Local Students Earn Grand Canyon Diplomas

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2014 10:30 pm | Updated: 2:09 pm, Mon Mar 17, 2014.

By Sarah Womer

Two high school juniors recently earned the honor of being the first two students within the Yuma Union High School District to achieve a Grand Canyon Diploma.

In order to accomplish this feat, a student at Yuma High School and a student at San Luis High School passed a series of eight core-subject examinations through the Cambridge IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) curriculum that the district recently adopted.

Yuma High School student Rogelio Orozco, 16, said that he was able to attain the diploma after a lot of late-night studying sessions and by making sure to pay attention in class.

“I feel really lucky that this pathway was afforded to me, it feels great to have this Grand Canyon Diploma and to be able to say I’m one of two in the whole county to get this. It’ll look good on my resume to have passed these internationally renowned examinations,” he said.

After receiving a qualifying score on almost all of the necessary exams by his sophomore year, he said that he only had to retake the chemistry exam during his junior year, which he had only missed passing by one point.

Next year, he explained that he is planning to take some classes on campus while also taking classes at Arizona Western College. Orozco said that he wanted to free up his schedule to be able to focus more on music, as he enjoys playing guitar, while also taking AWC classes concurrently.

He hopes to attend AWC and transfer to another university to pursue a music program. He is currently eyeing Arizona State University.

At Yuma High, Orozco has a 3.3 GPA and has participated in the Upward Bound program, which prepares students for college, as well as in cross country.

With hopes to become a first-generation college student, he said about receiving an education, “My parents were able to afford me this opportunity and I took it, and I think they’re really proud that I did it on my own and that I’m going somewhere, hopefully. I’m just glad it’s all over, because freedom – that’s what it’s all for.”

San Luis High School student Ruo Qiu, 17, said that after meeting all the qualifying scores on the exams needed to receive a Grand Canyon Diploma, she’s currently looking forward to take the end-of-course test in her Cambridge art class and also focusing on taking AP classes.

“It feels amazing actually, just to take all those tests and when we receive those scores, I was really happy that I passed,” Qiu said.

“The test themselves are a good indicator of how well you did in the classes and how much you learned.”

She agreed with Orozco and said that paying attention in class was the key to being prepared to take the exams.

“The students had to work just as hard as the teachers to understand everything, because it was a new concept for all of us,” she said about the new Cambridge curriculum recently implemented districtwide.

Qiu said that the new curriculum was difficult as it challenged students’ critical thinking.

While she won’t be using the Grand Canyon Diploma to leave her campus a year early to attend community college, she said that it will still look great on her resume as she would like to attend Stanford University.

“I really hope that more students in the future are able to take this opportunity and take advantage of it, because it’s really a great thing to be able to graduate a year earlier with a diploma like that that just shows that you’re ready for college,” she said. “You’re able to go to a community college so it’s not as overwhelming as a university and you’ll get a head start and passing those tests is a great achievement in itself. I can see future generations of this school going really far.”

At San Luis High School, Qiu has a 4.0 GPA and has participated in Upward Bound, National Honors Society, tennis, Student Council and the Class of 2015 club as well as the Health Occupations Students of America club. She hopes to pursue a health career in the future and she currently aspires to go into the field of pharmacy.

In regards to juggling all of her academics and extracurricular activities, she said that she has to try really hard to focus on time management, and it also helps that a lot of the clubs she participates in meet on different days of the week.

“Sometimes I had to stay up a little late to study for tests,” she said.

Sarah Womer can be reached at or 539-6858. Find her on Facebook or on Twitter at @YSSarahWomer.

About the Grand Canyon Diploma

The performance-based Grand Canyon Diploma signifies that students at the Yuma Union High School District have received qualifying scores on Cambridge exams within the first two to three years of high school. Students are recognized by Arizona law as college and career ready and the diploma also exempts a student from minimum course of study requirements and AIMS test score requirements.

“It’s a high bar,” said associate superintendent James Sheldahl.

Ready Now Yuma director Laura Campbell said that students not only have to demonstrate mastery in subjects, but there is also a demonstration of skills required to pass exams, such as conducting science lab experiments or analyzing historical primary source documents. The concept is similar to what is required in CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs in the district where students have to demonstrate proficiencies in the various competencies within their program.

“It definitely requires that students demonstrate a level of content maturity, if you will, because they learn to think and apply their knowledge on a deeper level than your average standardized test,” Campbell said.

Sheldahl explained that a very small portion of the exams, if any, are multiple choice – the remainder are extended response where kids have to answer questions in writing.

“It’s an authentic presentation of their understanding of the material as opposed to a one-time sit-down exam,” he said.

Qualifying exams to receive the diploma are required in areas of English Language, Literature, World History, American History, Mathematics, Biology and Chemistry or Physics. Campbell added that students also have to pass the district’s Economics class as well as an ACT or Fine Arts course.

“It’s still requiring them to extend and work to become well-rounded scholars,” she said.

Students challenge themselves to participate in the program on a voluntary basis as it is not necessary for students to pass end-of-course exams to graduate. The diploma opens up a variety of education and career pathways within and beyond the high school for the student to take advantage of. Sheldahl said that students can stay on campus after receiving the diploma to pursue a more rigorous upper division junior and senior classes through AP (Advanced Placement) courses, CTE courses, other Cambridge courses or they could also take their diploma and either dually or fully enroll early at a community college.

Students who receive the diploma still have the opportunity to graduate with their fellow high school classmates.

“They have all the rights and privileges that are warranted by a normal high school diploma,” he said.

Sheldahl concluded that will there is a huge emphasis in education on working with students who struggle, it’s important to also make opportunities available for students who excel.

“I think it’s important for us, as a public school district, to continue to explore opportunities for students that allow them to work from their strengths and expand their options as they demonstrate proficiencies.”