By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – Students and staff at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College paused on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the civil rights icon who is the namesake of their school.

The group reflected on the vision he gave them decades ago that they carry on every day in the their classrooms.

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(credit: CBS)

“For me just to go to this school and for me to pay any kind of homage to the man, the figure that he was. I see it like a really great honor,” said Markus Carter, 17, a junior at the school.

April 4 marks 50 years since Dr. King was shot and killed in Memphis. Students and staff participated in a moment of silence for 50 seconds in the morning as a personal tribute to King.

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The mission of the school is to prepare students for college and other post-secondary programs as early as sixth grade. Families choose to send their students to DMLK.

Many are eligible for free or reduced lunches, but the administration does not allow that to hold back what their students are capable of pursuing in school and beyond.

“Just because they may fit that demographic, it doesn’t mean that the opportunities for them should be limited,” said Jacquelyn Scales, assistant principal at DMLK. “We’re looking for students we can open doors for, and many doors, many opportunities, not very few but many.”

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Jacquelyn Scales (credit: CBS)

Students are expected to live a life similar to King by becoming “Great Leaders. Great Thinkers. Great Communicators,” as posted throughout the hallways of the building. There is a responsibility that many say they feel to live up to because they attend DMLK.

“He’s opened a door for us to have these opportunities,” said Israel Zavala, 16, a junior. “It’s great to be able to represent his vision of us having a dream.”

“This is what he fought for and we are living in it, and as young person I try not to take advantage of it,” said Anthony King, 17, a junior that proudly points out he shares the same last name as the civil rights leader. “I feel like I am kind of more so obligated to be a great representation of what he wanted to teach us.”

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The focus on higher education at an early age has an impact on students who come to DMLK not expecting to pursue a degree after high school and who may not have any family members who graduated from college.

Students are told to select pathways to help them prepare for college, the military, or specific skills-based jobs in the workforce.

“It made me switch my perspective because at first I wasn’t sure about going to college,” said Alexis Bishop, 17, a junior who wants to become an engineer. “This is actually what I want to do in my life and this school is actually preparing me for success in the future.”

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(credit: CBS)

An exhibit on loan to the school in the main hall highlights the connections King had to Colorado and the visits he made to Denver. It also showcases the large response the community has had in recent years to keep up the movement he began.

Many students learned about King’s multiple visits to Denver and the active response he has received in their home state after seeing the photos and posters on display in their school.

“It’s amazing to see that he was actually traveling around the United States,” said Zavala. “Not just focusing mainly on one part, but to try to change the entire country all at one time.”

Administrators made sure to use the anniversary to underline the impact of King, but say they draw from his teachings on a regular basis at the school.

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“What’s possible when we all come together around a certain mission or vision and we want our students to be great,” said Scales. “Today is just another opportunity for them to have pride in our namesake and want to be their best selves.”

Students echoed that belief of gratitude for what King did years ago and the impact it still has years later.

“Martin Luther King set the foundation for minorities in America to strive and achieve for what they want to do today,” said Carter.

“We just have to continue to make his dream a reality and continue to pass that down to future generations,” said Zavala.

The anniversary also served for many across the country to look forward to what can still be done 50 years later to improve the opportunities available to all.

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DMLK offers its students the chance to take college classes while in high school. This fall it will offer courses for “13th” and “14th” grades so students can earn an Associate’s degree through DMLK.

The school will partner with local community colleges to provide tuition-free programs to their students.

Over the past five academic school years, students taking both college and high school courses at the same time have demonstrated they can handle the workload. Statistics from the administration show anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of students enrolled in those college courses are able to pass the class with a “C” grade or better.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter the environment that you’re in, it doesn’t matter you’re history,” said Scales. “It matters the foundation that is being formed, and how you’re stepping out on faith to be successful.”

Students appreciate the chance to take these advanced courses at an early college to help stay on track for their ambitious plans for the future. Carter says he not only wants to go to college but plans to attend law school as well.

“I really developed a new passion for just wanting to help people that are like faced with injustice,” said Carter. “I want to be a civil rights lawyer when I grow up.”

Shawn Chitnis reports for CBS4 News at 10 on weekends and CBS4 News at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. throughout the week. Email him story ideas at smchitnis@cbs.com and connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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