Innovations in Education

Editorial StaffJuly 28, 2020
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IN THIS SPECIAL SECTION, you’ll learn about the unique effort in Arizona to recognize the good work put forth by many of our public schools.  From teacher excellence awards to the buzz of spelling bee winners, K-12 education in Arizona has much to be applauded for. Plus, get familiar with the ever-increasing cost of secondary education and the variety of ways to pay for it.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How One Arizona Nonprofit is Fulfilling Its Destiny

Their names are well-known in Arizona: Carolyn Warner, Eddie Basha, Bill Shover. What many don’t realize is the legacy that these three education advocates and philanthropists created when they co-founded the Arizona Educational Foundation (AEF) back in 1983.

It was Warner’s idea. As Superintendent of Public Instruction, she was struck with the way public schools were often negatively portrayed in the media. She often remarked that the only time a school made the news was when something bad happened. Warner saw the way that public schools took in any child, regardless of how big that child’s needs were, and how teachers and administrators worked tirelessly to support the students they served. She felt public schools deserved to be celebrated and teachers needed to be shown respect.

Carolyn Warner reached out to long-time friends Eddie Basha, the grocery store magnate, and Bill Shover, who at the time was editor-in-chief of the Arizona Republic. She had an idea. Warner wanted to found a nonprofit that would change the narrative about public education; one that would be non-partisan, non-political, and would showcase the excellence being done in public schools.

Almost forty years later, the legacy of Warner, Basha, and Shover lives on through AEF. With programs that reach over 500,000 students, teachers, and administrators each year, there is no other organization in the state more prestigious than AEF in terms of the excellence that they recognize.

AEF’s mission is profoundly unique, coordinating some of our state’s highest recognition events for educators including the Arizona Teacher of the Year Awards, A+ School of Excellence, and the Arizona State Spelling Bee, all of which are launching pads for national recognition. The Arizona Teacher of the Year goes on to be our state’s candidate for National Teacher of the Year; A+ School of Excellence awardees often become National Blue Ribbon Schools; and the Arizona Spelling Bee champion goes on to compete for the ultimate title at the Scripps National Bee.

“Spotlighting the amazing work of public schools is an honor,” states Kim Graham, executive director. “If there is one thing 2020 has shown us, it’s that public schools are the nexus of their communities, providing not just learning opportunities, but food, medical care, nurturing, and safety. That kind of dedication deserves to be recognized and celebrated.”

The Arizona Educational Foundation is a nonprofit.

To donate, or learn more, visit

Spotlighting the amazing work of public schools is an honor,” states Kim Graham, executive director. “If there is one thing 2020 has shown us, it’s that public schools are the nexus of their communities, providing not just learning opportunities, but food, medical care, nurturing, and safety. That kind of dedication deserves to be recognized and celebrated.”

— Kim Graham, Executive Director, AEF

Carolyn Warner, philanthropist and co-founder of AEF; photo of Carolyn Warner used with permission
Carolyn Warner, philanthropist and co-founder of AEF; photo of Carolyn Warner used with permission
How to pay for college

Over the past 20 years, college costs have risen more than twice the rate of inflation. For many parents, funding their child’s college education will be one of their largest and most significant expenses. Saving money for your child’s college education requires foresight and planning. There’s never a bad time to start saving. There are investment options that will help you prepare for college whether it’s a few years away or a generation away. Talk to a financial partner to ensure you make the decision that is best for you. 

529 Plans

A 529 Plan is similar to a 401(k) or an IRA. The plan is designed to provide a parent, grandparent or other caregiver an opportunity to save for a child’s educational pursuits within a tax-deferred savings vehicle. Savings in a 529 plan grow free from federal income tax, and withdrawals remain tax-free when used for qualified higher education expenses. These include tuition, fees and books, supplies and equipment required for attendance or enrollment; certain room & board costs; computers and internet service; and certain special needs expenses. Savings may also be used for tuition expenses at eligible public, private, and religious primary and secondary educational institutions (K-12).The state of Arizona offers one of the most diversified 529 plans in the country. Benefits include:

Qualified distributions are exempt from federal income tax

Qualified distributions are exempt from Arizona income tax for Arizona taxpayers

College savings plans are offered through multiple providers and include choices of CDs, mutual fund options, and age-based portfolios

Contributions to accounts grow on a tax-deferred basis

Assets are not considered when determining Arizona financial aid awards

Savings can be used at most accredited public or private universities, colleges, and vocational schools in the United States. Some apprenticeship programs and foreign institutions are also eligible

Anyone can make contributions

Ability to begin saving with as little as $15 a month

Can change account beneficiaries at any time

Financial aid.
Because money is the most important school supply of all.

