Author Archives: maryholden

Suns-Diamondbacks Education Academy

Students of Suns-Diamondbacks Education Academy

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


P.S. What kind of mascot  is appropriate for a school named Suns-Diamondbacks? The Phoenix bird. Of course!


A speed pass through high school? Let’s comment, chat and blog!

Community Relations Manager Katie Charland sent me a link to an article that appeared online at I’d already read it in the actual Arizona Republic newspaper on the morning of March 31.

“Bill provides quick way out of high school,” by Pat Kossan, describes a bill just approved by the Arizona House of Representatives that would make high school graduation possible after completion of the sophomore year, as long as students also were able to pass rigorous exams to prove their knowledge in core subjects.

Well, there are some issues here!

Is it really a good thing to finish high school after two years, say by the age of 15 or 16? Aren’t your high school years supposed to be filled with personal growth and fun — while allowing the frontal cortex of your brain time to develop so that you can reason and make better decisions?

Are some students so bored out of their not-quite-developed brains that they just need to skip the nonsense of high school and move on to more advanced courses at a junior college? Or do they just want to skip all the adolescent nonsense (not realizing it does foster growth!) that often goes on during the high school years?

I got involved in the conversation. I registered with and wrote:

Anything that will help individualize education and help kids clarify some long-term goals and possibilities makes sense to me — even if it won’t be funded. A conversation needs to get started on this. Maybe some student will see it and ask that the school provide it — even if just for him or her. These are tough times and we all need to be creative.

Personally, I’ve always believed that education should be as individualized as possible, but that it should occur in a group setting, preferably one where students are grouped by age. And I’ve also believed that many teachers are superhumansome of them can and do individualize in the classroom in creative ways. They are the teachers who made a difference. They are the remembered ones.

Soon I got a message that “someone has posted a reply to your comment….” It said:

“A truly resourceful (and motivated) student can effectively accomplish this on his/her own anyways. One of the past posters talks about his experience essentially doing that. The less resourceful (and less motivated) students will jump on this and fall into educational ‘black holes.'”

Black holes? Such as—employment?  Junior college?  The College of Hard Knocks?

So what will happen if this bill becomes law?  No one knows for sure — because this has never been done before in any other state in the union.

We, the people, really need to be talking, blogging, posting comments and calling our state senators about this!

St. Francis Xavier: A new era begins at an “old” school

St. Francis Xavier School has been a part of the Jesuit Catholic community in Phoenix since 1948. Finally it is experiencing a rebirth — a new grade school facility will soon rise from the ashes of the old one.

The school ground was blessed before the groundbreaking.

On a windy Saturday morning, ground was both blessed and broken in a special ceremony to herald the start of new building construction after a fundraising campaign raised more than $7.5 million. (Yes, in this economy!) D.L. Withers Construction of Phoenix is at the project’s helm.

The school, located at 4715 N. Central Ave., is getting a complete overhaul: a two-story School/Faith Education Center (to house pre-K through 8th grade classes), a courtyard, an administration center and a multi-use gym/cafeteria. There will be a play structure, a hard court and a grassy play area.  The new buildings will be double the size of the existing school and will open to the west to face St. Francis Xavier church.

Fr. Daniel Sullivan, SJ

Principal Kim Cavnar

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon lives in the neighborhood and was on hand to take up the microphone along with Daniel Sullivan, SJ, and school principal Kim Kavnar to present the program.

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon

What is a groundbreaking event without song? Teacher Nancy Nemeth wrote lyrics and music that the fourth grade students learned and performed. Their plastic hard hats made wonderful props!

Teachers Nemeth and Grucky get ready for the song.

The song,"Etched in Our Hearts" was performed by the fourth graders.

Communities In Schools enhances educational experiences in Arizona

A few weeks ago, I attended a breakfast fundraiser for Communities In Schools as a guest of my friend Diane Olsen. It was the first time I’d heard about this wonderful group whose mission is, briefly, “Helping Kids Stay in School and Prepare for Life.”

CIS accomplishes this mission in several ways, but mentoring and tutoring are two important components. Linda Torkelson, senior director of marketing, communications and special events shared this photo of CIS’s mentoring in action.

Community Resource Coordinator Christopher Marder

When I listened to one of the students whose life had been changed by CIS, I knew that this organization was worth my support. Kevin Beck, now 20, led what he described as “a life of crime” as a high school dropout in New Jersey before an aunt who was a teacher influenced him to get help by making a move to Arizona. Beck enrolled at Metro Tech high school in Phoenix, where he was mentored by Lloyd Hopkins and began to excel academically. Hopkins helped him apply for college scholarships and Beck currently attends Glendale Community College, where he maintains a 3.2 GPA. He plans to transfer to a four-year university soon, where he will pursue a degree in pharmacy. Best of all, Beck helps do for other students what Hopkins did for him.

At the breakfast, Hopkins talked about the need at CIS for tutors, mentors, interns and volunteers for special events. There is a real need for adults who’ve been through school to commit to be mentors. Never underestimate the value of one-on-one interaction when it comes to motivating a young student to be successful!

Communities In Schools (CIS) has been in the Valley for 16 years and there is also a National CIS. President Laura Magruder heads CIS of Arizona, which created an initiative with seven components: K-8 Community School Partnership, Small School Academies, All-Star Kids Tutoring, College and Career Readiness, Supplies 4 Students, Arizona Diamondbacks Lineup for Learning and Americorps Vista. Visit to learn more.

