Age Difference

Sarah Deane, WC'12 signs her name for classmate Sierre Greene

Her fingers flit expressively back and forth like sparrows when she communicates in sign language: “Hello, my name is Sarah!”

Sarah Deane, WC ’12, is not deaf, but she hopes, some day soon, to work as a teacher for the hearing-impaired. “I just think signing is so beautiful,” she says, shyly inspecting her fingernails, which are painted in different, neon colors. With a little more practice, she hopes to sign some passages from her favorite book, Pride and Prejudice.

“Jane Austen was an independent woman writing novels, which wasn’t common in her era, so she didn’t really fit in with the world around her – she was ahead of her time,” Sarah says.

That the literature of a singular, forward-thinking woman resonates with a Brenau student should come as no surprise. Nor should it startle us that in the world of Brenau’s “Four Portals of Learning,” which emphasize all forms of communications and interdisciplinary thinking, we found her doing exactly what she should have been doing: combining personal experience and passion into her studies. What may be surprising is that Sarah was just 14 years old when she graduated from the Women’s College this May with an Associate of Arts degree in liberal studies – an age when most students are finishing up ninth grade. Sarah, who skipped eighth grade and was home-schooled in Greenville, S.C., enrolled last year in Brenau’s Early College, dubbed the “second generation” of the Academy. The former semi-autonomous residential girl’s prep school, now fully integrated into the Women’s College under its new dean, Dr. Debra Dobkins, shifted its format from a traditional, four-year high school to an intensive two-year, dual-enrollment program with the university – a sort of accelerated head-start that enables young achievers who qualify for enrollment on a case-by-case basis, to earn both a high school diploma from another institution (or an alternative, like home schooling) and college credits from Brenau at the same time. Sarah, who finished off last year in “high school” with college classes in American government, psychology, biology, literature and other subjects, exemplifies the caliber of students Early College aims to recruit.

“This program is geared to young women who are exceptionally bright, motivated, focused, and ready to kick it up a notch to advance more quickly toward their goals,” says Dobkins. “They get the best of both worlds in a safe, structured, and nurturing environment. They’re now much more fully integrated and immersed in the Women’s College structure. In addition to attending college classes, students can participate in all of the clubs and campus activities.”

Early College received recognition from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges in January. Although many high schools long have offered Advanced Placement classes, designed to enable students to skip lower-level colleges courses for subjects in which they can demonstrate proficiency, fewer than 20 institutions have enacted programs similar to Brenau’s Early College. Most of those lack the option of on-campus living and the convenient proximity of facilities and other resources of the campus. “We are definitely one of only a few such programs for traditional high school-age students that is so closely linked with a private university,” says Dr. Nancy Krippel, Brenau Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.

The Academy opened its doors in 1928 and  over the next nine decades proudly churned out scores of graduates who went on to great success in college and beyond – the like of business mogul Sally Foster, television and film actress Amanda Blake and Hollywood costume designer Janie Bryant, to name a few. However, with single-sex, residential, preparatory high schools across the country struggling with enrollment attrition, the Academy looked for ways to invigorate and transform its curriculum.

Early College graduates, 2012So far, 10 students have passed through the program (not counting the handful who had informally taken college courses before the “official” creation of the program) and nine graduated in May along with other Women’s College graduates. But Early College also held to the Academy’s traditional ceremony with long white dresses, bouquets of red roses and countless “photo ops” with classmates, family, friends, faculty and staff on the lawn outside the old Academy building façade at the corner of Boulevard and the eponymous Academy Street near the heart of the Gainesville campus.

Lenna Applebee, the former Academy director who helped the transition, and former headmaster Tim Daniel, who got the Early College ball formally rolling, pointed out that Brenau Academy had the great asset of actually being on a college campus. Highly motivated students already had been informally cashing in on the availability of college courses, and many of them were performing better in those classes thaN the “real” college students. So, when it was clear to university administrators and trustees that enrollments would never rebound to sustainable levels, Early College became an idea that made a lot of sense.

Still, alumni and students were surprised by the news that Brenau decided to make the significant change to integrate the Academy into the Early College program that is fully under the auspices of the Brenau Women’s College. “We were really shocked that the Academy as we knew it wouldn’t exist anymore,” says graduating senior Dawun “Anna” Ahn, WC ’12 from Jeju, South Korea, by way of Duluth, Ga. “But I wanted to stay because of the opportunities this opened up in helping us get into better colleges. Plus, we have a much bigger, more diverse variety of courses we could take that you don’t normally find at any high school – everything from photography to fashion design to microbiology. Besides, there’s just something special about this place. This school itself is like therapy.”

To ease the transitions, university faculty and staff have undergone training to deepen their roles as mentors and “big sisters” to the younger set of students. They recognized that perhaps there could be a little more individual nurturing, counseling and patience involved as students make the change from “high school-style” learning, which is quite different from the college undergraduate environment.

And, clearly, the new covenant involved some “attitude adjustment” that would be required on the part of individual students.

“A lot of these girls were accustomed to being the only star students at the top of their class, or they felt social pressure to ‘act dumb’ at their other schools,” Applebee said in an interview before her departure from Brenau at the end of the school year. “Here, they’re finally among their high-school age peers who are just as studious as they are as well as interacting with college students and faculty. They had to rise to the occasion – and they did.”

Several students made the Dean’s List and the Merit List. Although most remained conversant with the typical tools of the teenage trade, like text messaging, they also moved easily into effective communication with other life forms on the planet that do not involved passing through the portal of the @justinbieber Twitter space.

“Public school just didn’t challenge me enough, and I didn’t really fit in there,” says Sierra Greene, WC ’12 of Gainesville, Ga., the daughter of Robin and Vincas Greene, chair of the dance department at Brenau. Sierra maintained a 4.0 grade point average in a course-load that included chemistry, British literature, and philosophy of religion.

Also recently graduated Nneka Azuka, WC ’12, the Liberty, Ohio, resident who is legendary among faculty as “an overachiever and a perfectionist,” admits she was nervous the first time she walked into a college classroom.

“I wasn’t sure if I would be able to keep up – I mean, I was just a high school sophomore last year,” she says. “But after a couple of months, I saw I was doing OK. The college girls were asking me for help on their assignments now.”

Educators say that students, along with gaining burnished transcripts, pick up substantial confidence boosts in the Early College program. Likewise, by these students’ speeding up the time between high school and college, some of them also seem to have reversed the trend of delayed maturation for teenagers, particularly in regard to accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions and education.


“They didn’t baby us!” Sarah Deane says. “We had a lot of independence just like college students, and were encouraged to think for ourselves. They also showed us how to get help if
we needed it. It was a good balance, and great preparation for the rest of our college experience.”

“Early College has enabled me to grow in so many ways I didn’t expect,” says Early College grad Kelsey Biernath, WC ’12, from Tucker, Ga. “We’re so many miles ahead of our peers at this point. I feel more than ready and prepared to become an independent and extraordinary woman.”


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