Arizona Education: Specialty Schools

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We’ll take a look at alternative or specialty schools in the latest “Arizona Education” segment. We’ll see how one school helps students gain real-world science and engineering skills. East Valley Institute of Technology superintendent Sally Downey, Michelle Landreville, a BioTech teacher at Paradise Valley High School in the Center for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology, or CREST, and Greg Donovan, superintendent of the Western Maricopa Education Center, will tell us more about specialty schools.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Education" looks at specialty schools. These schools offer a chance for students to explore a specific career path and gain real world experience while still in high school. Producer Shana Fischer and photographer Scot Olson look at one specialty school experience that's building a future workforce.

Shana Fischer: Kelsie Lucas already knows what she wants to be thanks to a program at her high school.

Kelsie Lucas: It definitely helped me to choose to be in an engineering pathway.

Shana Fischer: Kelsie attends CREST at Paradise Valley High School. Jack Clark oversees the program.

Jack Clark: "Crest" is an acronym that stands for Center for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology. "Crest" has three areas of study, biotechnology, engineering and computer science. The reason that we chose to focus on engineering, biotechnology and computer science is because those areas in industry were identified as lacking in those high-quality, highly trained students. And so there is opportunity and will be additional opportunities in the future for kids coming out of "Crest."

Shana Fischer: Students apply to the specialty program in eighth grade.

Jack Clark: What we're really looking for is motivation and dedication. Not only the ability but the desire to learn and work at a high level.

Shana Fischer: Starting their freshman year, the students concentrate on a problem or challenge they want to solve. During the next four years they research ways to fix it, design a solution and then senior year they build their design. Kelsie and her team are working on a portable water purification device.

Kelsie Lucas: Our lens has ridges which collect sunlight and sort of direct it into a focal point. We direct that focal point towards or tin can which will boil the water and create steam. The steam goes up through our condensing coil and becomes regular water again, now all the impurities and minerals we don't want will remain in the can, which is easy to open up and empty out whenever they want.

Shana Fischer: The device could have far-reaching effects.

Kelsie Lucas: Many diseases they get in Third World countries are due to their water purity. This system will potentially save many lives, especially with the younger -- the younger population and the elderly that live there.

Shana Fischer: Seniors also participate in an internship. T-Gen, SRP, and McCarthy Construction are on the list. These companies are able to get a jump-start on creating the kind of workforce they need and students translate their hands-on experience into a valuable asset.

Jack Clark: Opportunity that they are able to take advantage of, networking and relationships that they are able to build, as well as content knowledge to prepare them to move into S.T.E.M. majors, S.T.E.M. programs of study, when they go from high school to college.

Shana Fischer: At "Crest" you can see the students creating a new future for all of us. And Kelsie, for one, cannot wait to get started on hers.

Kelsie Lucas: I am extremely excited to graduate, and sort of with "Crest" under my belt I feel like I've accomplished so much just in high school.

Ted Simons: Here now to talk more about specialty schools is east Valley Institute of Technology superintendent Sally Downey, Michelle Landreville a biotech teacher at Paradise Valley High School's Crest, the Center for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology, and Greg Donovan, Superintendent of the west mech, Western Maricopa Education Center. It's good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us. As far as schools like "Crest" and just in general, specialty schools -- how many have we got here in Arizona?

Sally Downey: Oh, that's a good question.

Greg Donovan: 14. There are 14 joint technical education districts across the state of Arizona. This past November the Yuma county residents voted to form a joint technical education district. So we now have this type of education available to students across the state of Arizona.

Ted Simons: We just saw "Crest." Compared to it EVIT? What is the difference?

Sally Downey: Well CREST, It's a program that houses the Paradise Valley School District. EVIT is a separate campus. Our students attend from 10 different district centralized campus for a half day of training in one of 40 programs.

Ted Simons: We have 14 in the state and this one differs from the one you're at so in general there are options.

Michelle Landreville: There are. We actually are housed at Paradise Valley High School so the students don't have to have transportation throughout the day. They can take all of their regular education classes at this one location.

Ted Simons: What is the difference between applied learning and specialized learning? Is it the same thing? Is there a difference? What are we talking about with semantics?

Greg Donovan: I think we are talking semantics a little bit. But if you want to take the hardest definition of applied, it's a very specific field of interest. Any teacher can use an example of how you might apply something. Here a group of students say, I want to know how this applies to the field I'm interested in, whether that's medical assisting, it's culinary arts or one of the transportation programs.

Ted Simons: And the benefits of that kind of education.

