Garett Lester graduated on May 20 with an associate degree in smart systems technologies from Finger Lakes Community College and plans to transfer to Rochester Institute of Technology.
And today (June 23), he will graduate from Bloomfield High School.
No, that is not the typical order, but knowing it was possible to finish two years of college before high school graduation motivated Garett to take some extra classes over the last year.
Garett and another student completed associate degree requirements before finishing high school this year, but each took a different path. Garett attended the PTECH program while Ava Rodriguez of Pittsford took college classes through the FLCC Early College Scholars program, starting at age 14. Her high school graduation is tomorrow (June 24). A third student, Lily Hall of Dundee, joined this club using another strategy: a mix of Early College Scholar and Gemini credits. Gemini, also called concurrent enrollment, is a program that allows students to take classes in their home districts that satisfy both high school and college requirements. Lily’s graduation from Dundee High School on Thursday, June 22 made her a high school and college graduate at the same time.*
Garett Lester: PTECH
Short for Pathways in Technology, PTECH allows students from 25 school districts to enroll in an alternate high school at the FLCC Newark Campus Center and earn a mix of high school and college credits, starting in ninth grade. Most PTECH students finish high school and then spend another year or two at FLCC. Through careful planning with a counselor, Garett realized he could finish degree requirements before completing 12th grade.
“I thought not many people get an opportunity to do that, so that helped to motivate me a lot,” he said. “There were definitely times where I was thinking, ‘This is a lot to be doing,’ but it’s one year then it’s done, and I accomplished something.”
Garett was drawn to technology in eighth grade after taking Design and Drawing for Production (DDP) classes, in which students learn to use computer-aided design (CAD) software and programs like Audodesk Inventor. He attended a presentation on PTECH at Bloomfield and decided to enroll. Ninth-graders in PTECH take a class that introduces them to technology programs and careers with a grant covering the tuition costs for the college program they select.
Garett was a couple classes ahead when he started, having taken algebra and Living Environment in eighth grade. When he got his driver’s license, he was able to take additional classes at the FLCC Victor Campus Center off Route 251. He credits his PTECH and FLCC instructors, in particular physics professor Sam Samanta, for giving him the flexibility to complete his classes, while working part-time. Samanta coordinates the smart systems technologies degree, which integrates electrical, mechanical and computer skills.
“He’s always willing to help you and make sure you’re following along with class but you’re not getting piled up on homework,” Garett said. “I’d have to say PTECH is very similar in that they’re trying to be as open-minded and understanding of your situation to make sure you’re getting the help you need to learn.”
Beyond the instructors, he said fellow students provide a sense of community.
“We’re all new to it. We’re all looking for someone to talk to and by the first quarter of your freshman year, you have made friends,” Garett began. “It’s a great community. You’re not going to feel out of place because everyone’s in the same boat, everyone’s there for you. We’re all rooting for each other. You really don’t get the separate cliques, it’s one big group.”
Garett’s program required a co-op experience, and in November 2022, he was placed at Addex in Newark, which makes blown film equipment for applications like bags, wraps and shrink films.
After his co-op, Addex hired him part-time. His work consists of building mechanical and electrical assemblies and working on circuit boards. He also enjoys the challenge of troubleshooting a mechanical or electrical problem under the guidance of his mentor, Bill Wilck, mechanical and technical services engineer at Addex.
“You get to work with your hands. It’s rewarding at the end of the day being able to go in with something that doesn’t work and being in that role where you can make everything fit together and work out right.”
Dan Poehlein, technical specialist for the smart systems program, has known Garett since he joined Ptech.
“Despite his obvious skills as a student, I believe that his greatest attributes are in the area of kindness, compassion and curiosity,” Dan said. “Garett is the first student from the Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES to complete the required college course of study by the end of his 12th grade year. This accomplishment has laid the foundation for future students to follow his path toward success.”
Garett, who will turn 18 in July, will transfer to RIT this fall. He is deciding between electrical and mechanical engineering with long-term plans to work in the railroad industry. He recommends that students who are looking for a different kind of high school experience consider PTECH. “If you decide you don’t like the programs, you always do have the option to go back to your district, so I would tell them: ‘If you’re interested, go for it and keep your friends back home, but make new friends when you get to PTECH.’”
