High school freshmen read from Shakespeare during an English honors class at Prince George's Community College. (Doug Kapustin/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

No one in Jose Mangandi’s family has ever gone to college. But at 14, he is already there.

“My parents said, ‘Without an education you have to work hard,’ ” said Mangandi, who moved to the United States from El Salvador when he was 5. “They don’t want me to just have a job. They want me to have a career.”

Mangandi, who lives in Hyattsville, is not some kind of whiz kid who already finished high school.

Instead, he is one of 100 students in Prince George’s County who moved last summer from middle school to a college campus as part of an innovative dual-
enrollment program
that allows students to take high school and college classes at the same time.

Three years from now, these students are projected to receive not only high school diplomas but also, if all goes well, associate’s degrees as graduates of the Academy of Health Sciences at Prince George’s Community College.

The program, which finished its first year this month, was created as a way for the school system to expose high school students to college-level work and offer parents more educational choices amid declining enrollment. It is a joint venture between the county school system and the community college.

The initiative, known as a middle college high school, is patterned after similar programs in California, Texas and New York. It is the first of its kind in Maryland.

“The idea behind the program is to catapult a young person forward, providing them not just with access but with skills on how to be successful,” said Cecilia Cunningham, the executive director of the New York-based Middle College National Consortium. “It is done in a strategic way by not just offering the classes, but placing them in the environment.”

Unlike many dual enrollment programs in which college professors go to high schools to teach, in this instance, the students go to the college professors.

But in their first year at the academy, there is little difference between what the ninth-graders experience at the college and what they would have gone through in their first year of high school.

Yes, the classes are smaller. There are no more than 25 students in each class. Their bus rides are a little longer. Some students travel three hours round trip to attend the academy. And some students miss the socializing that comes with high school.

“You’re not around a lot of people, but in the end we still will get the advantage,” said Teresa Carrazza, 15, of Hyattsville.

Next year, as sophomores, they will take nine college credits and are likely to be in class with college students.

This year, the students’ classes were held on the first floor of Lanham Hall, a building specifically dedicated to the academy that is adorned with blue-carpeted hallways and neon-blue lockers. The school consists of four classrooms in which English,
geometry/algebra 2-trig, history and Chinese are taught. The only time the students leave Lanham Hall (chaperones are used) is when they take their “lifetime fitness” class, their only college course in the first year.

In a recent 90-minute Chinese class, Mekeda Turner, 14, of Temple Hills interviewed her classmates while she practiced using chopsticks by picking up Teddy Grahams, pretzels and gummy candy from a paper plate at the center of her table.

“What is your name?” Turner asked in Chinese. “Where are you from? What do you like to do?”

As they munched on the bear-shaped graham crackers, Turner’s classmates took turns answering the questions and asking others.

In the classroom next door, English teacher Carol Williams watched from the back of the room while seven students acted out a scene from “Romeo and Juliet.”

“All quiet on the set,” Williams said. “Action.”

The middle college or early college program began in 1974 at LaGuardia Community College, offering under­served high school students a college experience. After the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated more than $13 million toward the idea, the initiative began to take root. Today, 45 schools belong to the consortium, all of which make a commitment to serve some first-generation college students and students from low-income families. The Prince George’s County school board allocated $1.1 million for the program in its first year and plans to spend $1.2 million in the next year.

At the Academy of Health Sciences, 50 percent of the students are either first-generation college students or live in poverty.

“We are attempting to be very intentional about giving access to all students,” said Prince George’s School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. “This is not just for those who will have a natural pathway to college.”

Cunningham said one-third of students enrolled nationally in the middle college programs obtain associate’s degrees. Those who graduate from high school without an associate’s degree earn an average of 30 college credits with a 2.6 grade point average.

Mara R. Doss, a senior academic administrator for the college and its liaison to the academy, said the program has exceeded expectations.

School officials received 3,400 applications to fill 100 spots for the freshman class that begins in August. The incoming students will participate in a two-week program next month to get acclimated to the campus.

“We never prepared for such a high level of response in such a short period of time,” said Kathy Richard Andrews, the academy’s principal. “I get calls from parents with kids in elementary school about how to prepare their children for the school.”

Hite said that he expected a surge in applicants for the second year but that he was surprised by the amount. He said it showed the demand in the county for academic ­choices.

“The increase speaks to the word of mouth about the top quality of the program,” Hite said. “But it also speaks to the options that are not available for individuals.”

As he ended ninth grade, Mangandi earned four credits toward a college degree. That puts him one step closer to a career in either medicine or science. He’s not sure yet where he’ll attend school when he finishes the program.

“I’ll be two years ahead of everyone else,” Mangandi said. “I’ll have an associate’s degree at [high school] graduation. What college is not going to offer me a scholarship?”