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The Daily Courier, Les Stukenberg) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press
Students in the horsemanship class, clockwise from top, Kristina Matson, Annabelle Veatch, Sloan Williams and Shannon Countryman groom horses at the Arizona Agribusiness & Equine Center in Prescott Valley, Ariz. Monday, Jan. 9, 2012.

PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. — Students in Candace Zeier's third-period class in horsemanship at AAEC on a recent Friday watched a movie about Penny Chenery Tweedy, whose horse won the Triple Crown in 1973.

"Secretariat," a Disney film released in 2010, shows how Tweedy, played by actor Diane Lane, triumphed in a male-dominated field.

It gave the students a breather from the other coursework, which covers safety, nature of the horse, how to examine a horse for health, tacking up, riding skills and other aspects of horsemanship.

Nine girls attended the class. Five boys took the class during the fall — and debut — semester at AAEC, Zeier said. AAEC stands for Arizona Agribusiness & Equine Center Inc. and is one of five campuses for the college-prep charter school based in Phoenix.

However, the gender makeup of the class was not unusual for the campus, which opened this past August across Civic Circle from the Prescott Valley Civic Center.

Girls constitute about 70 percent of the estimated 85 students at the Prescott Valley campus, Principal CJ Williams said. He added it is typical for the four AAEC campuses in the Valley of the Sun as well.

"I don't know if it is the equine (classes) or the college prep," said Williams, who headed AAEC's Estrella Mountain campus in Avondale during the previous school year.

Students take electives such as horsemanship and introduction to veterinary science in addition to core classes, such as world history, English, biology and math.

Access to horses and perceived higher academic standards appeal to several of the girls, who formerly attended conventional public schools or other charter schools in the tri-city area.

"I took this (horsemanship) class to get over my fear of horses," said Crystal Burke, a 16-year-old sophomore from Prescott Valley who is in her second semester at AAEC. She raised wild mustangs in Seligman when she was 13.

"When I tried riding one of them (mustangs), it tried to buck me off," Crystal recalled. "It reared up twice. After that, it ran and jumped on all fours and almost hit a tree. That was absolutely horrifying."

Crystal said she attended Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy in Prescott during the fall semester of her freshman year. She transferred to Bradshaw Mountain High School in Prescott Valley during the spring semester in 2011.

"It is more academically challenging than Bradshaw was — the college classes," Crystal said. She said she took College Spanish and College Success Skills at AAEC during the fall semester.

AAEC students may take classes at Yavapai College beginning their sophomore year, Williams said. Students may earn associate's degrees from Yavapai College while they attend AAEC.

"It is a rigorous academic program, but they have a lot of support," Williams said. He added retired teachers provide tutoring for students after school at the Prescott Valley Public Library across the street.

AAEC is challenging academically but not "overwhelming," said D.J. Billingsley, a Dewey boy who formerly attended Prescott Valley Charter School.

D.J., a 16-year-old sophomore, said teachers push students to succeed.

"In my other schools, we weren't really prepared," said D.J., who aspires to become a marine biologist. "We weren't held to high standards like we are here."

D.J., who has two older sisters and no brothers, said he does not feel like the odd boy out surrounded by girls at AAEC.

"It let me better understand and know how not to treat a girl," he said, referring to his home life. "In most of my classes we have three or four boys."

He said the mother of a female classmate at Prescott Valley Charter School sold his mother on the advantages of attending AAEC.

He was referring to Jaycie Wagner, a 16-year-old sophomore who lives in Prescott Valley and attends AAEC along with her twin, Adriane, and younger sister, Emilee, 14, a freshman. Jaycie, Emilee and Crystal spent third period Friday grooming the stable of five horses on campus.

Jaycie said she took care of the horses during the two-week winter break.

"I get to spend time with the horses," Jaycie said. "I get to have a better relationship with them."

AAEC students spend about half an hour a day grooming the horses, Zeier said. Students in the horsemanship and equine science program may sign up to care for the horses on weekends.

But despite the emphasis on horses, few, if any, students are considering careers in veterinary medicine or related fields.

Jaycie and freshman Hannah Fouss, 14, of Prescott Valley are considering nursing careers. Kelsea said she wants to study acting at Julliard in New York City.

Freshman Jo McComas, 14, of Prescott might be blazing a different career path. She wants to become a chemical engineer or a chemical physicist.

"I really love the school environment: the teachers, the student community and just the fact that they want you to succeed," she said.

As a charter school, AAEC receives about $6,000 a year from the state per student — the same as traditional public schools - said William Torres Conley, assistant superintendent for administrative services.

Information from: The Daily Courier, http://www.dcourier.com