School's first seniors reflect on what they helped build

VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — For 34 teenagers, they are first. They are the groundbreakers and the trendsetters.

Those teenagers make up the first senior class for River City Early College High School and are establishing a legacy for others to follow; an opportunity few others have the chance to do and a responsibility they cherish.

"The underclassman, they might see us as vacant seniors, because of the college classes we are off taking, but when I come through here, I walk through the hallway, look in each of the classrooms now and think, 'wow, we started off in a single hallway with not even 60 kids," said senior Eddie Jones.

River City Early College High School began in August 2016, with an initial class of 53 students. Since that time, some students made decisions to transfer back to Vicksburg High School or Warren County High School, while others moved away, with some even finding early college high schools in their new communities.

But for those remaining 34, they will be the first to graduate from the school they — and their teachers and administrators agree — helped build.

'We came in like ducks without a momma," senior Caitlin Strickland said. "We came into nothing."

While the school didn't start with "nothing," it did start with the basics — or maybe without the basics.

Once occupying a hallway in the Hinds Community College Vicksburg Campus, the school started the year off without phones or an intercom and leading student-faculty meetings in the hallway. Today the school is located on the top floor of the recently-completed George-Oakes Academic Career-Technical Building on the Hinds campus.

"Watching it grow has blown my mind," senior Evelyn Bell said. "I never thought it would be like this. We now have a whole floor. Never thought that would happen."

When the application process opened for RCEC's first year, less than the 60-student limit applied. After the first year, the number of those applying for the school has skyrocketed.

During a student's freshman and sophomore years, students are in a high school setting, often taking one college class their freshman year, and two during their sophomore year. In their junior and senior years, students are enrolled full time with Hinds.

In fact, those graduating from RCEC in 2020, will actually graduate with their associates degree or professional certification before they receive their high school diploma.

And it is not just the students who took a chance with the start of the school in 2016, teachers and administrators were also learning as they went along.

"Every year we moved up, we had to figure things out and we did that together. And these students were so patient with us, because we might say 'that didn't work, let's do that a different way,'" RCEC Principal Tammy Burris said. "So proud that they took that leap of faith and they were able to do that and work with us, and know that we didn't have it all figured out either. We were figuring out as we went along with this first group."

RCEC's class of 2020 is the school's first. They will be the school's first class to have a graduation and to have a reunion, but as Strickland said, they are more than a class, they and the teachers and staff who helped start the school are a family.

"They (teachers and administration) take care of us as if we were their own. They've been our mommas, our daddies, our mentors," Strickland said. "That has been so amazing that someone could take someone else's child, and treat them as if they were their own, and love them as if they were their own and to be quote-unquote just a teacher. They are not just teachers, they are just like us and they love and care just like we do, and we love them and they love us."

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Information from: The Vicksburg Post, http://www.vicksburgpost.com