Mary Ellen’s Story

How A Charter School Education Expanded Opportunities for an Arizona Student-turned-Teacher

Mary Ellen Lee knows firsthand about the flexibility and innovation that have become a hallmark of charter schools.

Lee is the daughter of a charter school principal, a product of choice as a charter school student, and now is an innovative charter teacher who provides her students with the same high quality education she had as a child.

“I think the exciting thing about growing up in a charter school is that I experienced so much diversity. Instead of going to a school that was bound by location, I went to a school that was bound by interest,” she said.

This mentality led her to choose AAEC South Mountain Early College High School, despite the fact that she had to endure a two-hour bus commute from her Gilbert home to the school’s south Phoenix campus.

At AAEC, she developed her love for math and science and relished the freedom to pursue her interests. This resulted in a biology thesis project  where she explored the idea of creating a new miniature goat that could produce the milk of a full size goat without eating as much of the local crop.

The idea was to send these goats to countries with food supply issues, she said.

By time Lee graduated from high school, she was not only one of the top students in her class, but was also the valedictorian at South Mountain Community College after attending AAEC’s concurrent college coursework program.

All five of AAEC’s campuses are adjacent to an Arizona community college, and have developed strong relationships with those colleges. The average AAEC student earns 40 transferrable college credits, with nearly a quarter of students earning one or more associate degrees before graduating high school.

Lee finished with three: art, science and general studies.

“At AAEC, I was able to pick the classes with my specific interest, like biotechnology, horseback riding, all of these different things that made me interested in going to high school because I felt like I was being prepared for my future,” she said.

She grew up as a child of the charter movement, with her mother, Sue Douglas, co-founding Mesa Arts Academy, which is operated by the Boys and Girls Club of the East Valley.

Douglas taught her daughter, along with the rest of her students, that there are boundless opportunities available for them to explore.

“Attending smaller charters gave her opportunities to experience the best of herself. There was no one holding her back,” Douglas said.

Lee’s charter school experience has allowed her to find success as a charter teacher at Leading Edge, where the same innovation that pushed her as a student has inspired her as an educator.

“Mary Ellen’s charter school upbringing and exposure helps her understand the needs of not only her students, but of her fellow teachers as well,” said Becki Krueger, operations director for LEAD Charter Schools. “She also is aware of how important school choice is for parents.”

In late January, Lee addressed that topic with the House Education Committee at the State Capitol.

“Being a charter school teacher to me means being able to change the lives of my students. It means freedom to think outside the box, while holding highly rigorous standards and expectations,” she told members. “I know that I may not have changed the world by sending minaiature goats to third world countries in high school, but I do know that I am changing the world one student at a time.”