SPRINGFIELD — When Rachel Ramano founded Veritas Prep Charter School in 2012, the middle school was designed to prepare students for high school. The Springfield-based school welcomed grades 5-8 and offered social, emotional and academic supports.

Yet, after the first cohort of students graduated in 2016, requests began to come for a high school campus that followed Veritas Prep’s goals and programs, Ramano told Reminder Publishing. As a result, Veritas Prep opened a high school program in 2022.

“It was clear that there was really a need and a demand from our community for us to open a high school,” she explained.

With help from current students, Veritas graduates and the community, Veritas Prep identified assisting students with getting a four-year college degree as a main objective of the high school in order to help reduce traditional barriers to higher education, Ramano stated. Cost has long been a barrier for many students seeking higher education, often preventing many students from completing a degree.

“There’s no question that everyone in our community wants to pursue that [a four year college degree] but the realities of what it takes for first generation college-goers to persist through four years of high school and then four years of college all the while many of them needing to actually work to support themselves and sometimes to contribute to their families … it wasn’t really practical for many of our students,” Ramano said.

This led to the creation of Veritas Prep’s early college program, which allows high school Veritas students to take college-level courses at Worcester State University and Springfield Technical Community College as early as grade 9, Ramano said.

Through this program, students can graduate with up to two years of college credit, allowing them to earn their associate degree in high school or transfer the credit toward a four-year degree at a Massachusetts college. Furthermore, the programs are completely free with all materials and courses paid for by Veritas Prep, Ramano highlighted. There is also no tuition or fees to attend either school.

Like Veritas Prep’s middle school, the high school is open to all Massachusetts students with a preference toward Springfield residents. Students are selected based on “a random, public lottery” with a total of 100 grade five students and 15-20 grade nine students accepted each year. All other grade students are placed on a waiting list and can be accepted if a current student leaves the school, Ramano stated.

Students do not need to reapply between grades.

“It isn’t a sink or swim model and it’s not a school for gifted and talented,” she emphasized. “These are regular Springfield kiddos who are ambitious and hungry and who are raising their hand to step up and need the opportunities that are available.”

Once accepted into the high school, students can choose to participate in the early college program depending on their level of comfort. Any college courses that are taken count toward both the high school and college course curriculums, Ramano explained.

For ninth and 10th grade students, elective college courses are offered based on a set list organized by Veritas Prep and the partnering university. These include courses such as Spanish, digital arts and public speaking, Ramano said. In 11th and 12th grade, students are able to choose more colleges courses and can even attend Westfield State University or Springfield Technical Community College in-person for classes.

“In schools, when we prepare all kids for college, then we’re preparing them for every opportunity. It’s when we start to decide that some are ready for college and some aren’t that we start to prepare them differently and that’s when the doors begin closing for them,” Ramano stated. “We want to keep all doors open for all of our students.”

Ramano emphasized that the early college program was designed to teach students the habits and behaviors needed for a college environment including learning how to speak to a professor, attend office hours and manage their time. Currently, 75% of the school’s current grade 9-10 students utilize this opportunity.

“That is our hope that providing that level of support and access to first generation college goers, we’re going to significantly increase the likelihood that they earn their degree,” Ramano said.

She estimated that, of the ninth and 10th grade students that currently participate in the early college program, about 25% will likely earn 60 credits by graduation while 50% and 20-25% will earn 30 and 12-30 credits respectively. Since the high school only opened in 2022, the 2024-25 school year will welcome the first grade 11 students. This group of students will then create the first 12th grade class in 2025-26.

Applications for the 2024-25 school year are currently open for all grades 5-12 with about 15 spots available for 5th grade students, Ramano said. According to the school’s website, applications are due by 5 p.m. on May 27. Students will then be selected through the lottery process on June 3.

For more information about Veritas Prep or its early college program, visit the website at veritasprepma.org.