Financial aid programs made available and funded by the federal government, the State of Arizona, and various private organizations include:

Federal Grants 

Grants are forms of financial aid that do not need to be repaid. Grants are typically provided to students from limited-income families and are need-based in nature. There are a variety of grants available to eligible students, including Pell Grants and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG).


Loans are federally or privately funded sources of assistance that must be repaid with interest at the conclusion of a student’s college attendance.


Scholarships are granted to students and are often based on performance in a particular area such as academics or sports.

Work Study – This type of program provides jobs for students who have applied for financial aid and are eligible to work as part of their financial aid award package.

For more financial aid resources visit:

photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images
photo Courtesy Adobe Stock Images
Arizona Spellers Pave the Way for a Bright FutureOne Letter at a Time

Can you spell “breviary?” Eleven-year-old Omkar Bharath did to win the Arizona State Spelling Bee. Bharath, a student at Desert Canyon Middle School in the Scottsdale Unified School District, is one of hundreds of thousands of Arizona students who compete in spelling bees each year. Coordinated by the Arizona Educational Foundation, the Arizona Spelling Bee is one of the largest programs in the nation, with an estimated 300,000 students competing statewide each year. 

Spelling bees are a great American pastime. First established in 1925, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has been held every year since, with the exception of 1943-1945 due to World War II and in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research shows that learning to spell and learning to read rely on much of the same underlying knowledge — such as the relationships between letters and sounds. Not only do spelling bees teach students how to correctly spell and pronounce words, they also build self-confidence and experience with handling the stress of competition. According to Keith Southergill, director of admissions for Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, spelling bees are among the extracurricular activities that colleges look for on student applications.

Arizona Educational Foundation’s State Spelling Bee Coordinator, Matthew Feller, points out that spelling bees start at the classroom level, with student winners then going on to win grade-level bees, schoolwide bees, district bees, and then county and regional bees. In Arizona, 27 students from every corner of the state ultimately advance to the State Spelling Bee finals. The Arizona Educational Foundation provides a prize package for the Spelling Bee champion, including an all-expense paid trip for the winner to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.

For more information on the Arizona State Spelling Bee or to find out how you can sponsor a Spelling Bee, please visit
Excellence in Arizona Public Schools 

It’s a rare rainy day at Kyrene Traditional Academy as principal Marianne Lescher greets students as they slosh into school. One of the first things you notice about Kyrene Academy is the many A+ School of Excellence banners lining the walls. “We are very proud to be an AEF A+ School of Excellence,” beams Lescher, “To not only be named an A+ School but to hold the designation for many years is validation for my entire staff and our school community that our hard work is not in vain.” A The A+ School of Excellence Award is one of the many ways the Arizona Educational Foundation (AEF) celebrates public education. The Award program showcases outstanding public schools who are doing “ordinary” things in extraordinary ways.

The A+ program is a powerful energizer for increasing public confidence in recognized schools, often resulting in greater parent and community involvement. Being named an “A+ School” even serves as an economic driver for some communities. “We frequently see districts or local municipalities touting the number of A+ Schools they have as a way of driving enrollment or attracting new industry to communities,” stated Kim Graham, AEF executive director.

• While the name contains “A+,” part of the beauty of the program is that it showcases the full scope of how schools are serving students and communities. To be eligible for the A+ School of Excellence Award, schools can actually be designated “A” or “B” schools according to the Arizona Department of Education’s grading scale.

• Why allow “B” schools in a program promoting excellence? Graham says it’s simple. “Schools are more than test scores. Academics are obviously vital, but A+ Schools take normal every day practices and exhibit truly outstanding strategies for responding to students’ needs, retaining teachers, rallying community support, and providing school climates that are brimming with opportunities.” Graham notes that a school can have excellent test scores,but miss the boat in other areas.

