Give students the opportunity to work around horses, earn their associate’s degree in high school, and then send them off to university.
It’s a formula that has been working for 20 years at agribusiness and equine science schools in Arizona run by private charter school operator, Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center (AAEC). It serves 1,800 students and has six campuses including its newest in Mesa.
Its unique teaching model places small high schools alongside community colleges throughout the state where students earn college and high school credits at the same time.
“We don’t put our students in AP classes, we put them in college,” Assistant Director Suzanne Drakes said.
On graduation, the average student has 46 transferable credits, and 23 percent complete high school with an associate’s degrees, Drakes said.
“The whole senior year is about really working on the next step to college from high school,” Academic Services Director Brian Snoddy said. Last year, 346 graduates were offered over $9 million in scholarships.
Many students go on to colleges and universities to graduate early, then on to careers in agriculture, animal medicine, medicine, engineering and education.
Former student Alexis Kersting attended the AAEC school next to Paradise Valley Community College. She knew she wanted to be a vet at 13 when her parents gave her Romeo, a Yorkshire Terrier.
“That was my first responsibility and when we went to the vet and I saw what was involved, it opened my eyes,” she said.
Instead of taking P.E. and art for electives, she took anatomy, physiology, equine science and clinical veterinarian classes. She graduated at 17 with her associate’s in science. At age 19 she earned her bachelor’s from the University of Arizona.
Now 23, Kersting will be one of the youngest students to graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Midwestern University in Glendale next year.
Kersting said she liked the small school atmosphere, teachers who prepared her for college, and of course, the animals.
Horses and dogs are on most campuses. Students can take general academics or four-year specialty studies in agribusiness, equine studies, veterinary medicine and medicine. There’s a two-year service dog program.
AAEC was founded by executive director Linda Proctor Downing in 1997. It is one of the first charter schools to receive guaranteed lower interest loans under a new state program for top rated charter schools. It was able to borrow $17 million to build the new Mesa campus and expand its presence in the west Valley.
AAEC advertises a free college education for Arizona residents. The high school pays for any college credits that are transferable to a community college or university.
It’s a great financial incentive for parents and students, particularly low- and middle-income, said Diana Alarcon who attended the South Mountain campus. Alarcon also graduated with her associate’s at 17, and earned her first bachelor’s at 19 from Arizona State University. The first in her family to go to college, Alarcon recently took the entrance exam for medical school. She wants to be a thoracic surgeon.
“My mom is a single parent and a waitress who never had the opportunity to go to school,” said Alarcon, 27. “My family didn’t understand why I was going to college. I had no idea what I was getting into. AAEC really helped because I didn’t have anyone else to tell me what it entailed.”