Payson's only nontraditional public high school offering alternative education has received one of the state's top education awards.
The school has a higher percentage rate of students going on to further their education after graduation than most schools in the state.
The Payson Center for Success has received an A+ rating from the Arizona Educational Foundation (AEF).
"Quite frankly, from what they (judges who choose award recipients) wrote in their reports, in my opinion the school saves kids' lives. It stands out among schools in Arizona," Executive Director of the Arizona Educational Foundation Bobbie O'Boyle said.
"Seventy to 80 percent of students who graduate from the Payson Center for Success continue their learning at educational facilities including colleges and universities," O'Boyle said.
The state average is 48 percent according to studies by Arizona State University.
The Arizona Educational Foundation created the A+ School Recognition Program in 1983 to recognize outstanding Arizona schools and promote inter-facility self-assessment and planning. Schools submitted applications to AEF three months ago in February and this year the Payson Center for Success was among 19 Arizona schools receiving the award on April 18.
Each school getting the award also receives $500 and a banner designating it as an A+ school.
Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O'Brien said the award reflects the success of the school's students, staff and administration and he is proud of their accomplishment.
The road to recognition wasn't easy; getting an A+ rating is hard.
It can be even harder at non-traditional schools like the 54-student strong Payson Center for Success than at traditional schools, according to state officials.
"Most of the students who come here are at-risk students," said Payson Center for Success Principal Kathe Ketchem.
"It's very unusual for a school to get a visit from the selection committee the first year it applies for the award'" Ketchem said.
"We hoped for some feedback, but we didn't expect to get the award," she said.
To get the A+ rating, students, staff and administration had a number of hoops to jump through.
In its application, the Payson Center for Success had to provide demographic information, a description of current programs and practices, documentation of parent and community involvement, equity, service, sustained high achievement or significant improvement in assessment and a profile of the school principal.
Principal Ketchem gives most of the credit for the award to the students.
She said it is their dedication and willingness to learn, along with the school's hands- on approach to teaching that made it possible.
Both Ketchem and students said PCS has a unique approach to learning.
Ketchem said part of what makes their approach unique is the high standards and expectations they have of students, despite them being considered at-risk.
She said students are required to get a grade of at least 70 to 80 percent on all work or it is sent back to the student for review, correction or supplemental information and resubmission.
"Unless they (students) have scores at those percentage levels or higher, they don't have an adequate understanding of the subject in our opinion," Ketchem said.
Another of the differences is the single open-air classroom.
Courses are not taught in small individual classrooms, but in one large room using one-on-one instruction between students and teachers.
She said teaching is approached with a one-on-one attitude designed to build unity and let students know they are valued.
She said the non-traditional teaching style has proven successful for the school.
"Our staff motto is ‘we will do whatever it takes,' to help a student learn and achieve," she said.
A further difference from more traditional schools, Ketchem said, is the personal education approach PCS staff uses.
She said students meet individually with teachers to discuss courses before they begin class to determine what that particular student's needs are, as well as what is required to complete the course successfully.
"The courses and classroom is structured like the real world workplace, it teaches them (students) to interact with others and to get along, so when they go to work out in the real world it will be familiar to them," Ketchem said.
"We try to show them how what they are learning is relevant to their life and their career-path, work ethic and life skills to motivate them," Ketchem said.
PCS also has what they call the Dragonheart program to promote student involvement in community service.
Current Dragonheart partnerships with the community include, Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Reading is Fundamental, the Humane Society, Teen Court, Payson Kiwanis Club and Head Start, Adopt-A-Family and the Payson Regional Medical Center just to name a few.
"PCS students become ambassadors for the school through participation in community projects and real-world experiences while building a sense of worth and confidence within themselves," Ketchem said.
Students at the school also think it is among the best in Arizona.
Heather Barnett, 17, said it has helped her focus on her future.
She said the open, one-on-one teaching style is one of the things that has helped her succeed.
"The environment helps you focus on your class and not on things like ‘what time it is' and ‘when is class over,'" she said.
Barnett has already taken the life skills and work ethic emphasized at the school into her chosen career field.
Barnett has been a disc jockey at KMOG radio since November.
She said being treated with respect and like an adult and not "just some dumb kid" has been instrumental in her choosing to graduate and go on to college.
Michael Faust, 18, has also already begun his career path.
Faust said he completed an internship with the weather department at CBS5 television.
He said that partly because of his experience at the station he will be going on to Northern Arizona University to pursue a meteorology-related degree.
Anthony Azevedo, 19, echoes Barnett's high opinion of the school.
"This school allows us tremendous personal growth, it's an amazing place that doesn't let you fail," Azevedo said.