• “Applying to be an A+ School of Excellence was one of the best professional development and growth experiences I had with my staff,” says Brett Bonner, Assistant Superintendent of Sahuarita Unified School District, and former principal of Homer Davis Elementary. “The application process is rigorous,” notes Bonner, “but that’s how you know when you receive the award that you’re among the best of the best.”

• Over 200 schools throughout Arizona currently hold the title of A+ School of Excellence.

To view a list of list of schools or learn more about the program, visit

phots Courtesy Kyrene Traditional Academy/used with Permission
phots Courtesy Kyrene Traditional Academy/used with Permission
A+ Schools in Arizona
as rated by Arizona Educational Foundation (AEF). Schools maintain their rating for a 3.5 year period.


Anthem School, Anthem

Aprende Middle School, Chandler

Arizona Charter Academy, Surprise

Arizona College Prep Erie, Chandler

Arredondo Elementary School, Tempe

Arrowhead Elementary School, Glendale

Audrey and Robert Ryan Elementary School, Chandler

Basha Elementary School, Chandler

Booker T. Washington Elementary School, Mesa

Carrillo K-5 Communication and Creative Arts, Tucson

Centennial Elementary School, Tucson

Chandler High School, Chandler

Chandler Traditional Academy – Freedom Campus, Gilbert

Chandler Traditional Academy – Independence Campus, Chandler

C.I. Waggoner Elementary School, Tempe

Cienega High School, Vail

Circle Cross Ranch K-8 STEM Academy, Florence

Copper Creek Elementary School, Glendale

Desert Shadows Elementary School, Scottsdale

Desert Willow Elementary School, Tucson

Diamond Canyon School, Anthem

Emerson Elementary, Mesa

Empire High School, Tucson

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado Elementary School, Nogales

