Science schools across Arizona make their debut

September 8, 2006

By hammersmith

This August, three new science-based schools around the state opened their doors.

Spread out across Phoenix, Tucson, and Scottsdale, the schools’ methods, resources, and curriculum are as different as their locations.

Nevertheless, their collective opening signals an important change in the state’s public education system—a new recognition of the need for smaller, more intensive math- and science-based programs and schools.

This shift is perhaps the result of widespread public alarm regarding science literacy in the United States.

Findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” show that, although American students’ performance in mathematics and science has improved somewhat over the past three decades, improvements have not been consistent, and overall performance remains poor.

International studies indicate that American students’ math and science proficiency is average or below average when compared with other developed countries, and that such performance decreases significantly at higher grade levels.

Arizona is no exception to the greater trend.

According to the NAEP, Arizona students in 2000 tested below the national average for science, with only 24 percent of students at or above proficiency.

Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap, launched via a comprehensive study conducted by Batelle in 2002, lists K-12 education as an essential component of Arizona’s future success in the bioscience industry.

In order to reverse the current trend of poor student performance in the sciences, many school districts are evaluating new ways to address students’ learning needs.

The result: Science-focused programs—and now schools—are popping up everywhere. What follows is an overview of three of the newest schools dedicated to changing the face of science education in Arizona.

Bioscience High School

High school is a unique experience at Bioscience High, where 65 freshmen are getting their first taste of science-based education.

For one thing, there is not yet a campus for students to call their own.

The school is currently situated at Phoenix Preparatory Academy, which has lent a portion of its facilities until Bioscience High’s new $9.1 million campus finally opens, likely in fall 2007.

Located in the heart of downtown at the former McKinley School, the new campus will feature a high-tech building with six state-of-the-art laboratories, one of which will resemble a real research facility lab.

The building will also have exposed heating and cooling systems that allow students to see how the systems work.

In the meantime, the school is making do with what it has, working to create a distinct and challenging academic environment for students.%pagebreak%

Part of its approach is an integrated curriculum. In addition to the regular health/fitness, art, and Spanish classes that 9th graders attend each day, they also take two-hour block classes that integrate physics and algebra, language arts, and social studies.

In addition, the curriculum follows a “physics first” approach that teaches physics freshman year, followed by an integrated chemistry and biology course sophomore year.

“Normally the sequence is biology, chemistry, physics,” explains Dee Dee Falls, science content specialist for Phoenix Union High School District and someone who was instrumental in planning the school.

“But we’re learning in science that because biology is much more molecular these days, students really need to understand physics concepts and chemistry before they can really understand the biology that we teach.”

In addition to an unorthodox curriculum, students participate in class projects each year and complete an internship program during their senior year.

The school is also looking for community partners to help provide additional resources—from material donations to internship opportunities. Honeywell has already donated $60,000 for this year’s freshman class project, which is still in its conceptual stages.

And unlike most high schools, which cannot afford to offer small classes, Bioscience High’s average class size is 16-17 students, says Falls.

“I like the smaller classes better than having huge classes with a lot of people,” says Raleigh Guerra, one of the school’s first class of 9th graders. “You get to know people better.”

According to Principal Dave Silcox, the small environment is one of Bioscience High’s biggest assets.

Silcox, who ended 12 years of retirement to lead Bioscience High, has served as principal of Central High School and Shadow Mountain High School, both of which are attended by several thousand students.

“Having been principal of a large, comprehensive campus, it is obvious to me that there are a significant number of kids for whom a big campus is not their cup of tea,” says Silcox.

“Of that significant number of kids that like the smaller environment, there are lots of kids who like science and math,” Silcox explained. “If these students are nurtured and supported, they will pursue science and math, whereas on a big campus they might become lost or discouraged and decide to take the off-ramp.”

Although students must go through a rigorous application process to be admitted to Bioscience High, there are no grade point requirements or ability tests. Students must simply be interested in science and motivated to work hard.

Geovanni Garcia, a 9th grader at the school, has found out what this means firsthand.

“It’s a lot different than grade school,” he says. “The homework you have to do is expected the next day, completely perfect. No one’s holding you by the hand anymore. If you don’t get it done, it’s not going to work out.”

Wildcat School

The Wildcat School is the first of its kind in the state, though not because of its science focus.

The new math and science charter school is the first in Arizona to team up with a major university to provide resources and support for its students.

The Wildcat School’s affiliation with University of Arizona is modeled after other university-run public charter schools sprouting up around the country, most notably the Preuss School in La Jolla, Calif. which partners with University of California, San Diego.

The Preuss School serves low-income students and is considered innovative for its longer school day and school year. The school receives part of its budget from UCSD.