Raised-in-Arizona “kids” reunite to raise money for Madison District grade schools

Rose Lane reunion organizers Sue Sweeney, Jim Russell, Tiffany Spillman, Stan Tang.

What do you remember about your years in grade school? If you were able to attend the same grade school through an entire eight- or nine-year span like I did at Madison Rose Lane, you probably have some fond memories of those early school years.

When you get a chance to reconnect with some of the students you grew up with at a reunion, it’s like one of those Mastercard commercials — priceless! And it’s even better when you get a chance to give something back to the school district that gave so much to you.

Last month I had a chance to attend a reunion of students who attended Madison Rose Lane between 1973 and 1983. (I was in the graduating class of 1971 but my two younger brothers, Tom and Mark Turkovich, graduated two and four years behind me and invited me as their guest.) The owners of the Central Grille restaurant in Phoenix allowed this reunion group to use the space for free. Organizers Jim Russell, Tiffany Sweeney Spillmann, Stan Tang and Sue Sweeney welcomed alumnae with name tags, a guest book and a small display of memorabilia.

Class of '73 attendees.

Mrs. Mollman, who had been the school nurse at Rose Lane for more than 30 years, attended the event. I got a chance to thank her for all the years she called my mom to arrange to send me and my brothers home when we were sick at (or sick of!) school. I still can’t figure out whether it’s true that your temperature goes up if you put a penny under your tongue. Remember those old mercury thermometers?

Former teacher Carolyn Hartman, now head of the Madison Education Foundation was also in attendance. My brother Tom was a student in her fifth grade class and he says that she looks exactly the same as he remembers! The foundation accepts tax-deductible donations to support all grade schools in the Madison system, with priorities being assistance to libraries, art, music and drama programs and professional development.

To see a wonderful video of the history of the Madison District visit To contribute to the Madison Education Foundation, contact Ms. Hartman at

A special performance at Canyon Leadership Academy

Teacher Cheryl Kobel and student Jacob Ostwinkle perform "I Can Lead With My Hands."

On the morning of February 26, Raising Arizona Kids Editor Karen Barr and I attended the most awe-inspiring school event I’ve ever attended. (Yes, I am a mother of two and yes, I did attend the school productions they were in. Sorry John and Annie, this one moved my soul like no other!)

Canyon Leadership Academy, in the Peoria district, is an elementary school that combines about 65 district students who are considered “medically fragile” — the Sunflower Center students — with typical students on campus. This year, the school’s curriculum is based on author Steven Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The school teaches leadership and the staff cultivates leadership in all students in the most hands-on, experiential way possible.

Principal Cheryl Neils wants special needs students to be treated like everyone else. So when it came time to schedule class presentations on leadership, the Sunflower kids were put on the schedule. Cheryl Kobel, director of the Sunflower Center, was charged with orchestrating the performance, which included all of the medically fragile students at the school, many of whom face challenges so severe they can communicate only with the help of high-tech support.

Group by group, all of these kids were led front and center onto the “stage” in the school’s multipurpose room. Programs were distributed to the proud parents and fellow students in the audience. Kobel, who is a a poet, had written this poignant introduction:

Everyone can be a leader in his or her own way

By helping others do their best through what we do or say

It doesn’t really matter how we look or talk

Or if we’re in a wheelchair and others help us walk.

Just by simply being here we help those around us see

That by gladly serving others we will find “the leader in me.”

Two of the Sunflower Students on stage

Nathan Hulinger (wearing sign) and Kaitlyn Morgan.

For the next hour we watched these amazing kids perform, assisted by their loving teachers and aides. Student-teacher ratios are nearly one-to-one at Sunflower Center because of the extreme level of care many of the children require.

During the skit “We Will Lead With Our Hands,” three students showed how they work with a board that helps them talk.

For “We Will Lead With Our Creativity,” several older students wearing hats depicting animal characters performed a skit titled “Snow White and the Seven Habits.”

To demonstrate how “We Will Lead With Our Actions,” students danced with bean bags to the song “Bean Bag Boogie.”

To show how “We Will Lead By Showing Our Love,” students used special instruments to play along with a song about snowflakes, a song about Elmo and a hilarious song about loving fast food.

Affirming that “We Will Lead By Showing our Uniqueness” — and with the Beatles’ classic “All We Need Is Love” playing in the background — the students acted out a poem, “We Are Unique,” recited by Aranda Thompson. The grand finale consisted of all students on stage singing the song “Everyone Can Be A Leader,” written by Kobel, students and staff.

Sherry Rupp, mother of seventh grade Sunflower Center student David Shuler, was sitting behind me in the audience with David’s 4-year old brother Daniel. Rupp told me that David really enjoys Mrs. Thompson’s class and that he is having a good year in school.

“Why schools don’t educate”

…is the title of an article published 10 years ago in a magazine to which I have subscribed since 1988, The Sun. I read this morning that it is STILL one of the most requested and read articles ever published by The Sun.  It is by John Taylor Gatto and I’m giving the (very long) link to the article for any teacher, parent or administrator who may want to read what I think is a very thoughtful article on education:

If you read it and have comments, please let me know.