It’s the only school in the entire U.S. that is named after two professional sports teams, but that is just one of the facts that makes the Suns-Diamondbacks Education Academy so special.
It’s a small high school — nine teachers for 180 students in 11th and 12th grades — in the Phoenix Union High Schoo District. It opened in what was a former bank branch building in downtown Phoenix in January 2001. Because of growing enrollment, it will be moving to 2920 N. 7th St. in Phoenix in June.
Who are the students at Suns-Diamondbacks? They are kids who had either dropped out of high school or were on the verge of leaving, either due to too many absences or other problems. They are the ones who needed to find the right school in order to have a last chance at getting a high school diploma.
The Suns-Diamondbacks Education Academy is a place that makes success possible by replacing hopelessness with hope. Last December, 55 graduates left the school with diplomas in their hands and hope in their hearts. It’s possible that the May 19th graduating class will honor 88 students with the high school diplomas they overcame adversity to earn.
I first learned about Suns-Diamondbacks Education Academy at the Communities in Schools fundraiser I attended in February, and I was surprised that I’d not heard about it before. I felt a pull to investigate it and started by typing the school’s name into Google. As was my luck, I discovered that a friend I’d made while serving as a member of the City of Phoenix’s Library Advisory Board in the mid ’90s, Chris Bates, was teaching English at the school. I sent him an email.
The next morning, his response was waiting for me. My next step was to call Craig Pletenik at the district office to get more information and a photo (the one above was supplied by the district) and to arrange a visit.
Rick Beck is the principal, but he does not sit in his office. He spends most of his day teaching social studies. On Friday morning, when I arrived to visit, he was wearing an apron and was serving lunch in the very small space the school uses as a sort of cafeteria.
Beck has been with the school since it started, and he told me that he thinks the job suits him perfectly. When he was in school, he did not do well academically and hated to read.
“I was a jock,” he said, “but I was led into special education and teaching by my wife. Now I love to read and think it is one of the most important skills to have. I relate well to those who don’t like reading because I was there myself.”
Beck led me to the classroom where my friend is called Mr. Bates by his students. He asked me to say a few words to the kids, but I wished that instead, each of them could have told me their life stories. In fact, half of the class (about a dozen students) were working on writing five-paragraph personal essays on their choice of theme.
Claudio, who hopes to work as a police officer some day, had chosen the theme “Making Peace With God.” He was two paragraphs in when he allowed me to look over his shoulder, and I could tell that he was off to a great start, even with such a heavy theme.
I got to participate in the discussion that the other half of the class was engaged in. Because it is National Poetry Month, they had selected a poem from the list (created by former poet laureate Billy Collins) on the Library of Congress’s Web site and they were both reading them aloud and then analyzing them using various techniques. Poetry is such a powerful medium because each word that comprises the poem must carry a certain weight, yet give the impression that the weight is light as a feather. These students analyzed a poem about incest, about mailing a letter and about how cars can describe a life story. It was a moment in my life that I will always remember.
Because I wanted to know more about the students, I got two of them to talk to me. Junior Blass Prieto told me that he used to go to Maryvale, but was dropped because he had so many absences. He found Suns-Diamondbacks, visited with his mother and enrolled.
“I feel safe,” he said after he told me how much he liked the environment. His goal is to attend NAU and major in chemistry and forensics.
Lily Reyes showed me how to spell her name by showing it to me on her white notebook. When she got behind in her credits at Maryvale, her counselor suggested that she try Suns-Diamondbacks. Like Blass, she said that she liked the individual attention she gets from the teachers. She hopes to attend medical school or become a medical assistant.
Just before I left the school, Mr. Beck gave me a copy of a personal statement written by one of the students (name withheld upon request) that describes a life-changing moment at the age of 12. While on a field trip to an air show, the student asked a pilot, “How could I be you?” and heard the response, “almost all of the great people in the history of the world had higher education.”
I want to share part of this essay with my readers:
That was the day I knew that to do and be something great I would have to graduate from college. Inspired, I set my path, and now, I have traveled half way to my destination. I now aspire to be a physical therapist. The journey to achieving this seems more daunting than ever, especially with the economy being as bad as it is. It is extremely hard to save money to pay for an education. My family and I have gone through difficult times due to the economy. My father was laid off from his job, causing us to lose our house. We have relocated three times in the last six months, making it even more difficult to concentrate on my studies. Though despite this, I have managed to keep my grades up. As of right now, my GPA stands at 3.0. Furthermore, my sister gave birth to a baby girl a few months ago. We are currently surviving on food stamps and the little money my father receives from unemployment checks. All of our resources have been aimed to raising my niece in a suitable environment. I even gave up my room for her to have. I sleep in the living room with our dog. As you can see my situation is horrible in regard to finding money for college. I believe knowledge is the key to every problem we face. This is the fuel that burns my passion for a higher education. I want to be happy, safe, and know that my children in the future have the blessing to attain their dreams without the worry of money.”
To learn more about this amazing school, visit phxhs.k12.az.us.
P.S. What kind of mascot is appropriate for a school named Suns-Diamondbacks? The Phoenix bird. Of course!