This special section provides perspective on six increasingly innovative educational institutions that are breaking the mold when it comes to creative coursework, exciting extracurriculars and setting students up for success in the classroom and beyond.
Phoenix Country Day School
Founded in 1961 by a group of visionaries who felt that an East Coast private school model was absent in the Valley, Phoenix Country Day School has been a trailblazer for educational excellence in Arizona. According to Chris Hall, the school’s director of communications and marketing, PCDS has achieved recognition among the nation’s best independent learning institutions while still forging its own unique path in the Southwest.
While the pre-K-12 school’s ethos has not changed, Hall says PCDS has grown in enrollment – now capped at 750 students with a graduating class of 75 – and the campus itself is continually upgraded to provide the best possible experience for its pupils.
As an independent institution, PCDS has the unique ability to constantly evolve its curriculum. Students at all levels are exposed to the STEAM approach, which reinforces core learning through hands-on projects that promote cross-curricular connections to art, engineering, design, science, math, and data analysis. This extends beyond the classroom – to the playground, on field trips and other opportunities that encourage personal and academic growth.
“PCDS believes that what happens outside of the classroom can be just as important as what happens inside the classroom, and across all academic divisions, careful attention is placed on extracurricular activities,” Hall says. The 40-acre campus includes a plethora of green spaces, playing fields, two gyms, an aquatic center, tennis courts, an auditorium, state-of-the-art music and maker spaces and science labs.
“There is no academic ceiling at PCDS,” Hall says. With more than 130 upper school courses, high schoolers can choose from multidisciplinary electives, advanced seminars and independent studies that go beyond traditional learning. As such, PCDS graduates are particularly prepared to succeed in college classes and, eventually, their chosen career path.
One of the hallmarks of the PCDS experience is its small class sizes, which allow students to build authentic, genuine relationships with their teachers and peers. A robust advisory program, weekly assemblies and inter-grade buddy programs teach older students leadership skills and allow younger students to have mentors and role models.
“PCDS’s college preparatory curriculum prepares students to be self-confident, resourceful individuals, collaborative community members and lifelong learners who are inclined to action,” Hall says. A four-person college counseling team guides students through a customized college placement process, and graduates matriculate at the country’s top universities, often earning significant merit-based scholarships.
Primavera Online School
While many learning institutions struggled to pivot to an online-only model amid the pandemic, Primavera was ahead of the game. The online charter school has been a leader in digital learning for the past two decades, serving more than 20,000 K-12 students each year. Primavera’s curriculum has rapidly advanced and improved since its inception in 2001, becoming more interactive and experience-based.
This school year, it implemented more social-emotional learning to aid students in their individual development. At Primavera, coursework focuses on relevant and real-world scenarios. This connection to real life concepts prepares students for their future careers and higher education.
The school is an accredited, tuition-free alternative to the traditional model. It focuses on flexible, individualized support and innovative, stimulating courses that can’t be found anywhere else. High school students can choose from electives like criminology or vocational courses such as interior design, with new classes added to the catalog on a continuing basis. Middle schoolers can learn the basics of keyboarding or take a character education course, which encourages students to be diligent and capable, interact positively in social situations and act ethically. Kindergarten through fifth grade focuses on a holistic approach, featuring English, math, science, history, health and safety, visual and performing arts and communication and technology coursework.
Primavera prides itself on its adaptability and capacity to meet the needs of each and every student. Those enrolled in the online program receive support from teachers in a virtual classroom and can also attend one-on-one or group sessions to reinforce their concept mastery.
New Way was established in 1968 to educate children who learn differently, according to the academy’s director of marketing, Laura Murray. At that time, diagnosing a child with a learning disability was a novel concept – there wasn’t even a formal manner of describing the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder until the ’70s, much less an idea of how to cater an education to someone who has it. New Way’s founders not only recognized that students with learning differences need specific resources to succeed but has been paving the way for these students in the Valley since before diagnoses were formally acknowledged
differences. New Way provides a personalized education for students who find it difficult to learn in a traditional school setting due to differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. Its students learn best through a variety of methods and modalities and flexible classroom situations. “Our education model addresses the needs of the whole child and is modular based on those demonstrated needs,” Murray says.
That model extends beyond the classroom. New Way offers an all-inclusive athletic department, diverse arts and theater program, technology and coding classes and eclectic electives that are designed to facilitate skill-building and pique career interests. Inside the classroom, you’ll find flexible seating arrangements, Chromebooks for every student and hands-on learning opportunities in core classes at all levels.
“Students often find it difficult to learn in a traditional setting because those settings do not typically have the breadth or depth of resources available for a student to holistically develop all of their learning needs,” Murray says. This is why New Way offers on-site therapy that is incorporated into each student’s school day. If a student needs occupational therapy, speech, reading or social/emotional support, the skilled staff provides an individualized plan, working one-on-one with students to ensure their success beyond the core subjects.
