AAEC business leader uses hands-on approach to serve schools and students

2017 Charter Business Leader of the Year: Suzanne Drakes

By Jamar Younger

Suzanne Drakes’ presence is felt throughout the six AAEC Early College High School campuses.

You can feel it in the architecture and design of each campus, as she worked with architects and engineers to create campuses with open courtyards, horse stables and scenic landscapes.

You can see it in the teachers and administrators she helped hire and continue to support as they work in the classroom.

You’ll notice it in the location of AAEC’s campuses, which are located either adjacent or in close proximity to local community colleges, so the charter can partner with those institutions to concurrently enroll students and help them attain associates degrees before they graduate from high school.

Most of all, you can see it in the students who serve as her main motivation for providing as many resources as possible to ensure their success.

As assistant executive director of AAEC, Drakes has influenced every aspect of the public charter school network, from organizing field trips to making sure the school submits clean financial audits.

Her hands-on approach and desire to serve students have led to her selection as the Association’s 2017 Arizona Public Charter School Business Leader of the Year.

“She knows exactly what’s going in all of the schools. Suzanne can tell you every contractor and every person working on the sites. She can tell you every teacher, where our curriculum stands,” said AAEC Founder Linda Proctor Downing. “Suzanne is Superwoman.”

Downing is one of Drakes former high school teachers from Dobson High School in Mesa. She kept in touch when Drakes headed to college and eventually hired her former pupil as a front office staffer in 1999.

“I turned to her when I first started AAEC because I needed someone that I could depend on,” Downing said.

Drakes was working in real estate at that time with an eye towards a marketing career and no real intention to get involved in education.

So what convinced her to stick with AAEC?

“When you get involved with these students and you see how absolutely phenomenal they are, there’s no way you want to go away,” she said. “I never thought in a million years I would actually be working with students.”

Drakes manages all aspects of the network’s accounting and finances, working with other administrators and school governing board members to present the budget to stakeholders.

She has also been instrumental in the development of the school’s early college program, which has allowed numerous students to receive their associate degrees and continue on a path towards veterinary and medical careers.

The college classes expose students to wider variety of classes and subjects.

“It’s really nice being able to take community college classes because you can take a much wider variety of subjects than you normally could at a high school,” said senior Lydia Spire, 17. “I love Philosophy and I don’t know of any high school that would let me take Philosophy classes.”

Drakes also works closely with staff, parents and students to organize national and international field trips, which have included locales such as South Africa, Costa Rica and Glacier Park in Montana.

However, she is more than an administrator overseeing budgeting for these trips.

Drakes has also served as chaperone, affording her the opportunity to build relationships with her students.

“It comes from heart. She truly is kind and caring about our students,” said Assistant Superintendent Linda Rosness. “For any educator, it’s extremely important to not just be in the ivory tower of the district office, but to actually be visible on campus.”

Students have also noticed Drakes’ involvement.

Senior Shelby Blue, 17, spent time with Drakes during the field trip to Glacier Mountain. Blue’s conversations with Drakes differed from her interactions with administrators from previous schools.

“I felt like they were above us with just a lot of rules and regulations, and they were just telling us what to do,” Blue said, referring to her previous experiences at other schools. “Someone like Suzanne can go on trips with us and I can have conversations with her.”

Drakes will ultimately go to any length to make sure her students are successful.

“If there’s an issue, I’ll automatically figure out a way to make it work,” she said. “If it’s important to the students, it’s important to me.”


Meet the 2017 Charter Award Winners

<font size="2.5">Charter School</font>

Charter School

Reid Traditional Schools’ Painted Rock Academy is a K-8 traditional charter school serving 612 students in north Phoenix. The high performing public charter school sets a high academic bar for students, and believes – given the right tools – all students can achieve success.

<font size="2.5">Transformational Leader</font>

Transformational Leader

Sara Maline Bohn is the principal at Arizona School for the Arts, a 5-12 charter school serving 850 students in Phoenix. Through her mission driven decisions, Sara champions success and growth for all students and teachers and has earned the respect of the entire community.

<font size="2.5">Business Leader</font>

Business Leader

Suzanne Drakes is the Assistant Executive Director at AAEC Early College High Schools, a network of six charter schools serving 1,700 students. Suzanne is often seen on school campuses, working with principals and teachers to determine the academic and building needs of each school.

<font size="2.5">Charter Teacher</font>

Charter Teacher

Bonnie Weppner is an ELL kindergarten teacher at Pioneer Preparatory School: A Challenge Foundation Academy, a K-6 charter school serving 580 students in Phoenix. Bonnie helps scholars realize their language potential in English, while still embracing their heritage.