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Ahead of their time: CCHS and TBHS seniors earn college degrees before high school diplomas

It’s a time-honored trope of being a teenager to wish oneself older, more mature. That comes with more freedom, responsibility and fewer of the annoyances of youth. Bodies have grown, more or less, to their adult sizes. Driving allows for a world of new possibilities.

As one nears the end of high school, discussion often turns to the future, relatives and friends ask reflexively, “What are you going to do next?”

There are few instances where high schoolers can actually get ahead of where they are and a head start to where they want to be, and the dual-enrollment program at Gillette College is one of them. Through the program, high school students can earn college credit hours before they’ve even finished high school.

More and more students in Campbell County School District are taking advantage of the program. In the 2017-18 school year, 35 students from the county’s high schools were enrolled, where they combined to take 61 classes and earned 179 college credit hours. In the 2019-20 school year, those numbers grew to 117 students who took 219 classes and earned 697 college credit hours. This year, 102 students were enrolled in the fall and 103 in the spring.

A select few, the ones who are truly dedicated to the idea of getting a jump start on college, can even earn college degrees before they get their high school diplomas. It’s something fewer than 5% of the program’s students achieve.

This school year, two Thunder Basin High School students — Rachel Rasse and Lizzie Rohrer — and two Campbell County High School students — Kindal Cunningham and Rowdy Morman — did just that when they graduated from Gillette College on a Friday night and were due in their respective high school classes the following Monday.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Thunder Basin High School senior Lizzie Rohrer, 17, will be shipping out for basic military training for the Air Force June 28 and plans to earn her Bachelor’s in social work through the Community College of the Air Force.

An early start

Lizzie Rohrer, a 17-year-old senior at TBHS, learned about the dual-enrollment program shortly after moving to Gillette from Douglas during her sophomore year.

TBHS registrar, Liz Gonzales, brought it to her attention, and then she had a talk with state Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, also the executive director of the Board of Cooperative Higher Education Services. BOCHES is the program that allows dual-enrollment students to take college courses at no cost. Students are only financially responsible for their books.

“‘This could be you next,’” Rohrer remembered Wasserburger telling her after pointing out that some high school students went on to earn associate degrees while still in high school.

Rohrer’s path to dual-enrollment is typical, said Shannon Henshaw, who oversees dual-enrollment students at Gillette College. Students who show promise are often identified by faculty or guidance counselors who have to give approval before the students can consider college classes. Then they’ll usually meet with Wasserburger, and by the time they get to Henshaw they are ready to enroll, Henshaw said her job is to help guide them toward their goals.

The program is open to high school juniors and seniors. Students who want to pursue associate degrees often start in the summer after their sophomore year of high school, like CCHS senior Kindal Cunningham. The program restricts students to just six credit hours in their first semester, and once the restriction lifts, students can take up to 16 credit hours per semester, a full college course load.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to not take it during the summer,” Cunningham said, looking back at her experience.

Rachel Rasse, a 17-year-old senior, saw dual-enrollment as the next logical step for her.

“I’ve taken a lot of advanced classes throughout my education,” Rasse said, adding that when told she could earn college credit, it was an easy decision.

Sometimes students learn about the program through less official channels.

Rowdy Morman, an 18-year-old senior at CCHS, learned about it from his classmate Cunningham.

He knew about the concurrent enrollment program, which allows students to earn college credit by high school teachers licensed to teach courses that award college credit. The students get two for the price of one; they don’t even have to leave their high school.

But it was Cunningham who opened Morman’s eyes to the fact that he could explore many more classes than just the concurrent classes at CCHS.

Hard work

Hard work is a given in the dual-enrollment program. Students are voluntarily taking on extra coursework at a higher level of difficulty. That immutable fact is true for every student who earns college credit while still in high school. But the degree to which the students who earn their associate degrees, which requires the completion of 60 credit hours, must work twice as hard as their high school classmates could easily be overlooked.