“This has been a proprietary asset as part of New Way’s educational model,” Murray says. “Incorporating therapies into a student’s school day means they can concentrate on being a student and developing their interests and friendships on campus without having to rush around town in the afternoon to see a therapist.”
New Way alums have started their own businesses after high school, received scholarships to top-tier colleges, pursued master’s degrees, become mentors for other students with learning differences and even returned to New Way for their first teaching jobs.
“The beautiful thing about our alumni is that each graduating class has their own energy and passions, with such a wide variety of skillsets and motivations that make them who they are,” she says. “Every alumni story is a success with something special to offer to the world, no matter where they went or what they did after leaving our campus.”
Maricopa County Community College District
Maricopa County Community College’s programs are specially designed to ensure that students have the skills for success in the workforce of the future. This means teaching topics such as cloud computing, automotive technology, cybersecurity and drone training. The system’s forward-thinking approach to education allows MCCCD’s 10 institutions to operate as catalysts for innovation, delivering high-quality higher education to the masses.
As one of the largest community college systems in the country, the Maricopa County Community Colleges serve as a prominent pipeline for job creation. It’s recognized as a leader for regional workforce development and offers hundreds of work-ready certificates and degrees and its partnerships with K-12 schools, colleges, universities, local businesses and organizations provide entry points and opportunities for students at every stage.
MCCCD recognizes the value in providing alternative paths to degree completion, allowing its students to be eligible for better job opportunities and higher wages regardless of their socioeconomic status. The community college system boasts partnerships with in-state universities as well as more than 40 other public and private institutions across the U.S. and the world. With the passing of SB1453, MCCCD will soon be able to offer students baccalaureate degrees and “bridge the equity gap with affordable options for higher education,” according to the community colleges’ interim chief marketing officer Matt Freed.
It is also able to offer credit programs in 90 percent of the highest-demand vocations in the Valley, encouraging students to stay in Maricopa County, growing talent and honing skills that bolster the state’s economy.
Arizona State University
ASU has consistently been voted No. 1 in innovation by U.S. News and World Report for the numerous novel ways it approaches higher education, from the degrees it offers to the way it uses technology to advance learning to its emphasis on applied opportunities and hands-on experiences. Perhaps the most innovative thing about ASU, however, is the fact that it puts its students first and measures itself by their success.
The university places an emphasis on accessibility and inclusion for all and its mission is to provide education to everyone, regardless of where they are in life. The Office of Educational Outreach and Student Success is dedicated to meeting the needs of students, working with them throughout their entire college career. Adaptive learning programs help students with personalized education goals, whether that’s developing their critical thinking and problem-solving skills or improving subject mastery. A Career and Professional Services department helps students ramp up their resumes, prep for job interviews and find career opportunities after they graduate.
When the pandemic hit, ASU was deeply involved in public service at both the staff and student level, organizing the distribution of medical supplies and personal protective equipment and organizing public testing and vaccination sites. The university was already heavily invested in remote learning, so it quickly pivoted to a fully virtual model last March. In the fall of 2020, it rolled out ASU Sync, which gave students the opportunity to attend classes both in person and remotely. While ASU is focused on bringing its student body back to its five campuses next semester, ASU Sync will still be an option for students well into the future.
Midwestern University recognizes that how and where students learn is just as important as the material they’re learning. That’s why its campus and clinics provide an environment that is conducive to hands-on learning and practical applications.
Cutting-edge classrooms, labs and simulation areas help students learn important concepts while also allowing them to put these principles into practice. Third- and fourth-year students have the unique opportunity to engage with real patients under faculty supervision. This clinical experience is crucial to ensure that each student is prepared for their post-graduation goals. The Clinical Skills and Simulation program also allows students to apply their skills in a realistic environment.
The 156-acre campus includes dental and eye institutes, family medicine, podiatry, osteopathic manipulative medicine, pharmacy services, and an animal health institute. The newest clinic, the Therapy Institute, offers speech-language pathology, clinical psychology, and physical, occupational, and vision therapy services. Enhancing the unique clinical experience is a state-of-the-art integrated Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment (CAREN). This immersive, multi-sensory, virtual reality system is not widely available in community health settings and is the only such system within the state of Arizona.
The university provides students with a solid footing in the sciences, comprehensive hands-on experience in clinical rotations and a compassionate perspective toward patients. Students learn side-by-side with their colleagues, mirroring the team approach of 21st-century healthcare facilities.
Midwestern’s mission is to nourish intellectual creativity, foster critical thinking and communication skills and stimulate personal growth and professional development. Its innovative curriculum is creating tomorrow’s healthcare professionals, today.
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