Students Shine, Get Ahead at Early College High Schools

A world of opportunity awaits motivated students at AAEC Early College High Schools.

With six campuses across the state and dedicated staff, AAEC (Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center) offers a valuable advantage to their students- the chance to earn college credits during high school, without having to pay tuition.

The district partners with Maricopa Community Colleges and Yavapai Community College to provide a college and career preparatory experience like no other. Take, for example, their horsemanship courses or global study excursions that send students around the world.

It’s all part of their mission to set students up for success as lifelong learners. “We want them to be continuously curious,” said Brian Snoddy, Director of Curriculum & Instruction at AAEC. “We just want everyone to succeed and we want to help them in any way we can.”

One of the ways they make a difference is through their one-of-a-kind program that allows students to earn high school and college credit at the same time. AAEC pays the tuition, giving students a chance to get a head start on their higher education goals. And with each of their campuses located conveniently close to a community college, it’s easy for AAEC students to take advantage of this head start.  

“We actually pay for them to go to community college. Other programs have AP classes, but why make them take a class and pay for a test when they can just take the class at the college and earn the credit,” Brian said.  “It’s really helpful, because they can save up to two years on college expenses.”

The success of their program is undeniable, with approximately 25% of students earning an Associate’s Degree by the time they finish high school. This saves families thousands of dollars- a huge relief for many as the rising costs of tuition cause concern. “I can’t tell you how many parents come up to us, saying they wish this would have existed when they were younger.”

While the potential to save up to two full years of higher education certainly attracts parents and students, so does the variety of classes you can’t find anywhere else. There’s horsemanship and equine classes, where students can learn how to care for and ride horses. Then there’s a veterinary science program, a four-year track that prepares them for a career in the animal science and medical fields by training alongside seasoned professionals. They even have the chance to participate in a unique capstone project in Africa, where they help rhinos and other native animals.

Another big draw is their strong FFA program, where students are immersed in the world of farming, agriculture, animal production and food science.

Students are encouraged to embrace volunteering and making a difference, whether it’s through on-campus service dog training, community projects or other ventures. In fact, it’s a graduation requirement- students must complete 30 or more hours of community service every year. This dedication to social responsibility gives students valuable experience for their resumes and college applications, and sets them up favorably for future funding opportunities. AAEC wants their graduates to be college-ready and employable when they move on to the next chapter in their lives. “That’s one of the reasons why we work so hard on scholarships, because we want to help them be successful and ready for life after high school,” Brian said. “Principals and Assistant Principals sit down with students each semester and go over their education and career plans to make sure they do well.”

And they do extraordinarily well, with some serving as Valedictorians on both the high school and college level, as well as participating in clubs and student government both at the high school and at the college. Since opening their original campus at South Mountain in 1997, they have expanded to Paradise Valley, Red Mountain, Estrella Mountain, Prescott Valley and Mesa- a brand new campus that’s in its first year. No matter where they are, students get the chance to interact with people of all ages and walks of life. “Professors tell us that they don’t even know they are in high school.”

These exciting educational opportunities allow students to advance and become accustomed to rigorous academic instruction. During their first semester of freshman year, students focus on high school courses only, so they can have a smooth adjustment period. Those with a good academic record are invited to take their first college class in the spring of their freshman year. Students with a C average or better can take classes their sophomore year and their junior year. By the time they are seniors, they can almost be full-time college students, taking 12 college credits. “Instead of taking high school English, they are taking English 101 or 102, so they are getting credit for concurrent enrollment,” Brian said.

It’s the best of both worlds for parents and students, some of whom travel up to twenty miles just to attend AAEC. A head start can help tremendously with the financial burden of higher education, and school-to-career initiatives help students discover their potential. With just under 1800 students spread out over six campuses, class sizes remain small, allowing for individual attention and an ideal learning environment. For many, it’s a welcome change from other valley schools that are bursting at the seams with huge student populations.

Last May, 340 students across all campuses graduated from AAEC. They were offered over $9 million in scholarships to fund their futures. Many graduates applied for these scholarships in their senior seminar class, where they learn the ins and outs of the college application process and submitting their FAFSA. “One of their full-time jobs as seniors is to find money for their college…we don’t want them going into debt like so many students go through today. “

This never-ending support is a game-changer for many students, especially on the South Mountain campus, which has been recognized for closing the achievement gap. “Many students come to us with very low skills. We pride ourselves on getting them accepted to college and helping them earn college credit and Associates degrees.”

Four of their six campuses qualify for free and reduced lunch, and AAEC schools are a safe space for young adults from all walks of life, including those in low income households or learning disabilities. “Many people think charter schools pick their students, but we are a free public charter school that provides opportunity to all students.”

AAEC also sets students up for success by ensuring they fulfill all the requirements that universities are looking for, such as four years of English, Social Studies and Math, 3 years of science, two years of world language classes, and 1 year of fine art. Learning excursions to global destinations such as Ireland and Costa Rica allow students to apply their knowledge to the world around them.

This unparalleled education sets students up to achieve their dreams. 85% of AAEC graduates go on to continue their college education, with alumni heading to state universities as well as Berkeley, Harvard and the United States Military Academy at West Point. Others embrace managerial and technical careers, using what they’ve learned at AAEC to make an impact in their workplace.

Brian, who is now in his tenth year with the district, says he has so many good memories, but the most rewarding part is watching students walk across the stage at graduation and go on to achieve amazing things.

Learn more about AAEC Early College High School on their official website here.

Editor’s Note: This Article was written as My Local News Sponsored Content.

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