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Phoenix: Smart City or Wild West?

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Sprawling across a desert valley, Phoenix is the opposite of Boston in many ways--the streets are straight, just about everything was built in the last generation, and there are not a handful of storied institutions of higher learning. The good news according to Arizona State University President Michael Crow is that you can do work here that you could not do anywhere else. People in Phoenix don't care where you came from, they don't make you jump through hoops.

ASU is not just important to Phoenix, with Crow's drive to define a new American university, it is leading the transformation of higher education. Despite crippling cuts in state support, Crow is maintaining a value proposition while boosting relevance, support and employability with innovations like adaptive developmental math.

Gone are many traditional departments, replaced with centers that address the big questions of our time. Crow has changed the relationship with the faculty, redefined how the university functions, and--perhaps most importantly--changed how the university thinks about itself.

Last week ASU co-hosted an Education Innovation Summit which, in its fourth year, has become the most important edtech conference on the calendar (see coverage below).

Major hospitals are the other source of intellectual capital in Phoenix. ASU helped bring Mayo Clinic to town and is working in partnership on a next-gen medical school with a masters degree in the Science of Health Care Delivery.

Online & EdTech. Phoenix is home to several for-profit colleges. The University of Phoenix reached peak enrollment of almost 600,000 students in 2010 before being pummeled by federal regulations and negative publicity about debt loads, grad rates, and employability. Phoenix is also home to the 40,000 student Grand Canyon University, the first for-profit publicly traded Christian college. Both offer online and onsite courses.

Serving more than 6,000 students, Primavera Online High School is Arizona's largest school, and is powered by the integrated online solution Flipswitch. Other online options include Arizona Connections Academy and Arizona Virtual Academy.

Edtech startups include:

Several edtech leaders including Pearson, HotChalk, Blackboard and Sokikom have offices in metro Phoenix.

A Kauffman Foundation study found that Arizona ranked number one for startups per capita. Nearly a dozen business incubators and accelerators call Greater Phoenix home. Greater Phoenix Economic Council is a regional public-private partnership that actually pays attention to edtech as a growth sector.

"There's a complete disconnect between districts and edtech companies," said experienced urban educator and grantmaker Steve Seleznow. "I would tell these companies, you bring tech in and we'll be your testing ground." Like every city reviewed in this series, school districts typically don't interact productively with the tech community or leverage local edtech assets.

Mesa appears to be something of an exception; they recently hosted an edtech conference and awarded innovation grants to teacher teams. Paradise Valley is another tech savvy district (see Cisco case study). Both districts have online schools that serve their students as well as students statewide.

Impact Investor. At the heart of the growing philanthropic community is the Arizona Community Foundation (ACF) led by Seleznow. They recently launched the Arizona Venture Fund for Quality Education with $90 million of assets to support a set of priorities including early learning, STEM, and entrepreneurship. The fund also supports advocacy groups including Stand for Children, Foster Ed (National Law Center), Beat the Odds Institute.

"How do you become a great city? You make public, private, and corporate investments," said Seleznow. He's seen good examples up close--as the director of Venture Philanthropy Partners, he saw Mario Morino drive ecosystem in northern Virginia. "But, he adds, "this state didn't invest in human capital and has been cutting for 30 years." As a result Arizona is on the bottom of K-12 funding and leads the country in disinvestment in higher ed.

ACF is a member of CEE-Trust, a network of 28 urban investors and agitators leading a portfolio approach to improving educational options.

New Global Citizens supported by ACF, equips teachers to engage students around the world's greatest challenges. "Our program focuses on developing student skills in global competency, critical thinking, collaboration, communication and digital literacy," said founder Jennifer Vollmann.

Cool Schools. There are 535 charter schools in the state, almost 200 in the urban core (with 70% free-reduced lunch students) but only 10 are 'A' rated. There aren't any next-gen models in Phoenix but that should change with New Schools for Phoenix, an initiative of the Arizona Charter School Association to train 25 new school leaders. "Over 10 years, we anticipate these 25 successful schools will replicate to create approximately 50 new A-rated charter schools in Phoenix," said Executive Director Eileen Sigmund. "We've learned lessons from New Schools for New Orleans, Get Smart Schools in Denver, and CEE-Trust but made it a Phoenix initiative."

There are handful of very good traditional charters including:

  • Phoenix Collegiate Academy is a great middle school;
  • Basis Charter Schools , chaired by Craig Barrett, are outstanding traditional schools but target middle income communities; and
  • Great Hearts takes a Core Knowledge approach to humanities and has two campuses: Maryvale Prep (southwest) and Hilios (downtown).

Phoenix Union High School District runs 16 schools including Seleznow's favorite Camelback High School led by TFA alumni, Dr. Chad Gestson. Camelback has a Montessori academy, AVID classes, an Advisory period, and a peer tutoring program called, "Success Is Mandatory."

Ombudsman runs 8 dropout recovery centers. Sabis has one school.

The Arizona Board for Charters is an independent authorizer with gubernatorially appointed members. To boost quality in the charter sector, they recently closed 10% of schools up for renewal--the bar has been raised.

Conclusions. I spent much of the last five months in Phoenix--enough time to begin to get a sense of the contours and the culture of the place. I love the desert landscape, warm February days, and the way they welcome newcomers. It was harder to find great Mexican food than I expected (suggestions welcome).

In some ways, it's still the Wild West--that can be great for entrepreneurs but not so good for kids and families. Seleznow says state leaders "made conscious choices that worked in concert to increase rates of poverty and income inequality."

Despite the efforts of ACF, recently activated group of advocates and super Senator Rich Crandall (a former Mesa School Board member), Arizona received a D+ on the recently released Digital Learning Now state report card.

Openness to new ideas, smart impact investors, new school models, and a few high capacity districts suggests that Phoenix may be on the rise.

For coverage of the ASU/GSV Education Innovation Summit see

Disclosure: Pearson, K12 and Connections are Getting Smart Advocacy Partners.

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