UA Tech Park breaks ground on K-8 school
By Victoria Blute, special for Inside Tucson Business
Published on Friday, February 26, 2010
A problem that became a solution — that’s how Superintendent Calvin Baker describes Vail High School’s launch 13 years ago when the University of Arizona agreed to host the charter school’s campus at the University of Arizona’s Science and Technology Park on Tucson’s southeast side.
The experiment was so successful that Vail Academy, a K-8 addition of 225 students, will open in the fall.
The Vail Academy will be the only K-8 school located at a research park anywhere in the nation — a distinction that makes UA Associate Vice President Bruce Wright believe the school is ahead of the game.
“I think we’re at the leading edge of what other research parks will examine over the next few years,” he said.
The high school and the soon-to-open K-8 school will help students make a connection between the classroom and beyond.
“Going to school here, kids can see the relevance of science, math and engineering,” he said. “The beauty of the school being in the Science and Technology Park is that the students are literally surrounded by the real world.”
Baker added: “When our students go to the cafeteria, they’re mixing with engineers and software developers and accountants and secretaries.”
Wright said he believes an innovative partnership will come from the school’s collaboration with UA. The interaction between one of the region’s largest employers and students makes a difference in the long run, he said.
The park has 40 companies and more than 7,000 employees onsite, a significant number of whom are UA graduates, according to Wright. “An important fact is that the average wage [of a Park employee] is over $70,000 a year, which is twice as much as the average salary in Pima County.”
He said a big part of the school’s mission is to stop the “brain drain” — the loss of well-qualified employees to other states for better-paying jobs — by starting students at the school, having them interact with the employees, and then return as employees themselves.
For example, some students who have attended Vail High School have come back to work at the park.
“They were washing glassware and beakers at first as they worked through high school and their after-school employment with the company,” Wright said. After graduation, two were hired back by the same pharmaceutical testing company.
“One young lady became so excited that she went onto UA and got a master’s degree,” Wright said. “She had no intention of going into science, engineering, chemistry or anything of that kind.”
Wright said this is an example of the power of going to a school like Vail High School, where students are seeing technology development and work-studies.
Wright said that with the new addition, the school will continue to help young students face their fears about subjects like math, science and engineering—fields of study at which students often cringe.
He said the school tries to create a variety of events to show children the benefits of science and technology.
“Last year we had people from the (UA) Mars program come. IBM put together a game around engineering that was really fun for the kids, too,” he said. “We have kids all the way from five or six to 13, 14 years old. We have a whole variety of things to say to kids—that you ought not to be intimidated by it.”
Vail High School Principal Dennis Barger is also looking forward to the addition and being able to emphasize science and technology to even the youngest students.
“We want them being hands-on with technology, learning that from the time that they’re little,” he said. “Adults didn’t grow up in a technological age, but we want our kids to grow up learning that those are tools that can be used every day.”
Barger also said that the school aims to introduce concepts about science and technology to younger children. “For instance, playing with Legos at the early years and then upper elementary level — there are Lego competitions with Lego robotics,” he said. “We want them to do some programming, get them to do things. We’re getting those fifth- graders excited about building something.”
Because Vail High School and the Vail Academy are part of a charter school – public school that isn’t part of a traditional school district and isn’t subject to the same state regulations – they are able to control variables such as class size and study focus. Baker says parents can expect the new school to boast small class sizes, which, in his opinion, helps a school be more connected to students.
“We expect to only have one classroom per grade level,” he said. “The bigger a system is, the more uniform its needs have to be. But a small organization, a small setting…it’s just easier to get by with less rules and less regulation and to be attentive to individual needs of students.”
Baker said he is confident that there will be an abundance of interest in the Vail Academy — a prediction he bases on the fact that Vail High School and all elementary schools in the Vail School District have received excelling ratings from the state.
Vail High School piqued the curiosity of Frances Massingill a few years ago when she was deciding where to send her son, Kyle. Despite having other public schooling options, Massingill said Vail High School seemed like the only good fit.
“We were living in TUSD (Tucson Unified School District), but we weren’t finding what we needed there,” she said. Massingill tried a few different charter schools, but ended up choosing Vail High School because of its unusual circumstances as a charter – it’s one of the few charter schools operated by a traditional school district in Arizona.
“To me I think…it’s such a unique situation,” she said. “It’s extremely rare by virtue of that you have the backing of the whole school district and yet it’s a charter school.”
“One of the things we really liked was that every teacher knows every kid,” she said. “If a kid starts to slip up, it’s not just that one teacher that’s there; it’s multiple teachers who are there. They know the principal on a personal level.”
Massingill, who is on Vail High School’s planning committee, said she’s looking forward to what the Vail Academy will offer younger students. She later explained that even while the school’s structure is changing, the eagerness from the current teachers is unmistakable.
“[Teachers] are just very excited about bringing science and technology all the way down to the little guys and the enthusiasm is really high,” she said.
“It’ll be fun to have little kids around.”
For comment contact editor David Hatfield at email@example.com or (520) 295-4237.