CONCORD — Tucked into Gov. Chris Sununu’s second inaugural address was a promise to create the New Hampshire Career Academy, a partnership involving community colleges, employers and local high schools that will enable motivated and capable students to get a tuition-free associate degree.

If the initiative comes together as planned over the next year, it has the potential to address some of the state’s most vexing issues, including high levels of student debt, workforce shortage and the need to keep more young people from moving away.

“We want to make sure there are no barriers or silos between that 12th year of education and the first year of college, and that there is a smooth transfer from college to employment,” said economist Ross Gittell, chancellor of the community college system.

“It’s about removing those traditional barriers by having the institutions work together instead of requiring that students address those barriers on their own.”

The concept has been working in Rochester, where for more than a year Spaulding High School, Great Bay Community College and aerospace component manufacturer Safran have partnered on a program that allows high school students to spend part of their senior year taking classes at the college for concurrent high school and college credit in the high-demand field of composites manufacturing.

Students who successfully complete the program are guaranteed an interview and most likely a job at Safran, one of Rochester’s premiere employers.

Developed in Rochester

Dean Graziano, extended learning opportunity coordinator for Rochester schools, developed the program after meeting with community college officials.

“He wanted to find a way to reward ambitious high school students who were ready for the challenge of college and eager to begin their careers,” according to the Great Bay Community College website.

Graziano and his Safran Aerospace Composite contacts met with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and in August presented the program to the governor and Executive Council, where it was well received.

“We loved the program; we loved the concept; we loved the potential for what it can do for students,” said Edelblut, “but we recognized we don’t have a sustainable funding model, so we had to develop some way to fund it statewide.”

Now in its second year, the Rochester program has been funded by corporate sponsors, including Safran, Federal Savings Bank, Profile Bank, Waterstone Retail, MyTurn, McDonalds/Napoli Group, Home Depot and Timberland Shoes.

“This has been funded so far by industry, but the companies don’t want to own the education system; that’s our job,” said Edelblut. “They’ve been helpful and useful and now want to transfer this to a sustainable funding model.”

Charter school path

That model will take the form of a charter school, which will be created by a joint application of the state’s community colleges to the Board of Education. If approved, the school will be known as the New Hampshire Career Academy.

It won’t have any buildings, nor will it have any faculty of its own. The courses will be offered through community colleges in partnership with the high schools, using existing faculty.

A board of directors will be created, whose main job will be to establish partnerships with business and industry throughout the state.

As a public charter school, the Career Academy will be able to attract the $7,300 in per-student funding that the state Legislature has established for approved charter schools, thus eliminating the need for students to come up with tuition.

The program will require students to complete several college-level courses in their senior year at their high school, and a fifth year through the Career Academy.

A career path

Students who complete the program will attain a high school diploma, a college associate degree, some form of career credential or certificate and an “established career path with a New Hampshire employer,” according to a Department of Education fact sheet.

“This is not for 100 percent of students,” said Gittell. “It has to be students who have the background, the drive and the motivation to do this.”

But if 5 to 10 percent of students take advantage of the program, that adds up to a lot of people over time, he said.

About 8,000 high school students in the state are already enrolled in a program called Running Start, in which they take college courses while still in high school in a process known as “dual enrollment.”

“With some students, the senior year becomes a year of not doing much because they’ve already completed a lot of the requirements,” Gittell said.

“There is a segment of the population, maybe 5 to 10 percent, who might not be interested in four years of college or two years of community college, but might find this attractive: Do it in one year past your normal 12 years and get a job that pays 15 percent more per year for life with that certificate, and you don’t have to pay for it because it’s free, and you don’t have to leave your community; there’s a job waiting for you.”

Implementation team

The Department of Education announced Friday it was recruiting an implementation team to get the program going, with representatives from the DOE and community college system, educators from career and technical centers, administrators from local high schools and business leaders.

“Over the past 24 hours, we have received overwhelming support for this initiative, and I am excited that we are assembling a diverse team of supportive stakeholders and experts who I am confident will implement this program to get it up and running for New Hampshire’s children,” Sununu said.

Can a statewide program be in place in time for enrollment this fall?

“I’m really an optimistic kind of person,” Edelblut said. “I would love to see that. I don’t know if that’s possible or not, but it’s a target we’ll move toward.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com