Category Archives: Innovation thinking in education

New curriculum at Liberty High gets down to business

Peoria Unified School District’s Liberty High School has partnered with the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University to provide students with a college preparatory program with a specialized business curriculum.

The College Prep Business Academy at Liberty High School will offer freshmen through seniors a comprehensive business program that mentors students and prepares them for college. Liberty students also will have the opportunity to take community-college courses at a discounted rate to get ahead in their university studies. The dual-enrollment courses will focus on classes most beneficial for eventual credit transfer to ASU.

“We surveyed our graduating seniors and found that many plan to major in business and eventually obtain a career within the business field,” says Liberty High School Principal Ali Bridgewater. “By partnering with the W. P. Carey School of Business, we believe we can provide specialized assistance to our students to prepare them for success after graduation.”

W. P. Carey School faculty members are consulting with Liberty teachers to assist in developing a comprehensive business curriculum. Students will focus on core business fields such as accounting, management and marketing. Students will also have access to seminars, guest speakers and student mentors from the business school, which is ranked among the Top 30 business schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

“The students will be put on a path that gives them a great head start for business school in college,” says Tim Desch, assistant dean for undergraduate admissions. “In addition to the business-oriented courses offered at Liberty, students will also participate in a Capstone College Readiness Program offered by the W. P. Carey School at ASU’s West campus. This is a location near Liberty High that also may be ideal for these students to eventually attend college. By then, they will have met professors, advisers and W. P. Carey School students, and they will have a real advantage in adapting to college life.”

To learn more information about enrolling a student in the College Prep Business Academy at Liberty High School, call 623-773-6525or visit


SRP funds new math, science programs

Salt River Project has donated a total of $124,000 to implement special programs that support math and science education in 29 Arizona schools.

Recipients of Learning Grants by SRP are schools representing elementary through high grades all across the state. Grant funding will enable robotics and engineering courses and clubs, water testing and analysis, ecological conservation programs, gardening projects and more.

Below are just a few examples of the incredible programs being developed at a few of the recipient schools.

Photo courtesy of St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary.

Avondale. St. Thomas Aquinas will implement a program in which students will learn about the role water has played in Arizona’s history, work with water-saving devices and show their parents and fellow students what they’ve learned at a Water Conservation Awareness/Science Night.

Photo courtesy of Verde Valley Montessori.

Cottonwood. Verde Valley Montessori will now have a garden space at the Cottonwood Community Garden. Through the Life Cycle of a Garden Project, students will test soil, chart plant growth, prepare a meal from their crops and donate surplus of the harvest to a local food bank.

Fountain Hills  

Fountain Hills High School engineering students will construct and equip a solar-powered, fully robotic and automated astronomy observatory on the roof of the school’s science building with live Internet video feed. The district’s teachers will have access to the system to use as a teaching tool in their own classroom, and astronomy classes at Fountain Hills High School will also use data and images from the observatory for their own research projects.


Gilbert Elementary will combine social studies and science to create a year-long theme that will incorporate the study of water throughout Arizona’s history. Students will use GPS devices for geocaching treasure hunts, study Theodore Roosevelt Dam, visit the Desert Botanical Garden and more, ending with a “Water Night” for parents and community members.


The Cesar Chavez High School robotics team students will compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge (beginning level robotics engineering), FIRST Lego League (intermediate level robotics with an emphasis on climate connections), and FIRST Robotics Competition (an expert level engineering competition involving improving the functionality of a robot system). They will also mentor elementary school students interested in learning about engineering.


Girls Leadership Academy of Arizona math and biology students will gather ecological and hydrological samples from the Nina Mason Pulliam Audubon Rio Salado restoration area in Phoenix. They will compare their data to 2008 data to determine changes in the habitat and hydrology, and will present their findings.


Mountainside Middle School sixth graders will lead a campaign for an energy-free day – “Lights Out Day” – to raise awareness about renewable technologies and saving energy. They will participate in several data analysis activities to determine the cost and energy savings for one day of no-energy use.


Desert Vista High School’s Engineering Academy students will participate in the Shell Eco-Marathon and design hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles. They will design and build three test vehicles with the goal of acquiring the highest miles per gallon, comparing different designs, constraints, and materials.

Find the complete list of recipients here. SRP annually gives more than $1.3 million in  contributions to educational programs and partnerships that provide teacher training, mentoring and hands-on learning. For more information, visit

Secret formula for good grades revealed

During my 10 years of teaching I always asked the straight-A students, who seemed to do everything perfectly with ease, what their secret to success was. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very secret, and it is a simple formula.

Tyler Garlieb, a sophomore at Arcadia High School, uses the same formula. “Pay attention, ask questions and participate in class as much as you can,” he says, because it will make the day go faster and school will be more interesting. “It’s boring to just sit there,” he says.

