundreds of high school age teenagers.
"Even without us doing anything special, the students are finding us," said Victoria Bortolussi, Moorpark College's dean of institutional advancement, charged with making connections between the high school and college.
Although the college has no special programs for these students, 310 high school students enrolled there this year, up from 227 last year, she said.
Those who attend as young teens are typically highly motivated and college-bound, Bortolussi said. "They're serious about school," she said. "They're ready [for college] and don't want to waste their time."
Typically in California, students must receive permission from their high school before replacing regular classes with community college classes.
McElroy first attended the college to repeat an algebra course that he didn't pass at Moorpark High. After doing well in the summer class, he began thinking, "Why not take more classes," he said.
He enrolled in math and science, sociology and philosophy courses and now has about 60 units of credit, enough to save him thousands of dollars in tuition by skipping the first two years at UCLA.
Yet he warns students that it's not for everyone. "I wouldn't recommend it for people who aren't too serious in their studies," he said. "The classes are faster paced and you can start falling behind." Managing time can be more difficult when you have to go between the high school and college, he said.
Community college instructors don't treat high school students differently, and may not even know they are not full-fledged collegians, Bortolussi said.
Most students, however, take only a few courses while they are in high school, Simi Valley High School counselor Harvey Webb said. Some go to the college to take interesting classes they can't get in high school, but more often, students attend to get some high school prerequisites out of the way, he said.
For example, some students will take beginning Spanish at college so they can begin a more advanced course sooner in high school. The students at Simi Valley High School, though, are not given credits for the units they take at the college, Webb said.
"There are a lot who have an educational plan and they know what their goal is," Webb said. "If they can't complete all those requirements, they will seek a way of doing it."
On rare occasions, students skip high school entirely and enroll directly in community college. Derik Glick, for example, entered Moorpark College three years ago when others his age were high school sophomores.
"We said, 'Forget high school,' " said his mother, Paula Glick, who taught him at home until he began college. " 'You're going straight into college. You need the competition and the structure.' "
Susan Izumo, the college's articulation officer, determines whether courses at the college are transferable to four-year universities or colleges. She said Moorpark College does not offer high school courses, but students can receive a high school diploma by taking the GED test.
Derik, however, worked with a home-schooling group in Moorpark called Westside Academy. The group determined which courses he took at Moorpark College counted toward earning high school credit and gave him his diploma in June.
Now he has been accepted by Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic College in Ohio. He will begin as a biology major next spring. Derik said college officials told him he could shave about two years off his time at the four-year university because of credits earned at Moorpark College.
"I really wanted to be a doctor since I was really really young, so it will give a jump in the rest of the world," he said. "Instead of getting out of medical school at 30, I'll get out at 26, which is awful nice."
To give her daughter the same jump-start Derik received, Glick recently enrolled 14-year-old Brianne at Moorpark College too.