St. Mary’s County public high school students will be able to earn a degree from the College of Southern Maryland simultaneously with high school graduation through a new program.

Called College Fast Track, the initiative probably will have just a handful of students participating at first, said Rhonda Harris, supervisor of counselors for St. Mary’s public schools. A few students already have pulled off the feat of graduating from CSM a week or so before accepting their high school diploma in St. Mary’s County, but this program would offer a formalized path for that.

The program could grow considerably, but only if the community college and public school system can find a way to fund the program, leaders of both organizations said recently during a joint meeting between the St. Mary’s County Board of Education and the College of Southern Maryland Board of Trustees.

The program will start by offering high school students five associate degree choices — applied science, arts, teaching, science and engineering.

Students would take a prescribed course load during their junior and senior years of high school. However, to stay on track to earn a degree from CSM, students also would need to take certain classes during their early high school years and even middle school, Harris said.

Students would start taking high school-credit math courses and foreign language during middle school to make room for other courses later in high school. Many students already take such courses in middle school.

Some CSM courses also will count as high school credit.

More than 100 St. Mary’s high school students each year take one or more courses at the local community college, paying only 50 percent of tuition through a concurrent enrollment program. That tuition discount would continue for the entire degree in the College Fast Track program.

Full tuition at the community college for residents of St. Mary’s, Calvert or Charles counties is $111 per credit.

“It is a very challenging endeavor, but we do believe we have the students to take on this opportunity,” Harris said.

It is the “early bloomers” who will be able to most benefit from College Fast Track, she said, including students who know what direction they are going in life by the start of high school or sooner and who show academic maturity and organizational skills.

The program officially will start next year after marketing it to students and parents during the next several months. College and public schools officials hope to continue to develop the program, eventually serving more students from the three St. Mary’s public high schools.

That expansion will depend, in large part, on whether the educators can find a funding source, which likely would be St. Mary’s County government. The total cost has not been determined.

Prince George’s Community College, where Tracy Harris, the new CSM Leonardtown dean and vice president, last worked, already has a successful program, called middle college, that is funded by the county’s government and local school board, Brad Gottfried, president of CSM, said.

Prince George’s Community College paid for renovations to its campus for the Academy of Health Sciences middle college that started last year, but the local school board funds the majority of costs, including professors and busing for students.

High school students attend classes on the college campus, Gottfried said. What makes the program successful is the ability for any student who is academically capable to join the program, regardless of ability to pay, thanks to scholarship funding.

“It shouldn’t just be for children whose parents can afford it,” Gottfried said, adding high school students would not be eligible for federal Pell grants.

Costs of transportation, which would have to be provided, also would have to be considered, said Michael Martirano, superintendent of St. Mary’s County Public Schools.

Martirano said barriers associated with finding funding have slowed down the program, which he and the CSM president have discussed putting in place for several years.

One college trustee floated the idea of creating a foundation to help fund the program. That could work, but it would need community interest and probably county government support, too, the education leaders said.

St. Mary’s public school students for years have had the opportunity to take dual or concurrent enrollment with CSM. More students each year also take Advanced Placement courses and the associated tests, which can count as college credit.

“Both of them get to the same end result,” Martirano said, referring to accumulating college credits before finishing high school.

He said students need to talk to their parents and high school counselors to determine which route might be best.

Harris said College Fast Track would limit after-school activities for high school students. In addition to the time it would take to complete the college courses, which could be offered anytime during the day or evening, students must be in high school at least one class period to be eligible to participate in athletics or other after-school activities.