AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - Several hundred young people have just graduated from high schools throughout the Amarillo Independent School District.
Many of them will go to do great things and many of those students will have some significant financial help – and professional guidance from AISD officials – as they pursue their life's ambition.
That's where a program known as ACE comes in. This year, the program is operating at full throttle helping students who meet certain academic, attendance and behavior standards make their dreams come true, according to Connie Bradford, ACE program director.
Bradford, who works for the Amarillo Area Foundation, is assigned to administer the ACE program out of a cramped office in the Palo Duro High School library. Sandra Gonzalez, a 14-year AISD employee, works with Bradford in a next-door office at PDHS.
"We seek to put the love of learning into our students," Bradford said.
The program began in AISD in 1994, when it was opened exclusively for Palo Duro High School students. AISD expanded the program in 2002 to include students at Caprock High School and in 2009 it was expanded even further to include students enrolled at Tascosa High School.
The program welcomes all incoming freshmen who can present "legal documentation" that proves they are U.S. citizens or who are legal immigrants living in the United States, Gonzales said.
This past school year, she said, PD enrolled 1,172 ACE-eligible students; Caprock accounted for 1,168 such students; Tascosa had 303 students enrolled in the ACE progam.
PD and Caprock's student enrollment pool is all-inclusive, meaning that all students attending school in those high schools' attendance clusters are eligible to enroll in the ACE program. Tascosa's enrollment is limited to those students who enter that high school only after attending Margaret Wills, San Jacinto and Bivins elementary schools.
The program aims to provide financial aid to students who graduate from high school with an 85 percent academic average, a 95 percent attendance record and have avoided what Gonzalez described as "major disciplinary problems." Bradford explained "major problem" as a felony criminal act. Students must be "continuously enrolled in high school and must graduate from high school within four years of entering as a freshman.
ACE, which stands for Achievement through Commitment to Education, rewards students who complete their high school careers successfully with scholarship money to pay for tuition, books and fees at Amarillo College and West Texas A&M University; the ACE fund does not include money for room and board.
Bradford and Gonzalez both acknowledged, though, that they do provide advice and counsel to students who go to colleges other than AC or WT. "We don't limit our involvement to just those kids who go to school here," Bradford said.
Since 2000, the Amarillo Area Foundation has paid more than $16 million to cover students' college costs. AISD's printed material refers to it as "an overwhelming investment in the future of Amarillo ISD graduates. The ACE scholarship program is committed to encouraging students' post-secondary success by providing access to higher education."
Bradford noted an ancillary benefit to students who complete their college education through the ACE program. She said they are better able to afford to go on to graduate studies. "We hear from students who tell us they didn't have to pay for their undergraduate education," Bradford said. "They're able to go on to master's degree or doctoral degree programs," she said.
ACE doesn't cover the cost of graduate school, Bradford said.
AISD has graduated 4,183 students from the ACE program, said Bradford.
Not every student who enrolls in ACE as a freshman makes it, the educators acknowledged. Gonzalez said that 43 percent of the PDHS students who enroll in ACE complete the program, while 50 percent of the Caprock students complete it successfully. Bradford also noted that of all the graduates who complete the ACE program, 83 percent of them "will get at least some college education" after they leave high school.
Bradford explained that 53 percent of "ACE kids will have received some form of post-secondary certification," which includes an associate's or bachelor's degree, as well as some type of vocational diploma.
Gonzalez noted that at PD in particular, "A lot of these kids come from difficult circumstances at home. ACE offers a lot of these students hope that they otherwise might not have." She added that "many of these students are first-time students" who come from families "that don't know how to advise these students" on the paths they should follow.
ACE also provides assistance with tutoring, helps students complete college application forms and, according to its printed material, also provide "special counseling services at Amarillo College and West Texas A&M University."
"We want these kids to know," Gonzalez said, "that they have advocates in their corner."