The first day of school always brings a sense of new beginning, but this year the Marana Unified School District felt that tenfold with the opening of a brand-new K-8 school, Dove Mountain CSTEM. The teachers and faculty welcomed more than 800 new students last Monday, marking the start of a new standard they hope to set for the rest of the district.
Superintendent Doug Wilson said the school is focused on teaching children how to be makers, not just passive consumers. To accomplish this, the school is equipped with policies and infrastructure to promote hands-on learning centered on computer science, technology, engineering and math.
Students will be engaged in computer programming at all levels, thanks to the district’s partnership with Code To The Future, a national computer science program for immersion schools.
“At the kindergarten level, for example, they’ll be using it for plot and for story and to tell about themselves and it continues to build from there,” said Andrea Divijak, the school’s principal. “The older they get, the more curriculum that’s woven in, whether it be social studies or math. Everything can be woven into that programming aspect, which is kind of exciting.”
Walking through the school’s halls, there are large bay windows, sliding glass doors and flexible partitions that can create larger classroom spaces in an instant. The maker-spaces, science laboratories and the “zSpace” lab, which provides augmented and virtual reality lessons for students, will provide an immersive approach to everything students do, according to Divijak. Every student will be given a personal Chromebook to use for their schoolwork, and there’s even a 3D printer on hand.
“With the project-based learning and the computer science and coding, our kids will really learn to delve into questions themselves and guide where they take the content areas,” Divijak said.
The new building has three wings organized by grade level. The multi-story school places younger students at the ground-floor level and older students at the top. The kids will also have physical education and art classes, and sports teams will be organized for middle school students. There is also an amphitheater and an outdoor space for gardening classes and a tortoise habitat.
“People walk in this building and say they want to come back to school and do it all over again here, because of the environment we have for our students,” Divijak said. “We’ve been really embraced by our community, by the families of the students coming here. This is the day that our district has been waiting for, for a few years.”
That excitement of the first day of school was felt by fifth grade student Ashton Nebeker, who came to Dove Mountain from Ironwood Elementary.
“We’re excited because this is a completely new school so we haven’t been to a school like this besides Gladden Farms,” Nebeker said. “It’s a CSTEM school and it’s going to be more competitive because everybody has to do science projects. I like science because I do science projects every year and it’s kind of hard.”
With some students, they only know one way of learning, and often get discouraged or frustrated when that singular way doesn’t work, Divijak said. She believes the kids at the CSTEM school that get to work with new concepts and technologies will learn to troubleshoot and persevere in their problem-solving.
“That flexible thinker, which will help them in any profession they eventually go into, is really what we want them leaving us with,” Divijak said.
Dove Mountain is already reaching capacity and adding more students by the day, through the district’s open enrollment policy. The school has room for about 900 students, and welcomed 860 last Monday.
Kimberly Reynolds, a kindergarten teacher who has worked in MUSD on and off since 2000, said it’s fabulous to be able to have the experience of embarking on this journey in a brand new school.
“We’re all supporting each other on all the new adventures we’re going to have,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot of hands-on work with the activities that we do. We’ll be using the Smartboard and the creative maker-spaces that are built into this space.”
The school’s name, mascot and colors were chosen through a public voting process conducted last November. Divijak said Dove Mountain was overwhelmingly the top name chosen, and the voters picked a jaguar and the colors green and yellow to represent the student body.
One of the school’s third grade teachers, Kristy Hollandsworth, designed the CSTEM jaguar logo which incorporates gears, circuits, the water molecule, the pi symbol and binary code. Divijak said the jaguar is representative of the school’s focus on math, science and technology.
Wilson said the opening of this school is the next step in setting up all their students for an unknown future.
“You’re going to have to have some characteristics about collaboration, about problem solving, all the things that will be really evident here on a daily basis,” he said. “We teach problem solving at all our schools, but here it’s problem solving with robotics, technology and coding. They get to apply it right away.”
The interactions Dove Mountain students will have with technology early on in their educational journeys will be able to transfer over to the math and science programs that are already in place at the high school level, Wilson said. The types of opportunities that are available at the school will eventually be introduced throughout the district in the future.
“No matter what they do, when they get into high school and then beyond, they’ll possess some of that skill set that we know they’re going to need to have to be successful in the future,” Wilson said. “I’m happy we were able to provide a school like this for our community. All our schools do an outstanding job, but when you build a school with a program in mind, there’s an advantage.”