Robert Pela shared during Phoenix Urban Design Week that downtown flourishing can’t occur without two elemental ingredients. One of them is that the community has readily accessible public education for primary and secondary students. With that supplied, parents can feel comfortable relocating to the city’s core. Until the Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College (ranked 26th among all public and private graduate education programs by U.S. News & World Report in 2013) moved downtown, excellent education downtown seemed like a pipe dream, with the exception, perhaps, of the charter Arizona School for the Arts. I say perhaps because that school isn’t downtown, in the vernacular of some “downtown mavens.” What else prevented good schools downtown, besides low residential population? Perhaps no one was keen on teaching downtown, much less teaching and living downtown, when the amenities were fewer than have been developed in the last decade. Interestingly, downtown Phoenix is where the Teach for America corps’ residential enclave has been located in our valley since before Fulton Teachers College moved there.
Fulton Teachers College and Teach for America are combining forces to determine best practices in teacher education. Youth and energy for teaching (and a sense of mission) abounds in downtown Phoenix now, with the result that downtown is ripe for experimentation in school development along these lines: three new (or repurposed) schools for Kindergarten through 12th grade should be implanted downtown. The first should act as the “feeder” school for the other two, and it would be a primary school for grades K-4, inclusive. This primary school should be located as close to the ASU Teacher’s College as geography permits. This primary school should emphasize innovation, leveraging all that youth with drive and technology tools have to offer young pupils mentored by their energetic, up to date instructors. There are plenty of empty or underutilized buildings downtown available for repurposing with state of the art facilities for innovation. The primary facility should partner ASU with the City and those private sector believers like T. Denny Sanford, the entrepreneur who funded the Sanford Inspire Program. And those groups should rope into the mix of supporters major downtown employers like utilities companies who benefit directly and immediately from in-migration of employees committed to live where they work. If the City can donate land and invest $12 Million for the Arizona Center for Law and Society to induce ASU’s Law School to move downtown, it can repeat that type performance to promote public education in the lower grades.
Downtown needs to develop two schools for grades 5-12. One actually is underway, the ASU Preparatory Academy on 7th Street, offering instruction through grade 11. Unfortunately, the demand exceeds supply at the moment; a lottery determines whose children will attend. The demand is genuine; consider that each family who “wins” the lottery to enroll a child at the academy, is required to fulfill a minimum of 30 “credits” of service to ASU Prep each school year. (This seems to defy conventional wisdom saying that most public school parents can’t be cajoled to invest in their children’s education.) Obviously, ASU needs to expand the Prep Academy to accommodate increased interest. But a second school needs to be developed, one with severe admission requirements. I’m thinking of a school that, through graduation, demands intense application to studies in the pure and applied sciences, math and technology. This specialized high school would be in the mold of New York City’s specialized high schools: Bronx High School of Science; Brooklyn Technical High School; High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College; Queens High School for Sciences at York College; and Stuyvesant High School. In short, this new STEM academy should be built to become the best-known, most prestigious place to attend a public school in Arizona. Admission should be determined by a highly competitive entrance examination process among Phoenix students in the primary grades. (In New York City, students in grades 8 or 9 who wish to apply to New York City’s specialized high schools must take the Specialized High School Admissions Test in one 150-minute burst.)
Developing this school is achievable by tapping the “science research hub” in downtown Phoenix, leveraging the assets of the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix, the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and the Arizona Biomedical Collaborative– the last a joint research venture of the UA, ASU and NAU. The mentoring and internship opportunities that are available from such institutions, added to the resources of ASU’s Colleges of Nursing & Health Innovation and Health Solutions, the Phoenix Biotechnology Accelerator and the Arizona Science Center, render downtown the most logical place to develop such a school for advanced preparation in the entire state. Will these research hub players participate? Imagine you’re a scientist, and you know that the brightest minds among a population, youth that will choose careers in the theoretical and applied sciences and engineering percolated across the street, wouldn’t you want to be part of those minds’ development process? Would your answer be influenced, knowing the parents of these really smart kids, themselves astute potential employees of your organization, would relocate downtown for the convenience of school attendance? Will universities participate? Well, isn’t “upping” educational opportunity the core business of higher learning institutions? Wouldn’t such a school provide a recruiting advantage to get some of the best young teachers-in-training to Fulton? Sure, some initial “promotion” is involved, but the outcome inevitably will be to open the school. That’ll get some creative class types moving into housing downtown, Robert!
(I’d turn over the Mercado facilities to this STEM middle and high school powerhouse; it’s located within two minutes’ walk of all the science and technology resources, enabling scientists and students to “commute” for education and internship purposes back and forth across Van Buren Street. Besides, that location enables sharing athletic and open spaces with Phoenix Preparatory Academy, a few blocks distant.)