Academy of the Canyons juniors attend class at Castaic High School for their second day of Blended Learning. (Photo courtesy of Julia Jriyasetapong)
Academy of the Canyons

Column: The Middle College High School experience at Academy of the Canyons

Have you ever heard of a middle college high school? Academy of the Canyons (AOC) is a middle college high school in the William S. Hart Union High School District that serves students in the 9th-12th grades in the Santa Clarita Valley.

These schools are public high schools but deviate largely from traditional high schools around the United States. High school students are dually enrolled at Academy of the Canyons (the high school) and College of the Canyons (the college). 

As a current sophomore at the Academy, I find the experience very interesting and unique compared to “normal” high schools. The small campus of about 400 students is very tight-knit and nearly all the students know each other.

The teachers are also an integral part of the tight-knit community and every teacher knows every one of their students here. In place of AP (Advanced Placement) courses, students at the academy take community college classes.

So instead of taking AP Chemistry, you would be taking a prep year of college chemistry at the high school, then take a semester of college chemistry, like CHEM-112 at the college without taking the AP Chemistry test in May. For me personally, I feel like my voice is heard due to the small size. Granted, half of my freshman year and a majority of my sophomore year have been online, but the independence was given to me as a college student, and the tight-knit community around me, really make up for that loss of AP testing.

My experiences just represent one person at the school, so I went out to ask another student and a teacher to speak about their experiences at the middle college high school. Michele Siner, the school’s chemistry teacher shared her experience teaching pre-college chemistry at AOC.

Ms. Siner says that the unique thing “about AOC is taking college-level courses right after teaching chem, so you get to see the payoff of your student’s hard work and the fact that AOC is very STEM-oriented”. Additionally, due to the direct connection with the college, Ms. Siner enjoys showing scientific experiments to her high school students in a real lab setting.

The small class size allows her to communicate and develop a close relationship with her students while having a system of project-based learning.

“AOC has allowed me to explore myself, my interests, and my aspirations,” sophomore Amelia Tisdale said. “The school provides an accessible, academically stimulating environment to help me engage with my dream.”

Tisdale said the small environment has allowed her to grow in a way where she can connect with her teachers directly and the direct access to a college has allowed her to make important connections with professors and doctors in the fields she is interested in.

At AOC, clubs are similar, yet unique in their own way, compared to clubs at a traditional high school. Due to the size of the student body, clubs are generally much smaller, yet more flexible due to the close student-teacher relationships. I am the president of the Business and Medical Research Club at AOC.

Even though it has been a struggle on Zoom, we are still successfully “hanging in there” as we still host volunteer events and somehow manage to keep kids involved in all the research activities we have been doing.

Other clubs have been similar and trying to have more engagement has been a struggle, but one thing that clubs have benefitted from distance learning is the enhancement of online communication and the utilization of technology.

They’ve all been able to connect in an orderly fashion through google classroom, zoom, and have been able to come up with very creative online events to keep everyone involved in school clubs despite all the limitations.

One thing that AOC and other middle colleges are known for, is the system that helps students find their ideal path. One of the school’s systems that do this is AOC’s Helping Hand.

Founded by AOC alum Carter Cote, the system aims to highlight the cultural capital associated with the college admissions process, as AOC students face barriers when it comes to career exploration due to smaller school size, fewer student clubs, less available staff, and fewer students.

Cote, now a second-year student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, felt that this project was necessary for his former school after personally feeling blind-sighted by the college admissions process.

Cote said that Helping Hand is an effort “to give back information and resources that would help students figure out what career path fits well for them, and see how they can start pursuing that path.”

This is not AOCs only system that helps students find the right track suited for them, but the helping hand team has done a marvelous job in implementing their system at the middle college high school.

Due to all the support systems, students are given, the tight-knit environment, and the direct connection with the college environment, AOC is a school people all around the Santa Clarita Valley flock to. In my personal opinion, the greatest thing I treasure is the deep relationships I have with my teachers.

I genuinely feel like I know them not just as an educator but as a person, and the small school size, student size, and faculty size are to thank for that. If you really like a small environment and need multiple support systems for your time in high school, this school is most likely a good place for you. If you like a big environment and like to do things spontaneously and completely independently, maybe this school is not so much for you.

Despite all of the benefits, not everything can be perfect at this middle college high school. By going to this school, you will have to forfeit your right to play high school sports. I personally struggled with that as I was really looking forward to being a basketball player while also being a track runner.

I also struggled to choose between a big school with a lot of people versus the small school with 1/10th of the population at an average high school by being an ambivert. Eventually, I made the choice to come to attend the campus because I have never really gotten to experience that small environment, and I felt like that might shape how I view colleges across the country. It all just depends on preference.

This year, however, was interesting, not just for AOC students, but for kids all around the world. Online school has exposed the flaws in our education system as the rift between private and public education has increased, while also leaving hundreds of millions of kids out of school.

Online school has been a challenge for me, as I struggle to stay on-topic during my classes. I feel the spontaneous temptation to pick up my phone or just do something else that is not school-related.

Fortunately, as the vaccine against COVID continues to roll out, the Hart District has announced a return for AOC at a fellow hart district school with a massive campus, Castaic High School, due to the small size of the AOC campus. Some students have already started going, and it seems like they are having a lot of fun as it has been a long time since anyone in the Santa Clarita Valley has had traditional schooling.

As AOC commences hybrid learning, we just have to see where it plays out. Will things get better to the point where we all come back this year? Or, will blended learning have its problems as we take a slower approach back to normal? Only time can tell.