‘World-ready’ – Unique learning model imbues new Desert Sunrise High School

When efforts began to conceive and plan Maricopa’s second high school, the Academy Model inspired the educators, architects, planners and contractors who helped make Desert Sunrise High School’s July 21 opening a reality.

Marlene Armstrong, the school’s principal, feels the innovative approach will play to the students’ advantage.

“I believe that the most unique facet of Desert Sunrise is the Academy Model experience,” she said. “Students will be enrolled in a career academy and will be in small learning communities. Through this academy experience, students will have the opportunity to earn industry credential certificates and learn the 22 essential skills to transition into adulthood successfully.

“Our goal is that each and every student is ‘world-ready’ upon graduation.”

Getting there
The Academy Model requires a commitment from the outset.

The prep room is seen for the school’s cafeteria. [Bryan Mordt]

Nearly two years ago, when the new high school was still in the planning stages, Architect Saravanan Bala of Orcutt Winslow Architects said the school’s academic building would have two “academies, or learning communities” on each floor, with each academy having classrooms, a lab and a maker space.

“We are trying to maximize instructional space,” Bala said.

The model encourages learning from collaborating and doing.

MUSD Superintendent Tracey Lopeman said earlier this year part of the master plan for the school was to have “fully-equipped classrooms, complete with technology, first-rate furnishings and dynamic teaching spaces.”

“We will create a space that fully meets the needs of our students,” she said. “There are a lot of collaborative spaces, and we support that kind of teaching.”

But the vision shared by Lopeman and Bala was going to take money, and a lot more of it than the $21.5 million the school system was provided by the state School Facilities Board.

MUSD needed a friend in a high place. Up stepped then-state Rep. Bret Roberts, a Maricopa resident, who tucked an additional $18.8 million into the state budget for construction. With the late allocation, the school’s budget nearly doubled to $41 million.

Roberts has since left Arizona for the greener pastures of South Carolina, but, at least in some part, his legacy remains in Maricopa as the greatly-enhanced school opened in July to its first two classes of students.

Without Roberts’ 11th-hour push, the school would have lacked a library and administration building. Six classrooms would have been converted into administrative space.

Biby Carbonneau, associate and project manager for Orcutt-Winslow Architects, said the multimillion-dollar boost was crucial.

“Once we found out we would have more funding, we looked for what else we could bring for the kids – things like more natural light in the hallways, bringing in operable partitions to facilitate community-based learning, and little touches that could comfort them. .

“We knew that if we got an additional million dollars, we’d be able to do this much, and if we got $5 million, we could do that much,” she explained. “That all came from our experiences, and that way we were able to prioritize and get the most out of the budget.”

Student-athletes were on hand the week before Desert Sunrise High School’s opening day to model the jerseys for the school athletic teams. [Bryan Mordt]

Forging ahead
Armstrong marvels at how the structural assets of the school will support the education of its students.

“The design of Desert Sunrise is incredible,” she said. “Each and every learning space was purposefully designed to encourage collaboration and communication. Through this daring and diverse learning environment, students will be actively engaged in their learning.”

Phillip Verdugo, the school’s assistant principal, agreed.

“The design of our school was very purposeful,” he said. “The team not only created a place that students, staff and community members could be proud of, they created a place where all students could learn, explore and become future-ready.”

The “academies” housed in the academic building include Leadership, STEM and Health.

Jonathan Clark is the school’s football coach. As an educator and a parent, he took notice of the school’s curriculum.

“The Academy Model is one that I have never seen but fell in love with immediately,” he said. “My eldest daughter will be entering ninth grade this year. She is a very strong, independent young lady. Placing her in the Leadership academy is only going to enhance her natural abilities along with providing her with college credits and/or credentials to get a quality job straight out of high school.”

Football Coach Jonathan Clark, Principal Marlene Armstrong, and Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Phillip Verdugo. [Bryan Mordt]

Many ‘firsts’
There are many challenges to starting a new school. Of course, there are classrooms to set up. But more importantly, a culture has to be defined and developed.

Armstrong in the past has discussed how a balance has to be struck between the school’s individuality and its connection to the community of Maricopa.

“I would say that the biggest challenge of starting a new high school is coming to a consensus on what the identity of the school is,” Armstrong said. “We were so blessed that this was a very collaborative experience, and the community was very supportive in planning for our daring and diverse learning environments.”

Clark, who will also teach physical education, praised the efforts of Armstrong and Verdugo to unite a dedicated staff.

“We have a strong administration with Ms. Armstrong and Mr. Verdugo,” Clark said. “This is not Ms. Armstrong’s first rodeo when it comes to opening a school, so that is a huge benefit and comfort to me as a teacher. The positivity that radiates from this group will do wonders for establishing the culture we want at Desert Sunrise.”

Verdugo pointed to Armstrong’s experience as a huge asset for the first-year school.

“This is my first time opening a brand-new school,” Verdugo said. “However, Mrs. Armstrong has opened other schools throughout her career and her experience has helped our team navigate potential challenges. I am grateful for her guidance and professional support as we continue to do great things for our students, staff and community.”

For more, read: Meet Desert Sunrise High School’s principals, football coach

This content was first published in the August edition of InMaricopa magazine.

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