Before she was leading her class as student-body president, winning awards at civil engineering competitions and spearheading her school’s first homecoming, Courtney Jones was the elementary school student breezing pages past her peers and finishing books ahead of time.

So her family was intrigued by College Park Academy, a public charter school launched in 2013 with the support of the University of Maryland and a mission of blending individual online learning with traditional classroom instruction.

Jones was among the inaugural enrollees, and it proved worthwhile as she walked the stage yesterday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as salutatorian of College Park Academy’s first-ever graduating high school class.

“I feel like I’m in a special group since I’ve been here since seventh grade,” Jones said. “I’ve basically done most of my growing up here.”

College Park Academy graduationThe event was a milestone not just for the 86 seniors who earned their diplomas, but also for the proponents and partners of the Prince George’s County public charter school, one of the nation’s first “bricks and clicks” middle schools. Founded as part of the College Park City-University Partnership’s “Vision 2020” to create a top-20 college town, the academy opened by lottery to just sixth- and seventh-graders, adding a grade each year. While students attend school daily, a third of their courses are taught by online teachers, allowing more personalized learning where students can work at their own pace.

In addition, College Park Academy students have access to college-level classes, clubs and events led by University of Maryland professors and students, and they can earn college credits to jump-start their resumes.

The university’s involvement has evolved as College Park Academy has grown. Besides leading courses and after-school activities in areas such as robotics, STEM and music, UMD hosts tours and field trips on campus, sends professors to lecture at the school, and participates in themed “signature” programs covering subjects such as business, computer science and journalism.

“The whole idea from the beginning was that it would be a school that was very involved with the university,” said Donna Wiseman, former dean of UMD’s College of Education and a founding board member of College Park Academy. “And then to have this amazing online program, a different way of learning and teaching, that added up to the whole story.”

That blended-learning approach has been met with success—and higher demand. College Park Academy’s standardized test scores are among the state’s highest, and this academic year, more than 1,500 students applied for 200 openings.

“Parents know we provide the kind of schooling which they, and top colleges, want: a focus on rigorous academics, social skills and respect for others,” said Duane Arbogast, interim executive director for College Park Academy.

While yesterday's graduates are headed off to UMD, Penn State, Johns Hopkins and beyond, this first class helped shape and build a lasting culture at College Park Academy, said Jones, who will study mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“The folks who sat down and launched this idea took a risk on an innovative idea,” said College of Education Dean Jennifer King Rice, also a College Park Academy board member. “Seeing this first graduating class is really exciting. It shows that risk really paid off.”