On November 8th, Spirit of Service Scholars hosted their second seminar—a comprehensive exploration of K-12 education in Arizona. The day started off early with a visit from Paul Luna, President and Chief Executive Officer of Helios Education Foundation. Paul shared the history of Helios, an outgrowth of the reorganization of Southwest Student Services Corporation, a full-service provider of student loans. When the country’s eighth largest holder of federally insured student loans was sold in 2004, an endowment was formed to continue support of education, with focus areas in Early Childhood Education, Transition Years and Postsecondary Education Success. As a key stakeholder educational reform and outcomes in our state, Helios works collaboratively in partnership as a funder to ensure that every individual in Arizona and Florida has the opportunity to attend and is prepared to succeed in postsecondary education. We appreciate Paul’s insights as a public service leader in Arizona.

Disconnected Youth

We then hosted a panel on the re-engagement of disconnected youth in Phoenix, a population of over 92,000 16-24 year olds who are unemployed, not in school, and, in some cases, do not have a high school degree. Guests serving on the panel included Elora Diaz, Youth Re-Engagement Program Coordinator at Maricopa County Education Services Agency, Judy Reno, Director of College Depot, Karen Callahan, Executive Director of Genesis City; and Stephanie Garman, Director of Programs at New Pathways.

The panelists provided an overview of shortcomings in policy, grading systems in secondary schools that stifle creative teaching styles that more effectively connect with this demographic, and the limited reach of services that have allowed this large population of students to fall between the cracks. However, the panelists also spoke of proactive policy solutions, mentorship programs, and community support systems intended to offer alternative training and education pathways that may reconnect this population to meaningful life opportunities. The discussion concluded with the panelists sharing ideas about how the scholars and the Spirit of Service Scholars program may more effectively support the efforts of the panelists and their organizations. 

Educators—the Foundation of Change 

The second group of panelist was composed of educators who provided an insight and perspective regarding the current education system from their experience as teachers and having direct contact with students and their families. The panelists were Ryan Nebeker, Humanities Educator at BioScience High School, Tiffanie Calderon, Peer Evaluator at the Maricopa County Education Services Agency, Katie Paetz, Music Teacher at Rose Linda Elementary School, and Martin Perez, 5th grade teacher at Montebello School. The panelists shared how they motivate parents to become more involved in the classroom and in their child’s education. Educators also talked about the importance of connecting individually with each student to learn about family or personal barriers that might be hindering their academic performance. The panel also discussed the importance of educators being more involved at the policy level to make a larger impact at their school district.

The panel discussion was followed by a presentation on K-12 curriculum and instruction from Veronica Vasquez, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Tolleson Elementary School District. Veronica talked about the Kids at Hope initiative that the cities of Avondale, Tolleson and Goodyear are currently implementing with the purpose of empowering and transforming communities where all children experience success without exceptions. Veronica also presented on the New Teacher Induction program that seeks to support and encourage teacher retention and recruitment. 

Career and Technical Education (and Lunch!)

Our group has quite the treat. For lunch, we ventured to Metro Tech High School, where Phoenix Union Board Member Stephanie Parra and Chef Dean Wilberscheid of the Culinary Arts program spoke about Career and Technical Education and the value it holds as an education pathway to career opportunities. Metro Tech students served us a delicious three course meal that would rival thriving restaurants in the Valley. Their on-site café is open daily and serves organic and local ingredients.

Education Policy

Lastly, we hosted a panel on education policies and the impact of school governing boards in Arizona. Panelists included Ian Danley, Phoenix Union High School District Board Member and Spirit of Service Scholar Alum, Daniil Gunitskiy, Phoenix Elementary School District Board Member, and Carl Zaragoza, Creighton School District Board Member. The panelists discussed the unrecognized importance of school governing boards, reviewing community disconnect, often unopposed board elections, and inadequate board relations with the city as persistent problems that prevent education policy from becoming a priority in Arizona. Scholars had the opportunity to converse with panelists on seminar topics, prompting an overview of the Phoenix School Boards’ efforts to prevent disconnected youth by creating Signature Schools and ending Zero Tolerance policies, policies that allow law enforcement to step in for routine school discipline and perpetrate the cycle of student incarceration. Panelists encouraged scholars to get involved with their school district boards through attending board meetings and voting in elections.

Expect More for Education

We ended this tremendous day with Pearl Chang Esau, President and Chief Executive Officer for Expect More Arizona. Pearl, the 2014 ATHENA Young Professional by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, is truly a changemaker in education; before joining the development of Expect More Arizona, she served as the Executive Director of Teach for America in Phoenix. Pearl pressed that, in order for systemic change to occur in Arizona’s educational system, we needed to make education a pressing issue for everyone. For families, for businesses, for local and state government officials, for young adults, for retirees, for everyone. By integrating champions of education in every sector, paired with strong social and mainstream media campaigns, Pearl and Expect More Arizona continue to move the needle so that all Arizona students get a world-class education. We look forward to becoming a EMA Champion and are exploring opportunities to create the first university student organization affiliate to advocate for Expect More Arizona.

The Future is Bright

The Scholars left feeling energized and empowered to embrace the opportunities of Arizona’s educational landscape as the next generation of public service leaders. If we learned one thing, it is that everyone, in every sector, has a responsibility and role to play in ensuring that education in Arizona is of the highest standard… for all students.

Get involved!