Ava Rodriguez: Early College Scholars
Ava Rodriguez had watched as her older sister got ahead on college credit by taking community college classes, so at age 14, Ava enrolled in two art history classes through the FLCC Early College Scholars program.
Then, she kept going, completing her high school homework during lunches and study halls at Pittsford-Mendon then switching gears to college work in the afternoon and evening.
In August 2022, Ava and her mother, Zenah, reviewed her credits and confirmed that, with the right courses, she could finish work toward her liberal arts associate degree before completing high school. After the Pittsford-Mendon High School graduation on Saturday, June 24, she will be both a high school and college graduate.
“My mom is my biggest supporter. I really couldn’t have done it without her,” Ava said. “She wanted both of us to have a head start and graduate college earlier.”
Ava is starting this fall at St. John Fisher University’s Wegmans School of Pharmacy. It is typically a six-year program, but Ava’s associate degree means she can finish in four.
“I really like science. I like being in the lab,” she said. “Then, I was doing my own research one day, and I came across pharmacy, and the whole career sounded really interesting to me.”
Ava took most of her FLCC courses online with some in-person classes. In addition to her mom, she received guidance from Laura Jamieson, assistant director of concurrent enrollment, in navigating the college. Laura oversees FLCC classes taught in high schools in the College’s service area as well as Early College Scholars, which gives students in high school and homeschool settings the ability to take FLCC classes with reduced tuition.
Ava particularly enjoyed biology with Professor Kelli Prior, chemistry with technical specialist and instructor Jennifer Zink, and physics with adjunct instructor Thomas Henderson.
“They were easy going. If you were having trouble with the material or an issue came up in your personal life, they’re more than willing to work around it,” she said. “I think my favorite professor was Dr. Henderson. You know those teachers that really have a passion for teaching, and they try to make it as enjoyable for the student. He was all-around one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”
Ava found time among her high school and college coursework to pursue a range of visual art media, from oil pastels to watercolors to charcoal. She often paints scenes from nature but has earned two commissions drawing characters from movie and TV series.
Ava found her combined high school and college schedule a challenge at times and credits her mother for keeping her on track. She also says the work became easier the more she understood about herself.
“Really take the time to learn about you. What I mean by that is, ‘How do I learn? How do I retain information the best?’ because you can manage your time better and make room for other classes.”
Lily Hall: Gemini and Early College Scholars
Lily Hall took some online classes directly through FLCC as an Early College Scholar and earned other credits by taking Gemini classes at Dundee High School. She built up enough credits for an associate degree in liberal arts by the last day of high school classes this month.
“I’ve always enjoyed setting high goals for myself and this certainly played a role in my decision to pursue my associate degree before I finished high school, but the bigger motivation for me was that I knew that it would be the wisest way for me to use my time,” Lily began.
“Going into senior year, most kids expect to take the bare minimum of classes and coast through the year. As nice as that may sound, I am so glad I decided to maximize my time by pursuing this path. It surely makes the summer more enjoyable knowing I already have two years of college, and a degree, under my belt.”
Lily and her mother learned about the Early College Scholars program with the help of a former high school counselor, Sarah Baker, who put them in touch with Laura Jamieson.
Lily credits Laura with helping her balance her course load.
“She helped me to develop a plan for the courses I would be taking during each semester to earn my associate upon graduation from high school,” Lily explained. “She advised me with care and wanted to keep me from being too overwhelmed by my courses. She also kept me updated on how to go about the details of enrollment and graduation. She played one of the most key roles in my success and I am extremely thankful for her.”
Lily said she learned more than new content in her college classes.
“I learned how to communicate with my professors. I learned how to stand up for myself when it came to my grades, I learned how to learn about things I did not enjoy and find meaning in them, and I even learned about how important time management is,” she said. “The ups and downs that I have faced in college so far have helped me grow as a person and that is what made my FLCC experience positive.”
Lily’s favorite classes were art history and American Sign Language. She is currently pursuing a certification from Google in cybersecurity
Request information about Early College Scholar with this form.
Learn more about PTECH here or contact your high school counseling office.
*There is a minor technicality here. Enrolling at FLCC requires a high school diploma, so Garett, Ava and Lily will turn in their high school transcripts, whereupon their credits will be immediately applied to their degree programs and their college degrees issued.