Tyler Garlieb

Arcadia High School sophomore Tyler Garlieb.

I’ve got news for Tyler and everyone else: Teachers also find it excruciatingly boring when students sit like lumps and never ask questions or make pertinent comments.

Another strategy Tyler employs: Do all the assignments. Really do them. Follow directions. Understand what is going on. Tyler doesn’t spend much time studying for tests, certainly not cramming, because he has already learned the material.

For parents who tear their hair out trying to get their kids to improve their grades, it may be reassuring to find that Tyler and a lot of other kids don’t do anything magical beyond making a consistent effort. And it works. Tyler scored in the 99th percentile on the PSAT and he gets all As in his honors and AP classes.

Lest you think Tyler spends endless hours at home on schoolwork, he doesn’t. He says he gets about 70 percent of his homework done in school in those few moments here and there when he is finished with a test or in-class assignment. When the teacher says, “You can start on the homework if you have nothing else to do.” Tyler does.

Tyler has an advantage, though. His parents have very high expectations, and his mother Stacie especially has kept on him to meet those expectations, of which he eventually assumed ownership.

Really, any kid can show up for school tomorrow and decide he/she is going pay attention and ask questions. Even if they don’t love school they can act like they do. Tyler says he doesn’t love school but he wants to do well because he wants to get into the college of his choice.

I asked him if he had always been a good student and how he knew what to do. He says, “I wanted the teachers to like me and that progressed into ‘this works well.'”

Tyler is an exceptionally well-spoken, nice, intelligent kid. And I’m betting his teachers quickly figure this out. He doesn’t like negative attention and he doesn’t like the kids who thrive on negative attention. Teachers appreciate students who respect what they are doing for the students.

Students like Tyler find out that this turns into a formula to get them the grades, and the future, they want. — Dan Friedman

New learning environments: oceans, savannas, and wetlands

Isaiah Jolly, 12, a seventh-grader at Arizona Connections Academy (ACA), explores Biosphere 2. (Photo courtesy of ACA)

Which is more fun: sitting at a desk reading a textbook that describes exotic fish on a coral reef or a lion in the savanna…or watching tropical fish swim by and a lion go about its daily routine?

For the students of Arizona Connections Academy (ACA), a recent visit to Biosphere 2 in Oracle presented them with the opportunity to see many exotic environments up close.

Biosphere 2 is a 3.14-acre facility modeled after the original biosphere, the earth. It is the home of five different ecosystems including ocean and coral reef, mangrove wetlands, tropical rainforest, savanna grasslands and a fog desert. Through a very complicated system of air, temperature and moisture control, Biosphere 2 can maintain these environments very much like they occur in nature.

ACA, a tuition-free virtual public school, gathered 140 students for the trip. Students were able to get up close and smell the ocean, something one doesn’t often experience living in Arizona.

Students at Kyrene School District have paired up with the Phoenix Zoo to create Project Zoo Lab II: Return to the Savanna. As part of the project, after-school students are given a live video feed from the Phoenix Zoo, hosted by Liesl Pimentel, manager of education and formal programs at the zoo.

Close to 1,200 students are involved. Every Thursday afternoon, students are presented with a 25-minute live video feed from Pimentel as she shows students the construction of the savanna exhibit, entertains the kids with silly lectures and interviews zoo staff. For the remaining 35 minutes, students work on building their own savanna exhibit model to be shown off during Zoo Day.

The first session is an introduction to get students thinking about how they will create their own exhibits. The following sessions focus on:

• getting to know your animal
• replicating your animal’s natural habitat
• animal viewing and the guest experience
• animal night houses
• behavioral enrichment
• education and programs

Pimentel conducts a live chat going during the broadcast so she can ask questions and get immediate answers from the teachers in the classrooms. “Even though I can’t see into the classroom, I can get a sense of how the classes are reacting to and comprehending the information,” she says. “I hope it makes the students feel more directly connected with me as well.”

While it’s not an African safari, the experience gives students a chance to think critically about something they would normally never get to do. How many kids do you know that who have built homes for giraffes?

“The answers and feedback students provide, along with questions they pose through the broadcast chat, make it easy to see that they are thinking critically and applying the information from the broadcasts to their classroom exhibits,” says Pimentel. “When those moments become obvious to all of us involved in the broadcast, we can’t contain our excitement either. You’ll find us smiling and hollering, “They’re learning!! They’re really learning!”

PTA’s new guide for parents

As education remains the topic of much talk and debate in both the political world and everyday life for many parents and teachers, the National PTA has come up with a way to keep schools across the country on the same page.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), has been implemented in 40 states and to ensure the new standards are followed effectively the PTA has come up with a Parent’s Guide to Student Success.

The new standards, a state-led effort, will help better prepare students for their futures in college and in the workplace. According to the PTA, an estimated $1.4 billion is spent each year on remedial education for college students who recently graduated high school. The U.S. is also ranked 25th in math and 21st in science out of 30 industrialized countries.

