Hickory Career and Arts Magnet High School is a unique learning opportunity for Catawba County students.
When students leave HCAM after four years of instruction, they graduate with a high school diploma, four to five college credits and, in some cases, a career certification — all at no cost to students.
"So many people say, 'Where was this when I was in high school?'" said HCAM principal Kelly Owen. "...The idea of HCAM is to engage students in a different kind of way in a unique environment."
HCAM offers eight career programs, and six of those programs include college credit. Available careers include cosmetology, criminal justice/forensics, culinary arts, firefighting, graphic design and advertising, theater arts, dance and photography. Students pick a career path when they enroll in HCAM and focus on those classes during their junior and senior years.
In its first year, the school has about 100 students enrolled. About 15-20 students are selected for each academy in every grade level.
"They're the students who just want something different," Owen said.
"We really want to be something different. ... To see high school students engaged, it's amazing. There are some of them that can't find their motivation, and we want to help them find that motivation."
Students apply to attend HCAM, but acceptance isn't based on school grades or previous academic achievement. If applications exceed the allotment for each academy, applicants' names are put into a lottery, so every student has an equal opportunity to become an HCAM student.
"We've seen students who have struggled in the past that have succeeded here," Owen said. "Students who have struggled in the past with grades and attendance ... have stepped up as leaders."
HCAM received about 50 applications for admission into the school for the 2011-12 year. Although March 15 is the school's tentative date for the selection lottery, Owen said HCAM will continue to accept applications and recruit new students until the next school year starts.
Because students apply to be part of HCAM and choose their career academy, teachers and administration at the school say students have a vested interest in learning their crafts and participating in classroom activities.
"It's seeing that the kids have found something they really enjoy," said graphic design and advertising teacher Jonathan Lail. "I've had some students who have really blown me away with their talent."
Graphic design student Kathrine Gomez was attracted to HCAM because of the opportunity to gain college credit. She also liked HCAM because it was unlike any other school in Catawba County.
"It's just different here," said Gomez, a junior. "It's the one-on-one relationship with teachers; it's great."
HCAM is open to all Catawba County students, regardless of where they live within school systems. Transportation is provided to every HCAM student, so even a student who lives at the opposite end of the county will have a ride to school every day.
"I think HCAM is a great opportunity for students to get a head start on their college education," said Shelley Shaffer, who teaches forensics at HCAM.
The school's start-up costs for the first three years were funded through a grant, so HCAM officials said the new school doesn't put added pressure on an already tight state budget. After the school's first few years, Owen said the school will become self-sustaining based on state average daily membership funding.
The school will undergo changes this summer with the addition of a simulated cosmetology salon environment, a black box theater, a forensics lab and a culinary center.
Sophomore Shaquille Smith is part of HCAM's acting career academy.
Although he plans to be a neurosurgeon, he has always loved acting.
"The teachers here are really interactive with students," he said. "(HCAM) is something that I can say I was a part of."