“As a group, they’ve been super motivated,” Henshaw said of the foursome that got their college degrees this year. “They’re some of the most ambitious students we’ve ever had.”

“It’s almost like a job,” Rasse said. “You definitely devote all of your time to it. It’s two to three hours of homework, studying for tests. I didn’t do any sports because there’s no time.”

Rohrer said she also spent 30 hours a week working a job in addition to her high school and college course loads.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Campbell County High School senior Kindal Cunningham, 18, wants to pursue her pre-med bachelor degree with a minor in biology to become a trauma surgeon one day.

Cunningham almost graduated from Gillette College with two associate degrees, Henshaw said.

“I don’t know anybody who works harder than Kindal,” Morman said of his classmate.

Cunningham used that work ethic to take a full course load at Gillette College.

“When I took the 16 hours, I was told that it would be hard,” she said.

But she was glad she did it because she’s that much closer to transferring to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology to complete its Pre-Professional Health Sciences degree before going to medical school.

“I’m always one to take on a challenge,” Cunningham said. “It’s not like everybody does it. Tons of students do the BOCHES program, but not everyone gets (a college degree).”

Early bird gets the worm

The benefits of the dual-enrollment program are both tangible and intangible. The tangible benefits draw students into the program in the first place. It makes possible that teenage dream of speeding up life by offering the college credit hours.

“I just wanted to have a head start on everyone else,” Morman said. “I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.”

Another tangible benefit of the program is the money it keeps in the pockets of students and their parents. By graduating with an associate degree, a student basically has had two years of free college education.

“If a college comes to you and says, ‘Hey, if you do this, we’ll let you take classes for free and you’ll gain actual college credit for it,’ I mean, you have a bunch of people complaining about money they have to pay for classes and here I am,” Morman said. “I have an associate (degree), and I didn’t have to spend any money on it, other than books. I just felt like it would be a waste not to take initiative.”

“I have 62 credit hours under my belt, and it’s just such a blessing to have saved that money,” Rasse said.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Senior Rachel Rasse, 17, plans on attending the University of Wyoming to pursue a degree in nursing after graduation from Thunder Basin High School. She also earned an associate degree from Gillette College this spring.

On the intangible side of things, dual-enrollment teaches students the life skills that future employers expect after four years in college.

“Being at the college, I got a whole new sense of responsibility,” Cunningham said. “My mental awareness and thinking went up so many levels. I’ve learned how to have myself on a schedule for all my homework. I’ve learned the whole time management part of it. … My work is that much better. I’ve got a whole another level of work ethic.”

Another intangible benefit is early exposure to subject matter, which is especially useful when students already know what they want to do in college and beyond.

“I really enjoyed my human anatomy courses,” Rasse said. “They weren’t required but will definitely help.”

Rasse plans on attending the University of Wyoming to pursue a degree in nursing.

Rohrer was able to explore a lot of subjects with classes in psychology, sociology, women’s studies, macroeconomics, English, science and a “technical writing class which definitely kicked my butt,” she said.

“I made sure I took all my pre-reqs for UW,” Rohrer said.

She’s going into the Air Force after graduation, shipping out to San Antonio, Texas, in June, but whenever she’s ready to resume her classwork in Laramie, she’ll begin as a junior.

Overcoming challenges

It’s to be expected that taking on a college course load on top of the requirements of high school would be challenging. Classes and content aren’t always the biggest sources of difficulty.

“People might say, ‘I struggled with school, like this class was hard, this class was hard,’ but I never really struggled with any of my classes,” Cunningham said. “It was more so with the social part of it. All the time, my friends would be like, ‘Oh, let’s go party, let’s go do this, let’s go do that.’ And every time, I had to tell them, ‘I have school. I can’t.’

“It’s definitely something that shows you who your real friends are, those that are willing to be like, ‘Oh, that’s fine,’ and not completely delete you from the circle. I used to be so close with a couple of friends, but after I started the college thing, I no longer had all this free time to just go party and go do all these things and hang out all the time. And honestly, I don’t have super good friendships with those people anymore.”