To monitor how American students are progressing, the PTA has created a Parent’s Guide to Student Success. The guide, which is available in both English and Spanish, has versions for grades K-8 and then two versions for high school math and language arts. Each version contains brief descriptions about what your child is supposed to be learning in a certain grade, as well as tips for communicating with teachers and activities you and your child can do at home to practice.

For example, in the fourth grade guide, the PTA recommends reading and discussing a news story with your child. They also suggest asking your child to help compare fractional amounts when cooking. They should be able to identify which ingredients you are using more of.

As the guide reaches the high school versions, the PTA says you should make a plan at the beginning of high school that contains your child’s goals and what it will take to achieve them.

Arizona is one of the over 40 states that has adopted the Common Core Standards Initiative and you will start seeing changes in the curriculum in the coming years. — Veronica Jones

Grants for teachers keep music alive

Musical education played a huge part when the Peoria Educational Enrichment Foundation granted $35,000 to several different teachers across the Peoria Unified School District. The money was given to teachers who had come up with innovative ways to make their teaching more interesting and effective for students.

Many public school music programs have been pushed out of the way in past years because of budget cuts and increased focus on core academics. These teachers have found creative ways to keep their music classes going strong.

Robert Vagi, from Ira A. Murphy Elementary School, says that music allows children to express themselves in ways math and social studies cannot. “Through the arts, students can learn to express themselves, appreciate beauty, find joy and, most importantly, discover that both they and others are human and therefore deserving of respect,” Vagi says. “Education in math, reading, science, and social studies are essential but it’s important to remember that even Einstein played the violin.”

Robert Vagi helps Bilind Nasrullah (foreground) Autumn Mattison and Tabitha Mattison (in headphones), record a song.

Vagi hopes to get more equipment so more students can record during class time.

Autumn realizes how difficult is to keep a beat simultaneously on tophat, snare and bass drum.

Bilind Nasrullah surprised Vagi yesterday with his improved ability to add a few beats on the bass drum. He had been practicing on his own.


With his grant, Vagi will buy more software and equipment to produce music with his class. In a previous year, he created Murphy’s Hip Hop Club, where students are taught to express themselves through hip-hop music. The group has its own YouTube channel and released a CD last year. Perhaps with this money another CD will be coming out soon.

Jacob Boyd at Sunrise Mountain High School received a grant to create a fully functioning recording studio on the school’s campus. Students will be able to see the way the pros do it in the music business as they practice for what could later become a career choice.

J.J. Rafferty at Cactus High School seems to have a more old-school approach in mind. With his grant money, he will be buying 15 new acoustic guitars and instruction books to create a new class that students can take for credit.

Zona Mielke at Heritage Elementary School is taking a technological route in her music class. Her grant money will go toward buying a SMARTboard, an interactive “white board” that works like a computer screen the whole class can see. Teachers can roam around the classroom while they teach and have their lessons appear on the board, instead of being stuck at the front of the class (which leads some students to stop paying attention). Musical rhythms and harmonies will appear on the board and she will work with her students to interpret them.

Daniel Jensen of Liberty High School will use his grant to fund music production equipment including a new computer loaded with music software that offers music assessment, music recording and editing, music notation and interactive marching practice software.

See related story.Veronica Jones

Holding students responsible with technology

I always had friends who would go to great lengths to stop their parents from seeing their report cards. They would rush home after school and wait at the end of the driveway for the mail to come, or just let the report cards get lost in the abyss of their backpacks. We grew up in the ’90s, so we didn’t have to worry about technology foiling our devious plans.

Too bad for the children of today! Technology keeps advancing and making it easier for parents and teachers to communicate. Now that email is as easy as breathing, it’s very easy for teachers to give parents a heads up if their child is having problems in school.

It has become even harder for kids to outsmart their parents with new inventions like SnapGrades, an online portal for parents, teachers and students to keep track of students’ progress. Teachers are able to upload progress reports or report cards and parents and students can use their own passwords to log on and check in.

Students will also have to be more accountable for their homework assignments as teachers can post assignments, due dates and announcements. Teachers can also email or text parents who own smart phones if a student is missing their assignment or receiving low grades. This tool can also be used for attendance to immediately alert parents if their child is missing from class.

The SnapGrades service also allows teachers to send messages to parents who don’t speak English. All they have to do is type their message and the service will translate it into Spanish. This could be a very handy tool with Arizona’s large Hispanic community.

Teachers can also arrange seating charts, take attendance, or plan for substitute teachers.

Gilbert Public Schools is beginning to use a similar service called Infinite Campus where they will electronically distribute progress report to parents. While report cards will still be mailed home, this gives parents a peek into how their kids are doing in between report cards.

The end is near for irresponsible students who hope to keep their parents in the dark.  — Veronica Jones