It’s barely dawn and Emerson Ortiz’s mom is walking her tired teen to college. That’s right. College.  

“Oh man, it’s too early,” he sighs. But he’s not complaining. Emerson is 13 years old. He’s only been in the U.S. for two years and has big plans for the rest of his life.

“I want to be a surgeon and I want to go to Stanford,” he notes.

And it all starts inside a classroom at Vista Middle School in Panorama City.

Three days a week, Emerson and his classmates meet at 7 a.m. for Music 116: the History of Rock, Pop and Soul Music. It’s a real college course offered by Los Angeles City College. 

It’s taught by a real professor from their faculty and the students earn three real college credits.

“These are credits that would probably cost over a thousand bucks for them,” said Morgan Hatch, the school’s college and career coach. “So, by earning these credits now, they’re saving money as well as learning that college is doable.”

And that’s the real lesson here, not just in this class, but the whole school.

Ninety eight percent of students at Vista qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 45 percent speak English as a second language. But Principal Joe Nardulli says that doesn’t mean higher education is beyond their reach. Many, he says, will be the first in their family to go to college, and giving them a taste of it in middle school lays the groundwork.

“Because it makes college a reality and not just a dream,” Nardulli explains. Offering the class on campus, he says, “tells them this is something I will achieve because I am achieving it now.”

It’s an achievement Emerson is grateful for.

“That’s a big opportunity that Vista is giving me,” he points out.

This is the first college level dual enrollment class the school has offered, but it won’t be the last. They are working with LACC to select a new course to offer these middle school scholars in future semesters.