Peyton Amberson

Piedmont High student, Peyton Amberson works on a machine at Associated Metalcast in Oxford. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

A strong streak of independence runs through Peyton Amberson.

As far back as he can remember, the Piedmont High School senior has thought of being out on his own.

The 18-year-old’s years of hard work toward that goal paid off last week when he earned a community college degree in machine tool technology while still in high school. His effort also helped him secure a full-time skilled job with an Oxford manufacturer.

“I’ve always wanted to do my own thing, to pay for my own things,” Amberson said. “As soon as I had the chance, I took it.”

Amberson, who graduates from Piedmont High Thursday, spent his last three summers taking dual enrollment courses at Central Alabama Community College in Sylacauga. He’s just one of a growing number of students to take advantage of the program that lets high school students take college courses, and has expanded in the state in recent years, education officials say.

Amberson said he first got the idea from his father, who is a machine shop teacher at CACC, to take dual enrollment courses offered through a partnership between Piedmont High and the community college. Amberson enrolled in the program and took four classes each summer at CACC from ninth through 11th grade.

Since January though he has worked as a machinist full-time at Associated Metalcast in Oxford, only to take all his remaining high school courses online at home each night.

“A lot of people didn’t believe I was doing that,” Amberson said. “People thought I was being homeschooled.”

Amberson said he jumped at the chance to take dual enrollment courses, but soon learned that his goal to obtain a career early wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s been to the point where there were tears and me wanting to quit,” Amberson said. “It’s been an up and down road and if it wasn’t for my family’s support, I don’t know where I’d be.”

But his dedication and promise to earn his degree was what helped him get his job at Associated Metalcast.

Ron Douglas, president of Associated Metalcast, a casting and precision machining company, said he met Amberson when he came to tour the facility last year with his father. Amberson left an impression because he’s the only 18-year-old working at the facility, Douglas said.

“This young man has a personality that far exceeds that of a normal 18-year-old,” Douglas said. “We’re using him to do a lot of different things.”

Adam Clemons, principal at Piedmont High, said he's unaware of another Piedmont student using dual enrollment to graduate from community college before high school.

“He's a fine young man and we’re very proud of him,” Clemons said.

Still, dual enrollment has grown both in student use and in course offerings in recent years, Clemons said.

Four years ago, just four students were using dual enrollment through Gadsden State Community College, Clemons said. Since then, the school has expanded the program to include more dual courses with Gadsden State, along with courses at Jacksonville State University and CACC. The program now lets students earn college credits at the high school or take classes at the participating campuses.

As such, the high school currently has around 50 students taking dual enrollment classes at the high school and another 12 taking courses at Gadsden State’s Ayers campus in Anniston.

“I’m always looking to give students a chance to earn college credit,” Clemons said. “The goal is to give them as much of an advantage, so when they go to the next level, be it a job or college, they already have something in their pocket to help them.”

Teresa Rhea, dean of enrollment and retention at Gadsden State, said student interest in dual enrollment has grown in recent years.

“We’ve been getting the word out that it’s a viable option,” Rhea said. “And in the past year or so, we’ve been able to offer dual enrollment scholarships in certain technical programs.”

Martha Lavender, president of Gadsden State, said the state in the last two years has put more emphasis in getting high school students into more technical dual enrollment courses to graduate quicker and enter the manufacturing workforce. As such, the Alabama Legislature last year pumped $10.3 million into the state’s Career Tech Dual Enrollment Program, about double what was spent the year prior, Lavender said.

“To be competitive, you’ve got to have a workforce to meet demand of manufacturers,” Lavender said.

Rhea said Gadsden State hasn’t had a student to graduate before high school like Amberson yet.

“But we have several who are near that point,” she said. “We have some who are very close or who have enough certification to enter the workforce.”

Amberson said his path to employment wasn’t always easy, but he wouldn't go back and change his choice to use dual enrollment if he could.

“I encourage other people to do it,” Amberson said. “While others I know are looking for what to do in life, I’ve already got a full-time job and I’ve already bought my own truck.”

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.