Shari Popen with student Gabriel Ortiz.

Shari Popen, director of Sky Islands School (which has no direct relation to the Sky Island Alliance) at 201 S. Wilmot Road, taught for 12 years at the UA College of Education and the Department of Political Science before opening the high school. Two years ago, she put in motion her desire to open a school that brings the arts, humanities and sciences together with a focus on the environment and Southwest. The school is in the middle of its second year; it went from 17 students in its first year to 70 students this year. For more information, check out skyislands.org.

What's unique about this school?

Our students feel they belong to this place. They feel protective of the building and the program, and that it's a safe place for them. As educators, we try to create an integrated curriculum—we help students connect the dots to create meaningful patterns they can build on.

Are kids coming to the school primarily because of the environmental focus?

Some are. Others are attracted by the small class sizes and the local focus. I think our location has been huge for us. We're on Wilmot near Broadway (Boulevard). It's an important location on several cross-town bus routes. People drive by, and they see our sign. That's been our best advertising. We also encourage our students to recruit people they want to go to school with.

Why did you start this school?

Well, one of the reasons I started this school and attracted the teachers I did is that we all see an urgent need to re-create public schooling. We recognize that the public system does not serve many students well. Our response is based on the idea that individual people have to step up when our institutions fail. Charter schools held to the state learning standards are one way to do this. Our curriculum is aligned with state standards; students are required to take and pass the AIMS test, and special-education requirements are also state-mandated. By state law, we have a nondiscrimination policy in terms of enrollment.

How do the school's values fit in with the academic requirements?

That's the question I get asked most often. As a team, we design our curriculum and then backload the state standards. It's based on the "understanding by design" model. We have six teachers and an associate director in charge of student services. All seven of us put in a great deal of time to make sure the standards reflect what we are teaching, and at the same time are designed for our students.

What are some of the classes you have that you might not see at another school?

We offer courses in ethnobotany, environmental history, alternative energy and eco-art, to name a few. In each of these core classes, teachers raise regional issues. For example, we have a literature class, "Southwest Stories," that looks at the environmental impact of immigration and the border wall through narratives. There's also a class on sustainable food that connects to the foods of the desert and the slow-foods program. Sky Island also has a full-time art teacher. I'm really proud of that fact.

What special projects is Sky Islands involved with?

We are partnered with Leza Carter's Tucson Village Farm at the UA's (Controlled Environment Agriculture Center) site at Campbell (Avenue) and Roger (Road). And we are members of the Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots global youth program. As part of that program, students will design and build raptor houses, and campaign for an Arizona bottle bill (www.bottlebill.org).

How do the students benefit from Sky Islands?

Through work on local projects and our trips that require students to do community-service work, I think they get a sense of responsibility to the community and learn more about what's around them. ... When we took a trip to New Mexico last year, some students were afraid to leave what they knew, but they went. These trips open new worlds to them. We also have a strong advising program. When students enroll, we partner them with a teacher. As a school, we develop a sense of community around the South African word "ubuntu." It means you are who you are because of those around you. ... It's a fundamental notion of democracy, and in the end, we hope students take a greater responsibility for where they live.

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