HERMON, Maine — By the end of their junior year in June, 14 Hermon High School students will have earned up to 13.5 college credits, thanks to an innovative pilot program at their school.

Some students are interested in nursing careers. One wants to go into animation and another wants to become a military police officer who works with K-9s. Firefighting, information technology and equine management are among the other career fields in the mix.

A joint venture this year that includes Hermon High, United Technologies Center, Eastern Maine Community College and the University of Maine, the Bridge Year Program is enabling Hermon High school students to earn up to 29.5 college credits — at a significant cost savings — during their junior and senior years and summer vacations.

Participants who stick with the program can complete their two-year degree programs in the year after graduating high school.

As part of the program, Bridge Year students will continue to have access to their high school guidance staff for the year after they graduate.

“So we’re bridging you into college, but we’re here to bridge you every step of the way,” Woodman said.

Bridge Year was unveiled amid much fanfare last June during a news conference headlined by Gov. Paul LePage, who talked about developing such a program while on the campaign trail.

“The driving concept behind the governor’s education agenda is ‘What’s best for the students?’” LePage’s spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday. “We’re all about expanding educational opportunities for students.”

Programs such as Bridge Year, she said, improve education while lowering costs, noting that Maine’s per-pupil cost of about $15,000 for kindergarten through grade 12 education is about $4,000 higher than the national average.

Bridge Year is is a concept that is a first for Maine, if not the nation, according to UTC Director Fred Woodman, one of several area educators who served on the steering committee that made Bridge Year happen, at an estimated startup cost of about $25,000 that was shared among the participating institutions.

“We did this on a shoestring. It’s less than $25 a kid,” he said.

As Woodman and Bridge Year Program Coordinator Greg Miller see it, Bridge Year could help address several problems — the fact that 50 percent of college students who go full time drop out nationally; the fact that average student loan debt in Maine currently stands at $29,000; and the fact that Maine needs to start redeveloping its workforce.

“We you think about it, how many students go into school — and if 50 percent don’t graduate and the average student loan is $29,000 — they wind up with the debt but without the degree, so they don’t have the earning power of the degree to go out and pay for the debt,” Miller said.

“Maine has the jobs but if we don’t have the skilled workforce to fill them, so what?” Woodman said.

Woodman attributed the program’s creation to the fact that steering committee members from several different levels of public education in Maine “checked their egos at the door and got it done.”

That did not go unnoticed by LePage.

“It really was led by the community here,” he said while unveiling the program in June. “This is not a solution that came from Augusta. … These are folks who gave up their time, their own time, weekends and evenings to sit around and figure out how to do something that really has never been done in this state. This is almost unprecedented — the collaboration between all of these levels figuring out how to get this done was remarkable and it is going to be a model for the state.”

Both LePage and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen say they want to see similar opportunities offered in other Maine schools.

Bennett said the governor’s biennial budget plan calls for $2 million — $1 million for each year — to replicate the program in other areas of the state.

Dwight Littlefield, the department of education’s liaison for Bridge Year, said that the funds, if approved, would be used for startup costs, including those connected to the summer academies that are part of the program, professional development and curriculum alignment.

Littlefield noted that the four-way partnership of Bridge Year institutions makes it possible for schools throughout the state to take part, if they choose.

While there are considerable distances between the seven campuses that make up the University of Maine System and the seven that comprise the Maine Community College System, state law requires that every high school student in Maine be given the opportunity to attend a career technical education center such as UTC, and there are 27 of those, he said.

Also taking notice are educators and legislators from throughout Maine and beyond.

“This thing is exploding,” Woodman said, noting that he — and Bridge Year students — have been asked to speak about the program to Maine educators, school officials and lawmakers. Woodman said he also has been invited to speak in other states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Tony Brinkley, senior faculty associate at UMaine’s Franco-American Centre and a steering committee member, attributes Bridge Year’s bipartisan political support to the notion that “it’s about the kids, it’s not about political gains.”

“I think the key part to the story from a statewide perspective is when people put [their concerns over turf] aside, you can find common ground. The politics here is changing the status quo,” Brinkley said, adding, “None of this would have been possible if the governor had not set a place for us at the table.”

Hermon High was tapped to be Bridge Year’s trial site because of its size and state-of-the-art technology, and because Superintendent Patricia Duran and Principal Brian Walsh were open to it, Brinkley said.

During a recent roundtable discussion at UTC, some of the students chosen for the inaugural class admitted that the notion of taking college classes seemed daunting.

“College credits in high school? I was like, ‘No way,’” said Taylor Smith, who wants to become a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit. “Then I thought, ‘Oh my God, I am not going to be taking four college courses in high school. That’s not going to happen. That’s way too hard.

“But then one of my friends said [we should] just go see what it’s about,” she said. “We actually had to apply. We had to write a one-page essay and [provide] references, too.”

The students officially became EMMC students — with the college IDs to prove it — on July 1. Only two of the original 16 sophomores selected for the Bridge Year Program has opted out so far, Woodman said.

The college credits that students are earning also can be applied toward degrees at UMaine.

“Essentially, we take Eastern Maine Community College classes at our high school and our high school teachers actually teach the [college] courses and we’re getting college credits and high school credits at the same time but we get the college credits at a discounted price,” Smith said.

Afternoons are spent at UTC, a regional career and technical education school in Bangor, where students take classes specific to their career interests.

During this school year, the group is taking college-level English, chemistry, math and world history, according to their schedule. This summer, they will take a college level entrepreneurship and personal finance course. Next year their college course load will consist of physics, business and technical writing, another math class and innovative engineering.

“We pay $20 per credit hour instead of $117 so we’re saving a lot of money,” said Chanel Watson, who is working toward becoming an art director, a field she said will allow her to combine her interests in business management and art.

Woodman said that community college officials agreed to absorb the $97 credit hour cost difference because they wanted to see how the program would work. During the next school year, Bridge Year students will pay $35 per credit hour, he said.

Though some of the students in the group did not know each other well before embarking on their shared academic journey, they have bonded over time, members said.

“We’re like one big family,” Watson said. “It might be a strange family but it’s there.”

“We’re so close as a group that we have study groups that we go and sit and do all of our homework together,” said Haylie Blackmer, who is working toward becoming a nurse. “We get feedback from one another to see if we’re doing it right. It’s just more beneficial that way.”

Educators and parents both say they’ve seen Bridge Year students grow — both as individuals and as a group.

“The first day they were high school kids. By the third day they were college freshmen. They have everything planned out,” Miller said, noting that this means they are more likely to complete their degree programs.

“We’re very pleased with these students,” Hermon High Principal Brian Walsh said. “Obviously they are motivated.”

“I think they have discovered they can be successful, creative people because the program has given them the chance to reach their full potential,” Brinkley added. “It’s like the odds aren’t against them. They feel they can make a future for themselves and others.

Watson’s father, Ryan Roy, agreed.

“It’s a blessing to see her develop,” he said. “It’s really been a concrete learning experience for her and for the family because she brings home ideas and she processes very well and I can see her apply it and it’s awesome to see that.

“It’s very pleasing to see her invest in her future and to be a parent and be part of that is awesome,” he said. “She’s probably going to be a future business owner and to see her excel in life would be absolutely awesome.”