Pilot Project Encourages Academic Challenges

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Rim country students could be among the most well-prepared lot to enter college and the job market in Arizona thanks to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The money funds a pilot program called the Arizona Academic Scholars (AAS). Payson Unified School District, along with Peoria, Snowflake Unified and Tucson's Flowing Wells are the four school districts selected for the pilot program.

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Herb Weissenfels

This spring, local business volunteers and educators will meet with Rim Country Middle School students to encourage them to take advanced courses in high school.

"The volunteers will discuss careers, wages and how employers value education," said Anna Osborn of the Arizona Business & Education Coalition (ABEC). "Business and education leaders will also work together to create academic supports and arrange scholarships and other rewards for students successfully completing the program."

The program's goal is to prepare students for the rigors of today's competitive job market by developing a more robust math, science, social studies and language arts curriculum that could exceed current graduation requirements mandated by the U.S. Department of Education.

Students who take tough classes in high school are accepted to better colleges, land better jobs and earn higher salaries according to the ABEC -- a nonprofit organization that brings educators and business leaders together to bolster curriculum.

Arizona high school students turn in lackluster academic records to college admission boards reported a 2002 study by the Arizona Board of Regents. Based on coursework, only 16.8 percent of Arizona high school students would receive acceptance letters to the state's universities.

The pilot program was first presented to Rim Country Middle School eighth-grade teachers Dec. 6 in a meeting with AAS representative Mary Wolfe, and PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels. The superintendent, a member of ABEC, was instrumental in having the Payson district chosen as a pilot school.

Although some teachers said they had some concerns that the AAS would benefit only a select few students rather than the majority, they were anxious to see the outcomes.

According to Osborn, between 30 and 35 percent of Payson students take advanced coursework. The district hopes to increase that number to 50 to 75 percent after the program is implemented, she said.

Weissenfels has said he believes many students have the ability to take more rigorous courses, but choose not to because they are more interested in taking easier classes that help maintain grade point averages, or they're simply not motivated.

ABEC Executive Director Susan Carlson is convinced the AAS pilot program will pay academic dividends in Payson.

"Those who complete a rigorous high school course of study, one that exceeds minimum graduation requirements, are able to take advantage of post-secondary educational and employment opportunities in the 21st century.

"Research has shown that rigorous course work is the best predictor of success -- better than GPA, class rank or SAT/ACT scores." Carlson said. For example, students who take advanced math classes, such as algebra II, are nearly 40 percent more likely to complete two-and four-year college degrees.

She added that two years of a foreign language can yield a 4 percent wage increase in the workplace.

Arizona Academic Scholars is supported by a coalition of businesses, educators, and organizations, including the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Governor's office, the Arizona Department of Education, and the Arizona Board of Regents. USAA, Motorola, Intel and Medtronic are among the businesses backing the program.

Osborn said many businesses support AAS because they need a well-educated work force.

The U.S. Department of Education's Center for State Scholars introduced the Arizona Business & Education Coalition in 2002 to strengthen students' academic studies to better prepare them for higher education and the job market.

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