Founded by Dennis “Coach” Snyder in 1996
The California State Legislature voted to establish independent public schools, or “charter schools,” in 1992. In an effort to improve the quality of education offered to Escondido area students, Dennis “Coach” Snyder launched the American Heritage family of schools in 1996. Today, American Heritage charter schools serve around 1,700 students grades K-12, and the continued expansion of the schools and their long waiting lists testify to the success of Coach’s vision and the efforts of the American Heritage charter schools team.
Coach Snyder was born in Ohio and reared in West Springfield, Pennsylvania. He was one of seven children growing up in a happy home when tragedy struck the young family. His mother was severely injured in a traffic accident and was not expected to survive. Finances were tight, so his father was forced to send young Dennis and his two older brothers to Southern California to live with a relative. They arrived in Escondido via Greyhound bus on July 4, 1957.
Coach recalled, “At first, I hated California. At school, I spent a lot of time in the principal’s office.”
In his sophomore year of high school, however, he met a role model teacher, Coach Chick Embrey, who helped him turn his life around. Coach Snyder remarked, “He really cared about us. He had a positive effect on many students’ lives.”
Coach Embrey introduced him to Bible study, and young Dennis became a Christian. Dennis also became the first in his family to go to college.
In 1966, it was Dennis’ good fortune to secure a job at Escondido High School, where Coach Embrey taught. Although he began teaching history and driver’s education, not long after he began teaching Physical Education, where he earned the nickname “Coach.” When Coach Embrey retired as head football coach in 1978, Coach Snyder assumed his position.
Charter Schools Act Offers an Opportunity
Coach Snyder loved teaching and passing on life lessons to his students. However, in 1992, when the Charter Schools Act passed, he saw an opportunity.
“While I worked with some very fine teachers while part of the regular public school system, I thought the system was not challenging students,” he remarked. “Not every student will go on to college, but I thought we should be preparing them for it if they do. And, I saw that not every student fits into the regular system.”
He began the process of developing a charter school curriculum based on the “fundamentals.” He explained, “As a football coach, I wanted my players to get down the basics of blocking and tackling, then they could move on to more complicated plays. As an educator, I wanted to focus on the fundamentals of reading, writing, math and technology, and once students get down these basics, they can move on to excel in other areas.”
Founded Escondido Charter High School
In 1996, he gave up his career to found Escondido Charter High School (ECHS), the first of a series of schools that would make up the American Heritage charter schools. The school began with 30 9th grade students in a business park on East Valley Parkway in Escondido (across the street from its current location). The school quickly became known for its championing of traditional values, including individual initiative, personal responsibility and hard work.
ECHS is unabashed in its love of country, hence the American Heritage name, and celebrates great figures in United States history. Statues prominently located on the campus include President Abraham Lincoln, students surrounding the flagpole reciting the pledge of allegiance and the American Spirit statues in front of the school’s American Spirit Theater. The school also has Patriot Day, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day assemblies, and welcomes speakers that highlight American ideals. Students study the U.S. Constitution and other founding documents, and read many of the great works that the American founding fathers themselves read.
Coach observed, “We want are students to understand that people sacrificed so that we could enjoy the freedoms that we have. Whatever their particular culture or tradition, they’re Americans. It unifies us. This is something we want them to appreciate and celebrate.”
Another hallmark of the ECHS operation is smaller class sizes, despite the financial challenges it entails, in order that teachers can give students the individual attention they need.
In 2003, construction began on the current ECHS facility, including a library, computer labs and an athletics field. In 2006, a 400-seat theater and gymnasium complex were added.
ECHS quickly became known for excellence, with some of the highest test scores in the State of California and acceptance of its students into the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities. Coach observed, “Many of our students and parents send us notes upon their graduation thanking us for their experience at American Heritage. The very fact that we continue to grow shows that there is a demand for what we do. Parents want school choice, and many choose an American Heritage charter school.”
And, for students who are better served outside a traditional classroom education, ECHS offers an Individualized Learning Program (ILP) or home school program, a year-round independent study program. Coach explained, “Our ILPs benefit students who, for a variety of reasons, do not perform well in a traditional classroom setting. Or, they could be students who live far away from population centers, are required to work to support the family, are actively involved in a sporting program or who, for some reason, would otherwise drop out of the traditional high school setting.”
In 2003, Heritage K-8 Charter School opened based on the same philosophy as ECHS, and has since achieved similar success. In 2011, for example, USC designated Heritage K-8 as the number one charter school in the State of California. Operating within Heritage K-8 is the Heritage Digital Academy Middle School (HADMS), an independent student program for grades 6-8, a blended learning model which operates alongside of the K-8 traditional classroom program. It recently received its own charter to become one more school of choice for parents. (There is also a Heritage Digital Academy High School, currently serving grades 9-10.)
Prospective students are tested and directed to the specific program that best suits them. The bulk of students come from the Escondido area, but the American Heritage curriculum also draws students from throughout San Diego County and Riverside County. Students from all ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic status can be found among the student body.
Since students come to American Heritage charter schools by choice, Coach said, the schools must work hard to deliver a quality education product, and constantly challenge themselves to improve. He said, “We’re in the business of education. We have to work with our customers, students and parents, or they will go elsewhere. We don’t have guaranteed customers.”
Teachers are committed to the school’s philosophy, and see their work as “more of a mission than a job,” said Coach. He interviews each new teacher personally, sharing with him/her the philosophy of the school.
He concluded, “Our students, parents and staff come to American Heritage charter schools because they choose to. We want them to partner with us, and be an integral part of their students’ education. After all, they’re the primary educators of their children.”
For additional information on American Heritage charter schools, visit www.escondidocharter.org.