Morman said similar things when considering why more high school students don’t do dual-enrollment.

mmoore / News Record Photo/Mike Moore 

Rowdy Morman, 18, is a senior at Campbell County High School who plans on furthering his education in either aerospace engineering or aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after graduating this spring. He’ll have a head start on his college education having already earned an associate degree from Gillette College as a dual-enrollment high school student.

“It’s a time commitment,” Morman said. “It’s your only time in high school, and they probably just want to make the most of their time and just have some fun. Not so much do the bare minimum, but just enjoy their time in high school. Definitely during my junior and senior years, I probably didn’t have as much fun as I could have, especially in the summer because I took summer classes.”

Morman almost completed his college degree a semester early, Henshaw said. A big part of his success story was his use of online courses at Gillette College. It freed up his schedule, which is still fairly strenuous at CCHS in his final semester with four Advanced Placement classes and one elective. He’s not entirely sure about where he’ll go to college, but near the top of the list is Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, where he would study aerospace engineering.

No matter the difficulties faced, all of the students, without exception, were so happy to have been part of the program. They formed friendships with each other through their college courses when their high school affiliations would have made that difficult. Cunningham and Rasse became good friends.

“We had never even seen each other before,” Cunningham said. “We never even knew each other. But now, since we’re both going into the health world of some sort, we’ve been able to have a class together every single semester other than this one. I’ve gotten almost a new best friend from doing this college thing.”

Rasse has taken joy in being an unofficial ambassador for the program.

“Sometimes when underclassmen are considering it, they’ll contact me,” she said.

And she’s happy to do it.

“It’s really bettered my life,” Rasse said.

Rohrer hopes to encourage others through her example.

“I wanted to be a role model, someone that younger girls want to look up to,” Rohrer said.

The students took on more than they needed to, and not only did they complete their goal, they seem the better for it. They’re thankful for the opportunity provided by the partnership between the school district and Gillette College.

“It’s just an opportunity you can’t pass up,” Morman said. “It’s probably one of the best opportunities I’ve ever had.”

Rozet Elementary School third graders walk along Gillette Avenue during a guided tour by Campbell County Historical Society member Mary Kelley on Friday morning.

CCHS grad running for Cheney's seat

A Campbell County High School graduate and U.S. Army veteran is running for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House of Representatives seat in 2022.

Denton Knapp, a 1983 CCHS grad who served for 30 years in the U.S. Army, has announced that he will challenge Republican Rep. Liz Cheney.

Knapp, who now lives in California but is moving back to Gillette, said he’s wanted to go into public service since high school and that “now is a good time to do it.”

Knapp joins other Republicans in state Sen. Anthony Bouchard, state Rep. Chuck Gray, Bryan Keller, Marissa Selvig and Darin Smith in an ever-growing group of people running against Cheney in 2022.

Since Cheney voted to impeach then-president Donald Trump following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, she’s been under fire for voting outside party lines, especially since she represents Wyoming, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

“What’s missing right now is trust in our elected officials,” Knapp said. “Wyomingites expected Cheney to vote a certain way and she didn’t. As a result, she’s going through consequences.”

Knapp said he’s seen Cheney, as well as her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, serve Wyoming well for many years, so “it was a surprise to me when she voted the way she did.”

He also was disappointed with Cheney maintaining that there was no election fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Knapp said he believes there’s evidence supporting both sides, but he does not like that Cheney has taken a hard stance on the issue.

On the federal level, the government isn’t doing a good job of taking care of veterans, coal miners and their families, Knapp said.

The country has big challenges ahead of it under President Joe Biden’s administration, he said.

“We’re going through a new administration focused on radically changing our way of life, not only in Wyoming but the (whole country),” he said.

Knapp said he voted for Trump twice because he thought Trump was the best candidate, and that if the former president runs again, “I’ll be there to support him.”

