The Aspire Arizona Foundation honored 104 Payson High School students who took college classes last year — including 67 students who got As doing demanding, college-level work.

Aspire Arizona also honored the people who donated $31,000 to cover dual-credit courses offered by Gila Community College on the high school campus. That includes a $10,000 donation from the Holbrook-Pyle Foundation and other support from the MHA Foundation.

The Thursday morning event filled the dining room at The Rim Club with students, donors, teachers, administrators and community leaders enjoying a deluxe breakfast.

“Just think what it means to these kids and their families to start college as a sophomore — think of the money they can save,” said Aspire Arizona President Tom Slonaker.

One of the students honored — Lance Beckner — said the dual-credit program put him on the path to college. A junior now, he hopes to start ASU with perhaps a year of college credit already covered. That will allow him to focus on taking more advanced computer courses, having completed preliminary courses like English 101 and computer maintenance while still in high school. If he attends college, he’ll be the first in his extended family — to the delight of his parents.

“Definitely taking the dual credits got me way more excited. It feels like I’m already in college sort of, and makes me more excited for it,” said Beckner.

That’s the whole point of the program, in a community where the schools have a relatively high dropout rate and low college attendance rate, according to statewide ratings.

The MHA Foundation set up the Aspire Arizona Foundation in 2013 to encourage college attendance by Rim Country students.

This year, Aspire Arizona boosted its support to three classes per student, per semester, compared to one previously. The program now makes it possible for students to start college as sophomores or even juniors. At ASU, tuition costs $10,000 per year and living expenses and books often boost the cost to $25,000 per year. That means families could potentially save $50,000 by taking advantage of the Aspire program.

The foundation is in the midst of a fundraising drive for expanded scholarship support. The MHA Foundation has agreed to match every dollar donated by people in the community.

Kaycee Pugel, who graduated from PHS 10 years ago and got a degree from Northern Arizona University, spoke at the breakfast — urging the A-earning students at the breakfast to take full advantage of the program.

The dual-credit courses will get them ready for the demands of college, said Pugel.

“College classes are tough and you are responsible to show up and study. College professors care, but they are not going to call your mom and dad if you don’t come to class. So have some fun, but be grateful for this opportunity. And rejoice you may not have to take that class again — or pay for it.”

Longhorns basketball and volleyball star Raegan Ashby was one of the students who has accumulated a semester of college credits. She’s headed to Southern Utah University, where she will play volleyball. She wants to become an elementary school teacher. She’s also the first in her family to go to college.

“The dual-enrollment program really jump-started me,” she said.

Beckner said his parents have always wanted him to go to college.

His father’s a carpenter and his mother a nurse. The Aspire Arizona program propped open the door to those family dreams.

“I was really pushed by my teacher to take the dual-enrollment classes,” he said. “I’m going to come out of this with certifications in computer maintenance and networking computers. Next year, I want to take physics and chemistry. My family’s really proud of me — but they know it’s tough.”

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