Specialty schools giving low-income families new hope

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Phoenix Coding Academy welcomes its first class this month. (Source: 3TV) Phoenix Coding Academy welcomes its first class this month. (Source: 3TV)
Phoenix Coding Academy is the first school of its kind in the country. (Source: 3TV) Phoenix Coding Academy is the first school of its kind in the country. (Source: 3TV)
Located in the heart of Phoenix, The public academy expects to grow to 400 students by 2019. (Source: 3TV) Located in the heart of Phoenix, The public academy expects to grow to 400 students by 2019. (Source: 3TV)
Erin Hart with Expect More Arizona says specialty schools and programs that offer everything from hands-on fire sciences to nursing courses have a much better success rate than traditional schools. (Source: 3TV) Erin Hart with Expect More Arizona says specialty schools and programs that offer everything from hands-on fire sciences to nursing courses have a much better success rate than traditional schools. (Source: 3TV)
There are 11 magnet programs and more than two dozen specialty programs in the Phoenix Union High School District. (Source: Phoenix Union High School District) There are 11 magnet programs and more than two dozen specialty programs in the Phoenix Union High School District. (Source: Phoenix Union High School District)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

As most Arizona kids head back to class, there are more specialty schools to choose from this year.

Nearly 40 percent of schools across Arizona offer some sort of specialty program through public education, catering to specific careers and trades to get kids more engaged and excited about their own futures.  

And there's a deliberate push to bring these highly successful programs into low-income neighborhoods.

One of the newest buildings in the heart of Phoenix is a state-of-the-art training ground for our future inventors, programmers & entrepreneurs.

"We used to live in a day and age where you'd just go to the local high school and that was your one choice," Dr. Chad Gestson, the superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, said.

The Phoenix Coding Academy is the first of its kind in the country and principal Seth Beute said about 90  percent of his incoming freshmen open-enrolled from other schools in the district and they're getting calls every day to see if there are any openings.

READ: New public school to prepare students for high-paying tech jobs (Nov. 23, 2015)

"We have students applying from Cave Creek, Peoria, even as far away as almost Wickenburg," Beute said.

His campus tour  is unlike any other high school. Beute shows off their "Zen den" (library) and maker space, where students will work with mentors and experts in the tech industry who helped make sure everything on campus -- from the temperature-controlled networking lab to access to tools like 3-D printers, a robotic arm, milling machines, laser engravers and plasma cutters -- mirrors the real world.

"We’re getting them inspired to think bigger and see the opportunity. There are students who are going to be building and doing things that haven't even been invented yet! Here, they can design something together, make it and build it!" Beute said.

There are even flat screens in the gym, or "hub," where students will be encouraged to plug in and share their projects during recess.

"The collaboration is so important," Beute said.

In addition to the cool tools and technology on campus, every student also gets a take home laptop, which for some, might very likely be the first computer in their homes.

"Almost 85 percent of our students are Latino and about 85 percent of our students are free and reduced lunch, so for us to be able to offer these portfolios of highly successful schools to low-income and minority students is probably our biggest point of pride," Gestson said.

Gestson, who helped open the first Montessori high school in the state, says bringing specialty schools into low-income neighborhoods eliminates a lot of the obstacles and gives families more opportunities.

The district has been intentional about spreading out the love.

We used to live in a day and age where you'd just go to the local high school and that was your one choice.

From the Montessori prep school at Camelback High to the aeronautical program at South Mountain to Metro Tech to Bioscience High School and Franklin Police & Fire High, there are 11 magnet programs and more than two dozen specialty programs -- just in the Phoenix Union High School District.

"If we're not engaging kids with amazing academic and career opportunities early, then we're falling behind!" Gestson said.

Erin Hart with Expect More Arizona says specialty schools and programs that offer everything from hands-on fire sciences to nursing courses have a much better success rate than traditional schools.

"When kids have that connection, they're more likely to stay in school and be engaged," Hart said. "Those students are graduating at a rate of 98 percent and outperform other students on the state assessment exams."

"I didn't have classes like this when I was in high school," Beute said.

The Phoenix Coding Academy will open with 100 freshmen and add a class every year. Each student had to write an essay and go through an interview to make sure the school is a perfect fit.

The waiting list is long, prioritized to kids within the district, to keep growing opportunity and hope for families eager for brighter futures.

We’re getting them inspired to think bigger and see the opportunity. There are students who are going to be building and doing things that haven't even been invented yet!

RELATED: The changing state of education

RELATED: Coding could get more cash for Arizona classrooms

Copyright 2016 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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