In a small cluster of buildings on Morada Lane in Stockton, not too far off the freeway, 643 students are reminded daily that university is on the horizon.
Gretchen Salvetti is the principal at Benjamin Holt Preparatory Academy, but in some circles she's known as the giraffe lady. Her office is decorated with the animal print, and a growing collection of figurines lives on her windowsill.
In her mind, each giraffe represents educators sticking their necks out and going the extra mile for students.
"Everyone is on board with sticking our neck out for kids. All of our educators work really hard," she said.
They've got to. It's a graduation requirement that all students apply to three universities and be accepted into at least one. Students must also apply for one scholarship and build up at least 15 college credits to graduate.
But the students don't seem overwhelmed.
"Especially in this area of Stockton, a lot of us are first-generation college students. 'College for certain' has given us a focus," said Alex Flores, 17, student body president.
The school models the skills it takes to succeed in college by making its high expectations known right from the sixth grade and carrying through to graduation. The campus is basically split between the middle and high school grades, with sixth through eighth grade on one side and freshman through senior students on the other.
Almost all of their students have graduated from Vincent Shalvey Academy or River Oaks Charter School, so they are familiar with the lengthy school day and 190-day calendar. That sense of familiarity takes the edge off any stress that builds up as a result of the heavy workload that can add up to two or three hours of homework a night.
To keep up, students learn to start their homework during spare moments during the school day. Otherwise, it can be a long night.
"I don't think it's pressure. It's preparation, because we're stepping up another level," said Flores.
Each year, students are assigned an exhibition project. It's heavily guided by the teacher, but by the end of the year they are expected to present their work before a panel of judges. Think of a Senior Project, but starting in the sixth grade.
In one project, students build a scale model of any structure they choose. They show all of their calculations and take the panel step-by-step through the design and creation process.
There are six class periods, with a separate lunch for the middle and high school grades. Wednesdays are early dismissal days, with a few hours set aside for teachers to work on professional development and collaboration.
One period a day is dedicated to study skills and prepping for colleges. High schoolers get AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, while middle schoolers work similar skills in advisory. Students learn how to organize assignments, plan out their homework and take clear notes in the Cornell format.
It has been useful for Flores.
"If it weren't required, a lot of people's work would be all over the place," he said.
In sixth and seventh grades, students move through Spanish, keyboarding, healthy living and art classes as electives. But eighth-graders have two hours of algebra a day. Once students reach the high school level, two years of Spanish are required. Also, the opportunity arises to enroll in college courses contracted through San Joaquin Delta College.
Elements of a more traditional high school are creeping in.
Student council, Science Olympiad, and drama are a small selection of extracurricular options. The school celebrated their first homecoming rally this year. Students chatter in the hallways about upcoming school dances.
Students and staff were excited to bring soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball to the menu of offerings.
"We are a great school academically, but there are students who have left the school for sports," said Flores.
But Ben Holt isn't lacking in community.
Sixth-graders are excited to share a school with the older kids, but juniors and seniors are a little less keen. Still, Flores says it allows for a range of friendships that couldn't happen at a traditional school.
On visits to other high schools, Flores was struck by what he saw as the lack of unity.
"Our school is smaller, so maybe it's easier to know everyone," he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.