Like the Preuss School, the Wildcat School has both a longer school day—from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.—and a longer school year. It also serves low-income students.%pagebreak%

By Arizona state law, however, the partnership between UA and the Wildcat School cannot include financial support.

The school’s relationship with UA, nonetheless, offers students many opportunities.

For example, UA students provide tutoring and mentoring to Wildcat School students.

The students also take regular trips to UA’s campus to take tours of science facilities and museums and to meet professors and researchers.

Because the school serves a largely minority, low socioeconomic demographic, one of its most important goals is to make the university setting a familiar place for these students, many whose parents never attended college, explained Wildcat School Director Richard Reyes.

“We need to make it to the UA campus so often that they’re comfortable and it’s no big deal,” says Reyes, who believes that repeated exposure to campus life will make students more likely to envision themselves going to college.

Students’ experiences with the university are meant to supplement their classroom learning, which, like that of Bioscience High, is science-focused, integrative, and project-based.

Although the Wildcat School does not yet boast the type of high-tech facilities that Bioscience High will soon feature—the school is currently located in commercial space in South Tucson, with hopes to eventually build a new campus near UA—it provides hand-held personal computers for all of its students.

The hand-held computers will enable teachers to integrate technology into their curriculum, giving students necessary computer skills at the same time.

“In some schools, if kids have to go to a computer lab, they end up only using computers for 15 or 20 minutes a week because the lab is always full,” Reyes explains. “But if our teachers want to do an exercise with Excel, the students can take out their hand held PC, and the ratio of students-to-computers is 1-to-1.”

Although science is woven into each course, the school follows the traditional system of one subject per class period.

One of these class periods is an “advisory period” during which students can work with teachers in a variety of capacities–obtaining counseling, instructions on class work, tutoring, or grade reports.

This year, the school is receiving its first wave of pupils—more than 70 students in 6th and 7th grade from around the Tucson area. A grade will be added each year until the school offers grades 6 through 12, with no more than 80 students per grade.

For Reyes, who is looking forward to leading the charter in its first year, the future of the school is bright.

“We have great teachers, and they have the latitude to deliver a curriculum that’s really robust and challenging,” he says. “I’m excited to see all of that come together.”

Copper Ridge Math and Science Academy

A little over a year ago, Copper Ridge School began gauging parent interest in specialized programs for students.

After narrowing the options down to a science academy or a fine arts school, a professional survey showed that parents overwhelmingly favored creating a math and science academy.

This past summer, the Copper Ridge Math and Science Academy began enrolling its first class.

The admission requirements are simple: The school is open to students in and out of district with an interest in math and science.

The school currently has about 40 students in 9th grade from every middle school in the district, a few from other districts, and several from outside of the state.

“Parents are looking for two things, I think,” says Mike Wolf, dean of the academy. “They’re looking for a specialized program for their child and they’re looking for a smaller school environment.”

The academy is the first of Scottsdale Unified School District’s efforts to create smaller, more specialized schools to meet students’ individual needs.%pagebreak%

Like Bioscience High School and the Wildcat School, Copper Ridge will add a grade of students each year. By 2009, it will offer grades 9 through 12.

Also like Bioscience High, Copper Ridge is currently seeking community partnerships to help support its programs and students. The school is developing relationships with the Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale Healthcare, and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), according to Wolf.

Copper Ridge Math and Science Academy is currently situated on the Copper Ridge Schools campus, which is home to both Copper Ridge’s elementary and middle schools.

Built in 2002 with growth in mind, the campus had about 15 rooms available for the fledgling high school.

According to Wolf, the school’s maximum capacity on the current Copper Ridge campus is 450 students. As the academy grows, however, it may build a new campus nearby that would accommodate more students and resemble a more typical high school.

Academically, however, Copper Ridge Math and Science Academy hardly resembles the average school. Like Bioscience High, it offers block classes that integrate subjects.

Students also have the opportunity to take a wide array of science classes, from the usual biology to human physiology and astrophysics.

Although the academy focuses on science, students are also required to take language classes, physical education, and fine arts electives.

The school currently provides an intramural sports program, but competitive sports are a future possibility, said Wolf.

As for the future of the school, Wolf expects growth and high performance.

“We certainly envision ourselves growing,” says Wolf. “And we have high, lofty goals. We want to be one of the top schools certainly in the district and state, and nationally we want to be recognized.”

A strong first year will be necessary to achieve these goals, he adds.

“We have to demonstrate that students can, no matter where they come to us from, improve,” says Wolf. “So we want to set the bar high with high expectations and then bring those students up to those expectations. It’s going to take us all year to do that, but that’s the first thing we have to do.”

As for all of the planning and hard work that are still to come, Wolf explains that putting all of the pieces together is what he likes best.

“It’s been fun for me,” he says. “It’s not labor for me, it’s a joy. I enjoy this.”