New Phoenix Maryvale High 'Micro-School' Caters To Gifted Students Using Holistic Approach

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - 8:56am
Updated: Wednesday, May 23, 2018 - 9:02am

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Renu Singh
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Renu Singh, the Gifted and Talented Academy manager, watches on as students leave for lunch.

It’s trendy nowadays to shrink down and play with our ideas of structure: microloans and tiny homes, for example. Now micro-schools are something districts are trying out. One specialized Phoenix high school just finished its first year ever with less than 50 students, and more to come.

The Gifted and Talented Academy takes up all of two classrooms at Maryvale High School.

It’s kind of like a Russian nesting doll of education: a tiny school within another school of 3,000 people.

Science teacher Renu Singh created the program.  

“Because if you’ll compare with the 3,000 students on this campus, we have only 42, which is a microcosm,” she said.

A microcosm of students specially chosen for their gifted abilities and needs. The idea is to keep those students in their core classes within the academy through their senior year, like geometry or history. Then they take electives like language and music classes with other Maryvale students.

Singh said she visited other specialized schools and found that sectioning off a particular group of students doesn’t always address needs for growth as a person rather than in academics.

“What we are trying to do is bringing holistic education to these students so they can unfold in their own unique way,” Singh said.

Singh gathers with one of her teachers and the principal in a small room on the last Friday of instruction right next to one of her classrooms.

Maryvale Principal Manuel Silvas said when he first heard about the idea, he was a little skeptical.

“What we are trying to do is bringing holistic education to these students so they can unfold in their own unique way.”
— Renu Singh

“When I first found out I was —" Silvas pauses. "I don’t want to say fear, but it was the unknown”

It was an unprecedented idea of the micro-school within the huge Maryvale campus.

But Silvas said it addresses a need in the west side by targeting students looking for challenging coursework in public district schools without having to leave their neighborhood.

“You do see a lot of other charter schools and our students want to stay within Phoenix Union and this is to give them an opportunity to attend courses that are at higher levels, but have full access to a large comprehensive high school feel,” Silvas said.

'Micro-School' Meets A Need For Maryvale Area

The Gifted and Talented Academy focuses on challenging coursework in freshman and sophomore years, then transitions to career and college goals by junior and senior years.

Academy Social studies teacher Annie Shanahan said freshman are given accelerated classwork in science and civics. The small class sizes of around 20 give each student a personalized lesson plan.

“Every student in the Gifted and Talented Academy passed their civics exam, which they need to graduate high school," Shanahan said. "So every single student has accomplished that task as a freshman rather than waiting until they’re a senior.”

Shanahan explained how the coursework schedule helps students.

"The students in the humanities strand spend three hours in humanities with me," she said. "They have classwork outside of campus for electives and then they have math and English in the academy. And the science strand is the same, but rather than having the three periods of social studies they have the three periods of science."

Shanahan said at the last school she worked at in a different district, the gifted program was cut after 2008 due to funding shortfalls.

Gifted and Talented Academy students
Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
Students at the Gifted and Talented Academy in Maryvale High School in Phoenix on their last instruction day in May 2018.

"When the budget was cut in 2008, we lost our gifted programs and our gifted facilitators," she said.

Shanahan said, as a parent of a gifted child as well, she's grateful to Phoenix Union High School District for paying attention to that student population.

Students Study Emotional, Mindful Needs Alongside Academics

Walking across campus to the other classroom, students take selfies in the hall as the school year wraps up.

For advisory period, the micro school’s first class of freshman academy students finish geometry and economics courses on their laptops just before lunch.

Freshman Abel Salas said he likes the challenging stuff but that it’s not just more homework.

“We had to do a passion project where we had to do a presentation on what we loved in life,” Salas said.

His passion is one any high schooler would find interesting.

“It was memes because I really like funny pictures,” Salas said.

Specifically, memes related to the cartoon show "Rick and Morty." For those who aren't into internet culture, "memes" are, as Salas said, essentially funny pictures or videos with relatable captions. For example, the boy filmed yodeling in a Walmart.

Salas is thinking of going into law or bio chemistry and is exploring his options through the academy program.

He went to Cartwright Elementary School nearby and was looking at several high schools, some farther away, but ultimately chose this micro-school.

“It was either the Metro Tech High School or the Gifted and Talented Academy," Salas said. "I’m glad it’s so close to my area.”

Lunch started and half the students came back to eat in the Academy classroom, while others noodled on a guitar in the corner.

These inaugural students will come back to Maryvale next year, and the next, to be joined by what Singh hopes will be a school size of about 200 for the Gifted and Talented Academy.

Student Abel Salas's Project

One Source, My Connection!