By Richard Smith, Independent Newsmedia
By being small and specialized, Highland Prep hopes to plant a successful STEM-focused charter school in Surprise.
Highland Prep plans to open in the fall at 15600 W. Hearn Road with up to 125 freshmen. The tuition-free school will add a class a year until becoming a full four-year campus in 2021.
Dr. Kerry Clark is the principal of Madison Highland Prep school in Phoenix and executive director of the Greenfield Education charter management organization.
He said in the course of looking for a site to expand the Highland Prep concept, the city of Surprise expressed interest in a STEM school and he and other Highland officials talked to other local schools and officials.
“We thought, wow, they could use this unique school,” Dr. Clark said.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Circumstances were different in Phoenix as the Madison Elementary School District sought a partnership with a STEM charter high school, Dr. Clark said.
Ken Schlinger will be the first principal of Highland Prep in Surprise. He is a former engineer who switched to teaching at a public school district in the San Tan Valley area before moving to an assistant principal role.
Mr. Schlinger said he does not denigrate public schools but thinks in this case, a STEM-focused school can provide a more consistent experience for students who want to specialize in these areas. And to him a college prep school is ideal for those focused on continuing their education.
For example, high quality STEM programs and related clubs are possible in public schools, but often tied to a teacher’s background and interest. He said he saw the engineering club he started at his former school wither after he moved to administration.
“I was with juniors and seniors. I saw that there was not a lot preparing them for that next level,” Mr. Schlinger said. Students at Highland Prep will not be required to focus completely on the school’s STEM course load or enroll in STEM-related college majors, though two years of engineering and 28 total credits are required.
Highland Prep will require two years of a foreign language. Mr. Schlinger said the setup will be online offerings for multiple languages — Spanish, German, Latin, French and Mandarin Chinese — with all the students in one classroom.
The central focus is college prep — in STEM fields or not. Advanced placement classes that can lead to college credit will be plentiful, Mr. Schlinger said.
The school will bring colleges to campus to introduce their schools, discuss scholarship opportunities and admissions requirements, and to visit students.
“We want to get students ready for four-year colleges and universities,” Mr. Schlinger said.
Dysart Unified School District Communications Director Zachery Fountain said the four district high schools offer STEM programs, including automotive technology, computer animation, engineering, digital communications, health and software development. DUSD partners with West-MEC for programs including aviation, energy and industrial technology. IT security, and medical assisting.
Mr. Fountain said Shadow Ridge High School features a four-year engineering program that includes robotics. The school’s architecture program recently earned the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association’s Program Excellence Award for the second straight year.
In the first year of Highland Prep, freshmen will start with four core classes — English, math, science and world history — along with an elective dependent on the background of a fifth teacher hired, Mr. Schlinger said.
School officials want to maintain a 25-1 teacher-to-student ratio with class sizes not creeping above 30.
The goal is to top out between 500 and 600 students.
“As a principal, I want to be able to know my students and parents by name,” Mr. Schlinger said.
Highland Prep will open in a temporary modular building just west of Reems Road in between Greenway and Waddell.
Dr. Clark said ground should break on the main building in July with completion around the end of the first school year.
The permanent building will be 36,000 square feet with 19 classrooms, a gym and “lots of technology,” Dr. Clark said. Some features will be based on feedback the school receives.
“We want to build it the right way and get a lot of stakeholder input into how we’re doing it,” Dr. Clark said
Student interest will dictate what sports are offered and to that end Highland Prep will play in the more flexible Canyon Athletic Association, which does not require certain sports or junior varsity teams.
The campus will also offer three robotics clubs, National Honor Society, student council drama, clubs and community service outlets.
“There is more to high school than just going to class,” Mr. Schlinger said.
Families interested in Highland Prep may call the enrollment office at 623-300-8385. In person meetings are available from 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays. Information is available at www.HighlandPrepAz.com.