Sporting a blue and white “E=mc2” Albert Einstein tie, Innovation Academy Principal Michael McConnell greeted dozens of excited parents and students back to school last Thursday, Aug. 10, after more than two months of summer vacation. 

While every new school year produces a wave of nervous excitement for parents, students and faculty, last week was tinged with a sense of exhilaration not felt in Amphi Public Schools for nearly two decades: the opening of a new school. Serving students from kindergarten through fifth grade, Innovation Academy is the district’s first new site since building Ironwood Ridge High School in 2001, and hosts about 350 of Amphi’s roughly 14,000 student body.

As the name suggests, the education model at Innovation Academy is a new step for the district. The school was developed to incorporate the theories and stratagems of science, technology, engineering and math—also known as STEM—into every step of the learning process. Even though Innovation Academy is a new venture for Amphi, the district provides science-based learning and different STEM opportunities at all of its schools. 

McConnell, who spent the last year working with the district and his new Innovation staff to develop the school’s curriculum, said lesson plans are structured to incorporate the “five E’s” of learning: engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate. In conjunction with real world applications to new concepts, McConnell said Innovation students will learn a new way of thinking.

“As they are learning a mathematical concept, or something in science, they are going to see it, experience and do it,” he said. “When all of that happens, there is a deeper level of understanding, and a deeper level of retention. They will also critically think and problem solve, so that their brains are always engaged.”

Even though Innovation Academy is in Oro Valley, located in the Rancho Vistoso neighborhood off North La Cañada Drive north of West Moore Road at 825 W. Desert Fairways Drive, it is open to any student. With no neighborhood attendance boundaries, the school hosts students from across Amphi, and more than two dozen schools outside of the district.

“This isn’t a neighborhood school,” McConnell said. “Everyone who is here specifically came here to be a part of this experience—and that is one of the coolest things. Every teacher, staff member, family, parent and child—this is what they wanted.”

One of the many parents walking their child through the new campus was Ashlee Manly Watson, who also teaches first grade at the school. Watson said she was previously working at Rio Vista Elementary School (also in Amphi) when she first heard of Innovation Academy. A teacher for the past 10 years, all with the district, Watson said she instantly knew the school was the right place for both her and her children because it “goes back to good teaching.” 

“It’s hands on and project-based, the kids are getting dirty, asking questions and figuring out real world problems,” Watson said. “These kids, these 21st-century kids, are going to grow up in a world with jobs that we can’t even predict. My job, as their first-grade teacher, is to teach them how to think—how to think around problems, how to think through problems and how to be innovative and creative.”

Watson’s daughter, Adalee, 7, followed her mother in to Innovation Academy, and said she was excited to find her new best friend at school.

“I like how you can touch things, and feel things and find out things you don’t know yet,” she said. “If you don’t know something, the teacher will be there to help you.”

The school colors of blue, purple and orange were chosen to represent prominent colors in the Arizona landscape, with the color palates found in the interior design of the building. The mascot will be selected by the students during the school year. 

“This is an opportunity that has never come along in my lifetime,” McConnell said. “I am over-the-moon excited—excited for the community, excited for parents, excited for my staff, but mostly for the kids.”

The public is invited to a community open house to celebrate the opening of Innovation Academy this Saturday, Aug. 19. The school is located at 825 W. Desert Fairways Drive, Oro Valley, Arizona, 85755.

There will be brief remarks at 9:00 a.m. from the Amphitheater Governing Board, superintendent Todd Jaeger, Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath and l McConnell. The campus will be open for public tours from 9:00 a.m. until noon.

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