Gateway Pointe Elementary School, Gilbert

Gowan Science Academy, Yuma

Kyrene de la Mariposa, Tempe

Kyrene Monte Vista Elementary School, Phoenix

Kyrene Traditional Academy, Chandler

Lincoln Elementary School, Mesa

Litchfield Elementary School, Litchfield Park

Longview Elementary School, Phoenix

Mary C. O’Brien Elementary School, Toltec

McDowell Mountain Elementary School, Fountain Hills

Mesquite Elementary School, Tucson

Palm Valley Elementary School, Litchfield Park

Pantano High School, Tucson

Park Meadows Elementary School, Glendale

Pima Butte Elementary School, Maricopa

Playa del Rey Elementary School, Gilbert

Ramon S. Mendoza Elementary, Mesa

Rogers Ranch School, Laveen

Sequoya Elementary School, Scottsdale

Shadow Ridge High School, Surprise

Shumway Leadership Academy, Chandler

Sirrine Elementary School, Chandler

Sonoran Sky Elementary School, Scottsdale

Towne Meadows Elementary, Gilbert

Valley Vista High School, Surprise

Ward Traditional Academy, Tempe

Wildflower School, Goodyear

Zedo Ishikawa Elementary School, Mesa


Acacia Elementary School, Phoenix

Basha High School, Chandler

Centennial High School, Peoria

Constitution Elementary School, Phoenix

Deer Valley High School, Glendale

Desert Sky Middle School, Tucson

Elgin School, Elgin

Estrella Mountain Elementary School, Goodyear

Eugene Field Elementary School, Mesa

Fruchthendler Elementary School, Tucson

Greenfield Jr. High School, Gilbert

Irving Elementary School, Mesa

James K Zaharis Elementary School, Mesa

John and Carol Carlson Elementary School, Chandler

Kyrene de la Colina Elementary School, Phoenix

Kyrene de la Esperanza Elementary School, Phoenix

Kyrene de la Paloma Elementary School, Chandler

Kyrene de la Sierra Elementary School, Phoenix

Kyrene de las Manitas Elementary School, Tempe

Laguna Elementary School, Scottsdale

Madison Camelview Elementary School, Phoenix

Mansfeld Magnet Middle School, Tucson

Maurice C. Cash Elementary School, Phoenix

Meridian Elementary School, Mesa

Mountain Pointe High School, Phoenix

Mountain Ridge High School, Glendale

Rancho Gabriela School, Surprise

Red Mountain High School, Mesa

Redfield Elementary School, Scottsdale

Sandra Day O’Connor High School, Phoenix

Senita Valley Elementary School, Tucson

Sierra Verde STEM Academy, Glendale

Sonoran Trails Middle School, Cave Creek

South Valley Jr. High School, Gilbert

T. Dale Hancock Elementary School, Chandler

Tartesso Elementary School, Buckeye

Trailside Point Performing Arts Academy, Laveen

Vail Academy and High School, Tucson

Verrado Elementary School, Litchfield Park

Verrado Middle School, Litchfield Park

Zuni Hills Elementary School, Sun City


Benson High School, Benson

Cherokee Elementary School, Paradise Valley

Clarendon Elementary School, Phoenix

Connolly Middle School, Tempe

Crismon Elementary School, Mesa

Desert Vista High School, Phoenix

EDUPRIZE SCHOOLS – Gilbert, Gilbert

Elvira Elementary School, Tucson

Flowing Wells High School, Tucson

Francis M. Pomeroy Elementary School, Chandler

Gilbert High School, Gilbert

Hartford Sylvia Encinas Elementary School, Chandler

Horizon High School, Scottsdale

Islands Elementary School, Gilbert

Jefferson Elementary School, Mesa

John M. Andersen Elementary School, Chandler

Kyrene de la Estrella, Phoenix

Kyrene de los Cerritos, Phoenix

Kyrene de los Lagos Dual Language Academy, Phoenix

Mabel Padgett Elementary School, Goodyear

Marshall Ranch Elementary School, Glendale

Metro Tech High School, Phoenix

Oak Tree Elementary School, Gilbert

Osborn Middle School, Phoenix

Patterson Elementary School, Gilbert

Perry High School, Gilbert

Rattlesnake Ridge Elementary School, Tucson

Rio Rico High School, Rio Rico

Santa Fe Elementary School, Peoria

Santan Elementary School, Chandler

Santan Junior High School, Chandler

Stapley Junior High School, Mesa

Superstition Springs Elementary School, Mesa

Tavan Elementary School, Phoenix

Villago Middle School, Casa Grande

Walden Grove High School, Sahuarita

Walter Douglas Elementary School, Tucson

West Wing School, Peoria

Willie and Coy Payne Junior High School, Queen Creek

Photo courtesy Arizona Republic
Photo courtesy Arizona Republic

One day you’re just working in your classroom with your students, and the next you’re suddenly catapulted into the spotlight and everyone wants to know who you are and how you will make a difference”

— Michelle Doherty, Teacher of the Year, 2017

Photo courtesy AZ Education News
Photo courtesy AZ Education News
The STEM Pipeline: Building Arizona’s Teaching Workforce

When is the first time a student hears the term “STEM” or learns about STEM careers? Typically, from a teacher.  While Arizona is a bustling hub for technology, engineering, and biomedical industries, public schools throughout the state are unfortunately struggling to find and retain science and math teachers. As a state, how can we hope to fill STEM career vacancies when we lack the teachers needed to inspire students to pursue STEM? One organization, the Arizona Educational Foundation (AEF), has devised a creative and promising solution called “teachSTEM.”  

teachSTEM is unique from the start. It is designed and led by Arizona Teachers of the Year, award-winning master educators who serve as STEM Coaches. AEF also coordinates the Arizona Teacher of the Year program, so leveraging the talents of these outstanding educators for a program like teachSTEM was a “no-brainer,” according to AEF executive director Kim Graham.

• teachSTEM works by pairing a Teacher of the Year with a high school that offers the Career and Technical Education program “Educators Rising.” Students enrolled in Educators Rising are 9th-12th graders who want to become teachers. Through teachSTEM, students learn about the need for STEM teachers and the critical role teachers play in motivating students to pursue STEM as a career. Students are also taught STEM workforce skills such as robotics, DNA testing, 3-D printing, engineering, etc. and also get to learn from Subject Matter Experts like Intel engineers or doctors from the Mayo Clinic.

• Educators Rising National has research that shows that 60% of all teachers end up teaching 20 miles from where they themselves went to school. “teachSTEM is a direct investment in our state’s education workforce,” stated Graham. “Our hope is that these students will return home to their own Arizona neighborhoods to teach.”

• AEF launched teachSTEM in 2019 in four schools and hopes to expand the program to fourteen schools for the 2020-2021 school year.

For more information on donating to teachSTEM or volunteering as a Subject Matter Expert,

Photo by Kim Graham
Photo by Kim Graham


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