Nine Denver students got a unique head start this year: They earned enough college credits during high school to qualify for a college Spanish minor.

Gustavo Luna is one of the students. The 18-year-old, who grew up speaking Spanish, plans to major in aviation and aerospace science at Metropolitan State University of Denver starting this fall. Thanks to a partnership between Abraham Lincoln High School and the university, Luna will enter college with the coursework for a minor already completed, saving him both time and money — and eventually giving him an advantage with employers looking for bilingual employees.

“I think it is a huge honor to have a minor while you are in high school,” Luna said in class shortly before graduation. “Because it can open a lot of opportunities.”

The Spanish minor program started in the fall of 2017. Maria Akrabova, an associate professor of Spanish and chair of the modern languages department at MSU Denver, said the idea grew organically. Denver Public Schools already has a relationship with the university to offer free college classes to its high school students, who can also earn college credit by getting a high score on an Advanced Placement test.

Many students at Abraham Lincoln are native Spanish speakers who do well on the AP Spanish test. Akrabova said district and college administrators noticed that students who got a high score on the AP test had earned enough credits to put them just three college Spanish courses away from qualifying for a minor.

Immigrant students, Akrabova said, “are the carriers of the language. It’s good to give them the opportunity to capitalize on their prior learning and move forward, as well — and also open the door to the idea that higher education is a reachable goal for their future.”

Elena Calvo Blesa, who teaches college-level Spanish courses at Abraham Lincoln, said that’s one of the biggest benefits she sees to the program.

“This is helping students with less opportunities to start a path,” she said. “Some of them will say, ‘No, I’m not interested because I don’t want to study Spanish because I want to become a nurse.’”

But Calvo Blesa said obstacles such as money or a lack of support will sometimes prevent those students from going to college at all. The minor gives them a head start, even if they’re not as passionate about studying Spanish as they are about other subjects.

“This is a way to help them start out and make them excited about college,” she said.

The program has been so successful that it’s expanding to several other Denver high schools this fall, including North High, John F. Kennedy High, and Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

Going forward, students won’t be able to complete all seven college courses needed for a minor while in high school. Instead, Akrabova said they’ll be able to complete six out of the seven and then be encouraged to enroll at a college or university to take the last course. Part of the reason, university officials said, is to urge the students to matriculate. To formally earn the minor, students must earn a college degree.

It’s likely that many students who participate in the program will also earn a separate honor called the “seal of biliteracy” that recognizes their fluency in at least two languages. More than 800 Denver high school seniors already earned the seal this year, and it’s possible several hundred more could earn it based on AP test scores that will be released this summer.

Frida Sandoval graduated from Abraham Lincoln last week with the Spanish minor. She plans to go to MSU Denver, where she’ll major in biology. She wants to be a doctor.

“I can speak Spanish and English,” Sandoval said, “so I can help more people.”