“If you look at our economy, the support of national defense, status with overseas partners and adversaries, we got respect (during Trump’s presidency). He definitely was America first,” Knapp said.

After graduating from CCHS, Knapp attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, graduating in 1987. He spent the next 30 years in the Army, retiring in 2017 as a colonel. Knapp served three combat tours: two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

After retirement, Knapp and his wife, Heather, moved to California to spend time with his son. While there, he was promoted to Brigadier General in the California State Guard as Deputy Commanding General, 40th Infantry Division. He also worked as the director of the Tierney Center for Veteran Services, Goodwill Industries of Orange County, leading efforts to provide services for the county’s 130,000 veterans through nonprofit organizations and local, state and federal governments.

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Campbell County reflects nationwide decrease in demand for COVID-19 vaccine

A recent drop in COVID-19 vaccine demand nationwide has been mirrored in Campbell County.

“We are definitely seeing a decrease too,” said Jane Glaser, executive director of Campbell County Public Health. “In April, we were averaging about 500 vaccines a week, now we’re closer to 250 to 300 vaccines given a week.”

Nationwide, the number of shots given each day has curbed since mid-April. The United States peaked with more than 4.2 million doses administered April 1 and had its highest seven-day average April 11, with more than 3.27 million doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By May 1, that seven-day average fell to a little more than 2.1 million doses administered.

Until narrowly surpassing Crook County this week, Campbell County had consistently had the lowest percentage of population fully vaccinated in the state.

As of May 10, the Wyoming Department of Health estimated that Campbell County has just over 15% of its population fully vaccinated. By Public Health estimates, Campbell County is just above 20% fully vaccinated for its adult population, including those who got shots from the Federal Pharmacy Retail Program.

“I’m not concerned about it,” Glaser said of the decreased vaccine demand. “It doesn’t surprise me. I think that the drop in doses requested, the amount of people wanting it has also kind of gone with the drop in positive cases in the community. That goes back and forth.”

Vaccine hesitancy may still be prevalent in the community, Glaser said. But it is unclear exactly why, or why it’s in Campbell County more so than other parts of the state.

“I’m not really sure why we are seeing that here opposed to the other counties,” she said.

Glaser emphasized how important the vaccine is for curbing future outbreaks and maintaining the sense of normalcy that has started to return to the community with the lightened caseloads of late. There is still much unknown about the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection and the vaccine has proven to be effective in reducing the severity of illness and also the transmission of the virus itself, she said.

The county’s decrease in vaccine demand also has impacted its vaccine supply.

Earlier in the vaccine rollout, the county was getting consistent weekly shipments of COVID-19 vaccine from the state. Since, the state switched from automatic shipments to counties submitting individual orders.

Glaser said Public Health had been receiving roughly 900 to 1,200 doses a week, which built enough of a stockpile that the agency has not had to order more vaccine in the past two to three weeks.

The agency still gives out shots by appointment.

Eligibility expanding

On Friday, Glaser said that Public Health has begun preparing for the approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for people age 12 and older. Currently, the Pfizer shot has been approved for people age 16 and older.

This week, federal officials are expected to review and decide on emergency use approval of Pfizer for 12- to 15-year-olds.

“Now with the opening up of the other age groups, I would like to go ahead and offer that,” Glaser said. “We are getting calls from parents asking about it.”

Public Health recently acquired an ultra-cold temperature freezer to store the most temperature-finicky of the approved vaccines and plans to administer those shots at its main office, in line with the by-appointment clinics it has been operating in recent months. Previously, all of the Pfizer doses were stored in Campbell County Health’s ultra-cold freezer capable of maintaining its very cold storage requirements.

For those still hesitant about getting vaccinated, Glaser recommends they do their own research from reputable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. However, if people are looking for non-government research to go off of, she recommends reviewing studies from research universities and institutions.

“I’m hoping that people will continue to consider getting vaccinated and actually go through with vaccination so we can keep numbers low in Campbell County,” Glaser said. “It truly is what is helping us get back to a normal life here.”