Our Story

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A Desire to Serve

The idea for the Academy for College Excellence (ACE) was born in 1999 as founder Diego Navarro sought to leave the high-tech industry for a more personally rewarding career. He wanted to return to his roots as a community organizer, and help people transcend poverty through education.


The Beginning

In 2002, Diego interviewed 125 experts in the country who worked with young adults, and reviewed 36 curricula. He used research and process design methods he’d learned while a researcher at Hewlett-Packard labs to assess the needs of underprepared youth and to design a program that would transform them into successful community college students. He held five pilots with nine of the curricula to determine the elements that would make the program most effective.  With each pilot the curricula was reviewed and improved based on student feedback.  This research took over a year and a half. Each pilot included different elements of the two-week intensive that begins the ACE semester (the Foundation Course).

Working with an outstanding team of faculty including Sue Nerton, Marcy Alancraig, Deborah Shulman and Regina DeCosse, Diego refined and combined program elements to develop a specialized curriculum from which the first student cohort was taught in the fall of 2003 at the Cabrillo College center in Watsonville, California. At the time, Diego called it the Digital Bridge Academy (DBA), since the idea was to help students bridge the digital divide as a solution to poverty. The target student population was underprepared Latino students in a rural, agricultural community. Cabrillo College continued to run one cohort per semester at its Watsonville Center through spring 2008. 


First Partnerships

In fall 2006, three other northern California community colleges ran student cohorts: Las Positas College (Livermore, CA), College of Alameda (Alameda, CA) and Merritt College (Oakland, CA). These partnerships proved that the program curriculum was effective with urban students from diverse backgrounds. Las Positas College continues to run one ACE cohort every fall semester, with a focus on learning disabled students.



In fall 2008, Cabrillo College increased the number of cohorts at its Watsonville Center to two, and expanded the program to its main campus in Aptos, California. During this same semester, Hartnell College (Salinas, CA) and Berkeley City College (Berkeley, CA) adopted the ACE program at their colleges. In 2010, Los Medanos College adopted the ACE program. As the vision of national expansion became a more concrete reality, the need for a name that better described our mission became strong. In the winter of 2010, we changed our name from the Digital Bridge Academy (DBA) to the Academy for College Excellence (ACE).

Since this time, ACE at Cabrillo College has grown to eight cohorts per year, which includes cohorts that focus on medical assisting, integrated science (IScS), and social justice academic acceleration. Hartnell College has also expanded, and now hosts seven cohorts per year, some of which focus on enhancing their Career Technical Education (CTE) programs, such as Sustainable Green Construction, Environmental Literacy, and Agricultural Machinery. Broward College in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, launched the ACE program at their college (BCAE) in the summer of 2012 with 10 cohorts (250 students) their very first semester. They aim to expand to 3,000 students per year over the next five years.

To date, seven partner colleges across the country are using the Academy for College Excellence model of student support and engagement, linking it to a variety of programs of study.  Three of the Academy for College Excellence's partner colleges have recognized the power of the model to help CTE students navigate their first semester of college. In the last ten years we have served over 2,700 students and have trained over 650 faculty to use affective learning methods in their classrooms. 


Strategic Plan

Learn more about ACE's 2010 strategic plan through this three-part video series, wherein Diego Navarro and Jim Knickerbocker speak about the development of ACE's strategic plan.  The strategic plan is critically important to the entire ACE Community as it deals with the growth and maturation of ACE in the educational process. 

  1. ACE Strategic Plan: Part 1 of 3
  2. ACE Strategic Plan: Part 2 of 3
  3. ACE Strategic Plan: Part 3 of 3