By the time seniors from American Heritage Academy’s campus in Cottonwood, Arizona, collect their diplomas this spring, they’ll have honed more than their basic academic skills.

Students at AHA perform deep dives into the works of William Shakespeare, analyze classical works, and memorize nearly aspect of U.S. history from Columbus to present day—all as a part of a senior project that is emblematic of the school’s constant quest for excellence.

For students at the EdKey charter school, which has students enrolled from Kindergarten to high school seniors, it’s little surprise that the seniors delve so deeply into history—it’s the central mission of the school.

“The basic underlying culture here is obviously a focus on American heritage,” Tony Rhineheart, assistant superintendent for EdKey, said. (A sister campus in Camp Verde, Ariz., about 20 minutes away, also shares that basic mission. That campus has students from Kindergarten through 8th grade.)

It’s no surprise, then, that seniors who graduate from the school have to pass a high bar to display the historical knowledge they’ve picked up at the school. As part of the aforementioned senior project, seniors must appear before a panel of four to six adults—including some community members and some teachers from the school—and make an oral presentation that can take up to an hour, Rhineheart said.

In addition to displaying their extensive knowledge of U.S. history and analyzing a Shakespeare play and two classical works, students must explain each aspect of the Bill of Rights, memorize a poem, select two heroes from history and explain what they’ve learned from them, and write an essay about what AHA has taught them.  The massive amount of work—as well as the composure it takes to stand before a panel of adults and defend their views and withstand questions about their work—is enough to even give seasoned professionals cold sweats just thinking about it.

“You would be amazed at what some of these kids come up with,” Rhineheart said.

“Number one, it gives them a sense that they can learn anything they put their mind to, and it teaches them about their rights as a citizen and what the Constitution says,” he said. “It also allows them to articulate their views on their work, [be proud] of the fact that they’ve learned so much and acknowledge how much growth they’ve made.”

And for some seniors, this massive undertaking is the culmination of a very long road at AHA. Because the school is home to students with such a wide range of ages, some students enroll in Kindergarten and go to have their entire pre-college career right on one campus, Rhineheart said.

This truly creates a unique opportunity for the students of varying ages to learn from one another—and to exemplify those core values of their heritage throughout their time at the school. Before students have to present their depth of historical knowledge senior year, they learn to memorize a portion of the Declaration of Independence and are introduced to the 28 principles of liberty.

Having older students on the same campus as younger ones paves the way for some truly special connections to form as well.

“Because of the values that I see instilled in the older kids, they know they have to be examples to the younger kids,” Rhineheart said. This means some of the older students serve as teacher’s aides in the other classrooms, mentor younger children or go back and read to younger classes.

Ultimately, AHA is true to its core mission statement, emblazoned throughout its campus: Building Tomorrow’s Heroes Today. By working with its students from a very young age through when they develop into young ladies and gentlemen, AHA is able to shape its community members into positive contributing members of society.

“We are trying to create future leaders,” Rhineheart said. “That’s ultimately our goal.”

Learn more about student leadership opportunities and American History education at American Heritage Academy Cottonwood.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.

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