Ashdan Hernandez didn't have a lot of context when it came to filling out a college application.
The 17-year-old has dreams of working as a pediatric nurse, but, as with many teens, the route from her current status as a senior at Endeavor Academy to a career in health care is imposing. The process is even more daunting for Hernandez. She doesn't have the kind of familial network that many high school students take for granted, with easy access to parents, siblings and other family members who've already tackled the task of a college application.
"I have a hard time. It's just me and my dad – he works a lot, and he's out of town four nights a week," Hernandez said. "He's never been to college, my sister's never been to college. He doesn't really know what to do, and neither do I. It's hard for him to help guide me."
But Hernandez isn't alone. The crew of teachers, counselors and administrators at Endeavor have helped guide her first steps toward adulthood. Thanks to them, the prospect of a viable and valuable career isn't so distant.
"My counselor is helping me fill out all of my college applications and helping me figure out when I get my acceptance letters. We're applying for scholarships and doing my FAFSA," Hernandez said. "She is guiding me; my dad can't do it because he's too busy supporting me. That's why I'm so thankful for this school.
"I have somebody here who isn't my parent, who isn't a friend. They are teachers and counselors, and they're guiding me and helping me with my life to succeed," she added. "It's amazing."
Hernandez isn't alone in her clear gratitude for the crew of 44 teachers, staff and administrators at Endeavor Academy. Approximately 300 students attend the campus located near the southern boundaries of the Cherry Creek School District, and they all have access to a personalized approach to education that's at the core of Endeavor's mission.
Endeavor offers an alternative path for students from across the district who have been unsuccessful in the traditional high school environment. With an emphasis on re-engagement, individualized support and shared responsibility, the staff at Endeavor seeks to establish a sense of belonging for students who feel as if they've been left behind.
"Our job is not to fix kids. That's not what we're trying to do. Our job is to meet the needs of our kids and fit them with what they need to graduate," said Endeavor Academy Principal Mark Morgan. "It may sound like semantics, but to our students and their parents, it's not. They need to hear from us that we don't see them as broken. Our task is to create an educational setting that's going to best meet their needs."
Morgan has been hard at work to further that mission since coming on as principal of Endeavor last year. The goal will be even more accessible starting in the fall, thanks to a recent decision by the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education. Last month, the board unanimously approved a resolution designating Endeavor as the district's seventh official high school.
The transition from a program to a stand-alone school carries several important changes for the Endeavor community. The shift will allow the school to apply for a formal Alternative Education Campus designation from the Colorado Department of Education, and it will allow administrators to compare detailed data from the school against statistics from the more than 70 other AECs in the state. What's more, the designation will give incoming students the chance to offer specific input about what qualifies them as "at-risk" or "high-risk," factors that run the gamut from homelessness to drug addiction.
According to Morgan, that kind of individualized and personalized process will offer teachers, administrators and staff a better idea of what every single Endeavor student needs to be successful.
"It helps us get ready to best meet the needs of every student. If a student is a teen dad and he has a child he's helping to raise, he may need some very different, specific programming than a student who is battling a dependency issue," Morgan said. "We want to be able to support that student when they hit the ground here running."
"I have somebody here who isn't my parent, who isn't a friend. They are teachers and counselors, and they're guiding me and helping me with my life to succeed ... It's amazing."
-- Ashdan Hernandez, Endeavor Academy senior
But the significance of the transition goes deeper than data points. The change to a stand-alone high school offers Endeavor students the chance to have a sense of independence and ownership in their school. It's a school that boasts its own mascot (the panther), its own colors (purple, black and silver) and its own activities (the school's basketball team just wrapped up a successful season.)
Students will also see a change when it comes to the school's graduation ceremony. Previously, Endeavor grads attended the ceremony of their "home" school – a student who didn't succeed at Grandview, for example, would walk across the stage with that school's seniors and receive a diploma with that school's name printed on it. Beginning next year, Endeavor will claim its own graduation ceremony and its own documents.
"Our kids are going to have tassels in our colors," Morgan said. "They're actually going to get diplomas from us."
It's a big step, but it's only one of many changes that have kicked off at Endeavor in recent months. The campus now hosts night school classes for students from across the district; it offers extended study options that allows students to earn college credits at institutions like the Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Community College of Aurora. Endeavor offers preventative substance abuse programming for students, as well as experiential education programs that connect students with outdoor activities like hiking, backpacking and camping.
They're all examples of the school's commitment to provide a one-on-one approach to education, one that ultimately ends with a high school diploma.
"I'm excited that we not only will have a true alternative setting for the students of Cherry Creek, but we're also going to give them the opportunity to have the school be theirs," said Cherry Creek Superintendent Dr. Harry Bull. "This is the addition of the seventh high school in the school district. The students who elect to go there now have ownership of what goes on in that building."
Olivia Larson, an 18-year-old senior at Endeavor, already feels that sense of ownership. Along with her peers, Larson visited other AECs across the state earlier this year. The students toured campuses and brought back ideas about what they'd specifically like to see recreated at an independent Endeavor Academy high school.
"It was really cool, because we got to see the opportunities that different schools put forward for their students," Larson said. "We brought our ideas to Mr. Morgan, and it felt like we were part of a team. He wasn't our boss or our manager. It was a team effort, and he wanted to know what we thought would work."
The process offered Larson a sense of belonging and community. It gave her a sense that she had a serious stake in the school, that she was part of something bigger.
"I definitely didn't feel like that my freshman year," said Larson, who came to Endeavor from Cherokee Trail High School. Like her best friend Ashdon Hernandez, Larson has dreams of entering the healthcare field. She eventually wants to work with at-risk and troubled youth. "I didn't feel like I was a part of anything. I didn't play sports, I wasn't in DECA, I wasn't in speech and debate. Here, I walk down the halls and everyone knows my name. Mr. Morgan knows every student by name.
"This school has boosted my confidence. I know who I am and I'm happy with who I am," Larson added.