Sally Downey: Oh my. There's an old saying, tell me something I hear it, show me I see it but involve me in it and I learn it and that's what applied learning is all about.

Ted Simons: And the specialized schools? Can it be too applied? Can you lose a little bit of general education?

Sally Downey: It's combination. There has to be theory that cognitive pieces are very important but the hands-on piece is just as important and it's a balance of the two. The outcomes are spectacular. The students are focused, they are really involved in their learning. We have proof at EVIT because two out of three of our students go on to college. We have a 98% high school graduation rate.

Ted Simons: As far as that idea that maybe there's too much flexibility and focus and somehow a general education might get lost, how do you respond to something like that?

Michelle Landreville: I don't think so. I think this is giving students choice. I think that for the students ready for these types of programs, who already have a passion for a particular field and who kind of are already thinking about their careers beyond high school, it gives them an opportunity to get ahead. One of the things I would like to say and kind of piggyback on what Dr. downey was saying, we not only focus on content and applied skills, we look at employability skills, as well. We are all kind of governed by people from the business community who have helped write our standards. Part of a separate group of standards is specifically employability. So we can go that one step further. I've been a regular education classroom teacher foremost of my career. And by doing this, we are also specifically helping students prepare for the workplace. Some of those soft skills that employees may get fired for, for not having those skills, we're working with students now.

Ted Simons: I guess soft skills is what I'm talking about, not necessarily straight focus, but just the general idea of a general education, that's important, too.

Sally Downey: Showing up for school, showing up for work, working with other people, communicating all of that, it's very, very important.

Greg Donovan: Arizona Department of Education, their statistic, students who have taken two or more CTE classes, 96% graduate from high school. Those general education students we know generally the graduation rate is not anywhere close to 96%.

Ted Simons: Can you get that general education with those students?

Greg Donovan: Absolutely.

Ted Simons: How so?

Greg Donovan: They continue to take all those classes. We hear from parents regularly how every day was a fight and now they are on the honor roll at their regular high school and certainly in that A, B category for us, as well. Everything begins to fall into place. It all makes sense. I hear about government regulation in the field I'm learning. Applied mathematics, chemistry, geography, where does it come from? It all starts to make sense.

Ted Simons: What is a good specialized school or program? What define as good program?

Sally Downey: In my opinion it's one that focuses on the students. If you can find a passion that a student has, you can turn it into a paycheck and set them on a path for success. But students we know as an educator, we have known for years one size does not fit all. You have to find the size that fits the student you're serving. That's what we're trying with the 4,000 students at EVIT.

At 4,000 students. That's a lot of sizes. Can it be difficult at times?

Sally Downey: Sure, it can be difficult. I can tell you once you find that key, that passion, the students soar.

Ted Simons: When you find that passion and they soar, what happens if they are soaring over here but as they age and they get older they think they may want to go over there.

Michelle Landreville: One of the great things we do at "Crest," we have three specific programs we focus on in computer science, new this year, bioscience, and engineering. We have them for four years. We have a four-year program mapped out for them. But they also have flexibility to explore other things. I know I have several students who are also taking culinary. And forensics or health care classes as well. They do have that flexibility to go beyond just the program that we have and explore their options and passions.

Ted Simons: Are these schools open to all students? Are there waiting lists? If a kid wants to get in can a kid get in?

Greg Donovan: Yes, yes, and yes. We are very popular. All of us across the state, there are programs where there are waiting lists and also programs with open seats. Student interest drive adds a lot of things. One of the other things that makes us successful is working with that business and industry relationship. Making sure our student centered is key. We're answering that question why. If you're interested, this is what employment demands. These are the credentials you must have and the skills you must know. We contribute to the economy by turning out students who can be contributors to our society and be there.

Ted Simons: Last point on this: What do parents watching right now need to know about specialized schools, if it's still seems like a foreign concept to them?

Sally Downey: They need to do a little bit of their research. All of our programs are driven by business and industry. What they need to research are the outcomes. There are marvelous job opportunities in our workforce here in Arizona and across the country, as long as we can equip the student with a business and industry certification that's recognized everywhere. Once they see that, parents will think every scholar does need a skill.

Ted Simons: Alright. It's good to have you all here. Thank you so much for joining us works certainly do appreciate it.

Sally Downey: Thank you for the opportunity.

Ted Simons: That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: Horizon is made possible by contributions from the friends of 8. Members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Sally Downey:Superintendent, East Valley Institute of Technology; Michelle Landreville:BioTech Teacher, Center for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology at Paradise Valley High School; Greg Donovan:Superintendent, Western Maricopa Education Center;

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