Amphitheater Public Schools’ new vision for elementary school education is officially open after district administration and local dignitaries gathered at Innovation Academy for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday, June 2. 

The academy is the district’s first new site since Ironwood Ridge High School opened in 2001, and will open for the first day of school on Aug. 10.

Innovation Academy has a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education but offers a well-rounded instruction in reading, writing, and social studies, along with art, music and physical education. Designed to “encourage and enrich” the learning experience, the school will engage students in “hands on” and “minds on” relevant curriculum and instruction utilizing technology and the arts. 

“We take great pride in being an innovative school district,” said Superintendent Patrick Nelson. “As we become a more technologically advanced society, we know that we need to constantly evaluate and evolve the way we teach. By sparking a sense of curiosity in our students at an early age and getting them to experiment, problem-solve, and think critically, we are teaching them the skills they’ll need to succeed.” 

Innovation Academy, located in the Rancho Vistoso neighborhood off North La Cañada Drive north of West Moore Road, is entirely open enrollment. With no neighborhood attendance boundaries, students from across the Tucson metropolitan area (both in-district and out-of-district) are eligible to apply for enrollment. The school is designed to hold 500 students or roughly 80 students per grade level.

The school colors will be blue, purple, and orange to represent prominent colors in the Arizona landscape and reflect the color palates found in the interior design of the building.  The mascot will be selected by the students during the first school year. The school was given its name after the district solicited suggestions from the community through its website, social media channels and a suggestion box at the district main office, which garnered 200 suggestions. A committee of community members, parents, teachers and district employees was formed to review all of the suggestions received, and narrowed the suggestions down to provided a recommendation of three names to the governing board for consideration. 

The school will operate as a STEM institution because the district feels its mission is to “empower all students to become contributing members of society, equipped with the skills, knowledge and values necessary to meet the challenges of a changing world,” according to the Amphi website dedicated to the school.

The school design is completely focused on STEM education, with three core instructional areas for kindergarten and first grade (Youngers), for second and third grades (Middlers) and for fourth and fifth grades (Olders). 

The “Youngers” area has larger classroom spaces for more hands-on learning and projects.  The “Middlers” and “Olders” instructional areas each have six classrooms designed around a common learning area, with space for small group activities and presentations in the center of the building.

The “Middlers” and “Olders” buildings also have large learning lab and maker spaces in which teachers can work with students on experiments and projects in a larger, specially equipped area with adequate storage space for materials and student work. All three core instructional buildings have an outdoor learning space as well with water-harvesting tanks, built-in garden spaces, and places for students to conduct experiments and work together.

For the past year, Innovation Principal Michael McConnell has worked with the construction teams, architects, designers and district officials to oversee every detail of the planning and construction process. McConnell also assembled his entire staff, and conducted several professional development sessions for his team to collaborate and develop lessons and projects. 

“I am excited about the opportunity to open and lead a school that will provide students with hands-on and highly-engaging learning opportunities using a STEM-focus,” said McConnell in a prepared statement. “As a teacher, I used an integrated thematic approach to instruction and that is one of the approaches we will use at Innovation Academy. It will be amazing to see our students engage in learning that excites and inspires them towards endless possibilities.” 

The school also features two building dedications to recognize the work of local philanthropist Dorothy Dyer Vanek and former Amphi superintendent Vicki Balentine. 

A supporter of the arts, Dyer Vanek allowed the district to fully equip the school’s music room with band and string instruments, a piano, music stands, stereo system and a SmartBoard after making a contribution to Amphi, and the Dorothy Dyer Vanek Performing Arts Center was named in her honor. 

Balentine helmed the district for 12 years from 2000-2012, during which time a $180 million school improvement bond was passed. The bond included the funding to build a new elementary school. The land had previously been donated to the district in 1987 by the developers of the Rancho Vistoso community.

The district is planning a community “Open House” event where the public will be able to visit and tour the school once the new school year begins. Innovation Academy is located at 825 W. Desert Fairways Drive.

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