You'd be excused for mistaking Canyon del Oro High School career and technology teacher Lee Street's photography classes for grad school.

He gives students freedom and responsibility that's rarely seen at the high school level.

Students shoot and edit hundreds of images a week, spending as many as five hours a week outside of class perfecting their craft. Each month they stage their own gallery, which they run as a business, selling their work to fund the school photography club.

Every student is required to submit work to a national contest each quarter. And Street's pupils attend the annual Photoshop World conference in Las Vegas.

Street, who chairs the school's fine arts department, sees himself as a mentor rather than an instructor, allowing students to lead themselves and indulge their creative and entrepreneurial passions. Students handle every facet of the photography exhibits, including their budgets, curation and design. They stage the shows in a converted biology lab.

The galleries draw dozens of visitors and make about $3,000 a year in sales, which go toward activities such as the Photoshop World trip.

It's no wonder that educators from across the state observe Street's class to pick up tips.

"Students really do take over," Street said. "They run the show. Each person takes on responsibilities. We have parliamentary elections, and have a vice president in each class. We've kind of embraced the democratic process."

Senior Chelsea Hoel, 18, who will attend the University of Arizona next year, said the class has helped her improve her photography skills considerably.

"I definitely feel I've gotten better since I've been in the class," she said. "I've improved a lot in lighting situations that we've been taught about. I've learned different kinds of photography. I've started to dabble now in action shots. My dancer friends have posed for me. The class really allows us to explore different fields of photography."

CDO Principal Marcia Volpe calls Street "the finest photography teacher in my experience at any school I have worked at."

There are even waiting lists for his classes.

"The students love to take his classes," Volpe said. "They always have a waiting list. We just don't have enough room. He just has that charisma that really encourages students to do their best."

Street, 45, designs his classes to prepare students for college and the workforce. He has students design business cards, promotional materials and portfolios that show off their skills.

Street teaches four beginning photo classes, as well as one intermediate and one advanced. First-year students focus half the time on photography and the other half on Photoshop, designing magazine, CD and DVD covers, as well as book jackets.

Intermediate students build online and physical portfolios and advanced students apply for colleges, run the gallery and take part in competitions.

Students who want to be in the advanced class must submit a portfolio. That requirement, along with a glimpse of what those students take on in the class, weeds out the dabblers from the driven students, Street said.

"It's an insane amount of work," he said. "I think some kids see the advanced kids working so hard and never even think about taking the class."

If you go

• What: "Petite," an exhibit featuring the work of Canyon del Oro High School's photography students. Sticking to the "petite" theme, all prints in this show are 5x7 inches or smaller.

• When: 6-8 p.m. Feb. 27

• Where: Canyon del Oro High School, 25 W. Calle Concordia.

• Admission: Free.

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or