Grand Canyon Diploma moves Gilbert girl on to college

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

GILBERT, Ariz. -- As Arizona parents, we have reason to worry. Only about 70 percent of our students are getting out of high school, which is close to the national average, but then at least a third aren't ready for college. College readiness is the focus of one program where high school students can even graduate early.

"Each team was assigned a problem from the lab," said the Physics 112 teacher at Chandler-Gilbert Community College to a class of about 25 students.

This type of class is an undergraduate test for students of all ages. But in this particular group of young people, Kali Gagne stands out. She is 17 now but started college last summer.

"They're like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Kali said. "'You're 17 and already in college?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, I graduated two years early.'"

Kali graduated from high school after her sophomore year with the little-known Grand Canyon Diploma. She had to take seven grueling tests from Cambridge to prove she was ready.

"I studied four to five hours every night the couple months before the test," she said. "And our teachers prepared us very well."

Kali attended ASU Preparatory Academy, one of 30 Arizona high schools that teach the curriculum which prepares students to move on when they are ready for college. Seven other students have passed the tests, but Kali is the only one who left high school so far.

"I feel like I'm missing out on the social aspect a bit," she said. "But it doesn't really faze me as much. I still get social in college because we have to work in groups, interact, meet outside class."

"Do you want your 16-year-old getting invited to college frat parties?" her father, Geoff Gagne, asked rhetorically. "Probably not."

This was not a decision taken lightly. Kali's parents knew their daughter was intelligent, but more than anything, she was motivated. Their worries about missing high school quickly faded.

"She seems to enjoy what she's doing now and I don't have an issue with it," Jody Gagne said. "It's what she wanted to do."

Kali has certificates marking her accomplishments: her diploma, Phi Theta Kappa honor society, a golf championship from the charter schools association and, of course, a bucket list.

"Get my doctorate, go skydiving," she read off the list.

So far, Kali has achieved all As in college and has kept a connection with high school friends. But she admits even if students pass those tests, leaving high school is not for everyone.

"I feel like people misconstrue high school with college," she said. "In high school, you try, show effort, you get an A. In college, you have to do it. If you just try, you are going to fail."

The Grand Canyon Diploma is not a GED or some sort of high school equivalency test. It is also not just about getting out early. 

It's about not sitting in a chair in high school just because you have to. It's about going to college, whether you graduate in two years or four years, prepared to do the work.