It’s the morning of Showcase. Students are running through the hall with costumes and 3D hearts trying to make last minute changes to their projects before their families and the community comes to campus.
At the beginning of that hall, the words, “Your Future Today” are painted, greeting students every morning at Academy of the Canyons Middle College High School.
A statement especially daunting when most people don’t know what they want for lunch, much less their future in high school.
It seems the perfect opportunity to most parents: for their children to obtain college credits or an associate’s degree while also obtaining their high school diploma.
“We outperform every school almost across the state and in every area possible,” said AOC Principal Dr. Pete Getz. “Our graduation rate has maintained at 100 percent for a long time. We are the highest performing subgroup at the college.”
But AOC students can face extreme levels of stress and give up the typical “high school experience.”
I should know, I’m one of them.
“AOC students put more pressure on themselves,” said social studies teacher Jessica Ruiz. “It’s kind of an echochamber. Students think that everyone is performing perfectly and that if they don’t perform perfectly they are failures. I don’t think that expectation exists at another high school.”
Like other high schools in the Hart District, AOC is free. Students also attend COC classes for free, but have to pay student fees and for any college textbooks.
Unlike other high schools in the district, AOC has relatively small numbers: approximately a total of 400 students, with each grade averaging 100 students.
Class sizes are also smaller than most high schools and offer more rigorous curriculum so the students can compete in the college environment on their campus.
As ninth graders, students are expected to mature and behave like adults while at school, as they are on a college campus.
AOC has been apart of COC for 19 years. AOC teachers take the time to learn COC professors’ expectations and curriculum so their students can be successful once they enter the college setting.
“Professors at the college love our students because they’re there every day, they work hard, they want to do well, and they care about being there,” said Getz.
There are three ways to get into AOC. The majority of students are chosen from a lottery after an application screening process, other students get in if their parents work for the William S. Hart school district and other students get in if a sibling is currently attending the school.
While they don’t have specific criteria, when looking through their 450-550 applicants they expect students to be passing core classes, to have consistent attendance, and to have little discipline problems.
“Students who want to be here will be successful,” said Getz. “Students who want to be here for any other reason, whether it be a parent who forced them or they want to get ahead in college have a harder time succeeding.”
Students who attend AOC trade-in Friday Night Lights, athletics, band, Homecoming, and other normal high school activities for an academically focused atmosphere.
“I know I gave up my mental health to come here,” said AOC senior Sophia Martinez.
“The intensity, the rigor, the high expectations, the overall environment is not super healthy when you’re getting to wellness and balance and maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” said Getz.
In response to these concerns, the school has adopted a wellness campaign and have “gone to great lengths” to create a safer and more emotionally supportive environment.
This includes a wellness room, a social emotional learning class, a part-time therapist available for walk-ins, and student lead activities that have been adopted across other schools in the district.
“This is a very, very difficult environment to be a 16-year-old student in,” said Getz. “It’s too competitive. I worry about it constantly.”
However for some students, the trade-in is worth it when they look at the bigger picture.
“If you want to save money and you plan to attend a UC then it’s worth coming to AOC,” said senior Jonathan Lee. “It’s rough in the beginning, when everyone is getting used to the environment, but once you get over that it’s kind of OK.”
Lee plans to attend UC Berkeley this fall.
“I think AOC is worth it,” said Dhivya Vadapalli, a senior at AOC.
Vadapalli wanted to attend the high school after seeing how her older sister enjoyed her experience and was getting a head start on her education. Her sister is now at UCLA.
Vadapalli is graduating from COC with an associate’s degree before she receives her high school diploma. She will be attending the University of Southern California as a Global Health major.
Fellow seniors Emily Olstad and Caroline Uhrig feel the same way Vadapalli does.
“Some high schools have it way harder than we do,” Uhrig said. “They have to worry about AP tests and we don’t. Even though we are taking college level classes, my COC classes are totally easier than my AOC classes.”
“The teachers at AOC are so willing to help out their students and make sure they succeed,” said Olstad.
Olstad plans to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Uhrig plans to attend UCLA.
“Not even academic success, I hope students see this as an opportunity to explore areas of interests,” said Getz.
As I graduate this weekend and leave for Northeastern University, I can say that despite the sleep deprivation and the past four years of constant stress, I would not have pursued journalism if it weren’t for the opportunities I had at AOC.
“Going to school here is such an amazing opportunity,” said Getz. “Students who graduate from this site graduate with something unique: truly life-long friendships. You become very close to all of your classmates and you have amazing relationships with your staff.”