Missouri Innovation students will share the stage today with President Obama

Armaja LaRue-Hill is a high-achieving high school student just 18 credits shy of earning a two-year associate college degree. This summer, she landed a paid internship with Cerner Corp.

On Wednesday, she gets to meet President Barack Obama when he visits the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.

The 17-year-old was all smiles Tuesday, but also a little nervous. Should she wear her curly Afro full and fluffy, or pulled back into a poofy ball?

“I don’t want to be sitting behind the president of the United States with my hair looking crazy,” she said and then laughed. “Really, I just want to get a fist bump and an autograph.”

LaRue-Hill and several other students from the Missouri Innovation Campus in Lee’s Summit will be sitting on the stage Wednesday afternoon when Obama delivers his second address of the day. The first will be at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

The speeches are part of a series on the economy that the White House has planned for the coming weeks. Administration officials have said Obama won’t be presenting a to-do list but will be talking about housing, retirement, health, jobs and education.

Even before his re-election, Obama had called on states to find ways to slow the rising cost of college. He also has called for schools to produce more graduates skilled in fields that meet the demands of the job market.

In Warrensburg, University of Central Missouri officials think Obama chose their school because he plans to mention the new innovation campus, a high-school-to-college-to-work program that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.

The campus, which launched last fall with 17 students from 11 high schools, was developed as a collaboration among the university, the Lee’s Summit School District, Metropolitan Community College and several business partners such as Cerner and DST.

The campus is supported by state and corporate funding. Last fall, Gov. Jay Nixon announced financing of nearly $9 million to establish similar innovation campuses throughout Missouri.

High school students enter the program their junior or senior year. At their home schools and on the campus in Lee’s Summit, students take the courses required to graduate from high school.

At the same time, they take college courses, earning credits from Metropolitan Community College. They finish high school with a diploma and an associate degree.

During the summers, they intern with an area business in a job matching the skills they’re studying. The company pays the intern $8 an hour and separately covers the tuition for two years of community college credits.

After high school, students will finish their final two years of a bachelor of science degree at the University of Central Missouri. Program officials expect the students to receive enough in scholarships and grants to cover most, if not all, of the costs.

Because employers are deeply involved in the program, administrators say, students leave college with exactly the skills the industry needs to put them to work.

“This program is a game changer for how young people are gaining access to higher education in our area,” said Mark James, chancellor of Metropolitan Community College. “When a high school student is able to not only work toward an associate’s degree but also gain industry experience doing an internship — all before graduating from high school — that’s an invaluable opportunity.”

Stan Elliott, a facilitator with the innovation campus, said it’s the collaboration between high schools, colleges and employers that makes it work.

“This couldn’t happen without each segment being committed,” he said. “There was no model for this. This is a one-of-a-kind program, and I think the White House figured that as well. A visit from the president represents a huge honor, to have this recognition at the end of our first year with the program.”

LaRue-Hill, who will be a senior at Raytown South High School this fall, expects to graduate from college in 2016 with a four-year degree and little or no student loan debt.

Before being accepted into the innovation campus program, “I was worried how I was ever going to afford to go to college,” LaRue-Hill said. “It’s so expensive. My brother, who was going to Hampton University (in Hampton, Va.), couldn’t afford to finish. He had to leave for a while and come home.”

Fellow student Joey Nooner, who graduated from Lee’s Summit West High School, also is interning at Cerner. Both he and LaRue-Hill hope to get full-time jobs with the company when they graduate from college.

“I love what I’m doing,” Nooner said. “It definitely beats a fast-food job. I don’t know any of my friends working for a corporation like this so early, going to college free and getting a chance to meet the president too.”