Utah charter school shows what flexibility and dedication can accomplish


What can ambitious students at a Utah charter school with a dedicated staff and clear vision accomplish? Sutherland Daily spoke with Brian McGill, principal of The Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (AMES), and one of his students, James Brissette, to find out. Watch the following video report to hear what they said:


Charter schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools in how they operate. Utah would do well to give all public schools as much autonomy as possible so that they, like AMES, can better help their students succeed.

Here’s the script of the video:

VOICE-OVER: A 2011 graduating class of only 113 students managed to receive $6 million in scholarship awards. And 26 of those graduates identify as first-generation college students. Where can you find such a successful school? At AMES, the Academy of Math, Engineering and Science: a charter school that helps its students overcome some pretty challenging obstacles, while achieving amazing academic results. The principal, Brian McGill, explains what makes AMES special.

BRIAN MCGILL: “We just graduated a class of 51 percent minority students. We service kids – nearly half of our kids are on free or reduced priced lunch, so our demographics look quite a bit different than your probably traditional public schools here in Utah.”

VOICE-OVER: Charter schools provide high school students opportunities to extend their knowledge beyond the typical high school curriculum. AMES, which leases space from Cottonwood High School, focuses on early college.

BRIAN MCGILL: “In an early college setting here at AMES, we have a partnership with the University of Utah; we have a strong partnership with our local community constituents. It’s different in the capacity in which generally class sizes are quite a bit smaller at charter schools. Population of students is generally smaller across the board; we are able to do some things and have some autonomy with policies and rules that the general school districts can’t quite do.”

VOICE-OVER: So how does AMES’s academic performance compare to other private and public schools?

BRIAN MCGILL: “Our students generally succeed because of the five-tier formula that the early college’s philosophy is and that’s what the AMES premise has been built around. First of all, that is, a lot of our staff and faculty, they have had training in serving underrepresented students. The academic rigor is a huge component as well, so again placing emphasis on, like for example our curriculum we follow the regent scholarship curriculum through the state.”

VOICE-OVER: Charter schools provide more than a different classroom setting. Teachers can also meet the needs of individual learners.

BRIAN MCGILL: “They provide differentiated instruction based on the needs and the ability of our students, and a lot of times that takes place in a particular class where you may have 15-20 students in class. I think that’s another thing charter schools provide; they can focus more on individual learning because the class sizes are traditionally or generally speaking quite a bit smaller than your traditional public secondary school.”

STAND UP: One senior from the graduating class of 2011 at AMES is James Brissette. James was fortunate enough to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which is a full-ride four-year undergraduate scholarship plus two years of graduate school entirely paid for. But … the road getting here has been no easy ride for James.

JAMES BRISSETTE: “I was a foster child from maybe 1 or 2 till about 10 – I think I was adopted at 10. My parents that I live with now, the ones who adopted me, they always wanted to move to Utah; I spent a lot of time with them. They really encouraged me to do well in school. I have 2 other foster brothers, Mike and Tommy. Tommy is actually my role model; he’s why I am doing so good in school.”

VOICE-OVER: At first, James was hesitant about attending a charter school, but without AMES and the exceptional teaching staff, James would not be where he is today.

JAMES BRISSETTE: “In charter schools, and AMES particularly, the teachers absolutely care about the students, and they start from day one trying to build relationships and I think it speaks a lot to their success.”

VOICE-OVER: In August, James will be attending the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

JAMES BRISSETTE: “I applied, and I got in and now I’m “souped,” because it’s one of the top business schools in the world, so I’m excited.”

VOICE-OVER: James and Mr. McGill hit it off from the beginning of the school year. In fact, McGill was the one who encouraged James to apply for the Gates Millennium Scholarship.

BRIAN MCGILL: “He’s a unique individual in the sense that he’s very well-rounded, he’s got a high level of intellect, he’s got good social skills, he’s a bright young man, he’s very motivated, very driven, and he gets the big picture. He understands how important higher education is, and how important college is for him and what that means in his life.”

VOICE-OVER: When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, James said:

JAMES BRISSETTE: “I wanna be a billionaire so freaking bad, I just want to be so successful; ever since I was little my brother Tommy, my brother Mike and I, we come from underdeveloped inner-city ghettos, they had it a lot worse that I did, but I don’t want to sell myself short. So just looking at them and seeing how much they wanted to succeed makes me want to succeed. And I want to be honestly the best.”

VOICE-OVER: AMES’s mission is to prepare a diverse student body for success in college or other post-secondary education. This charter school is a perfect example of what can be accomplished with a clear vision, dedicated administration and teachers, and ambitious students. For Sutherland Institute, I’m Alexis Young.