Lead founders of SySTEM Phoenix, Angelica Cruz and Nicole Fernandez are Teach For America alumni who both taught in Central Phoenix and witnessed firsthand the need for students to learn how to think critically, problem-solve, and become active in their communities. Throughout their combined 17 years in education, they were repeatedly frustrated with how passive their students came to them, trained very well to sit and receive information, yet unable to think critically or problem solve. Although Ms. Cruz and Ms. Fernandez worked relentlessly to increase their students’ involvement in their learning by engaging them in meaningful, rigorous activities, they both felt the impact they had on their individual classrooms was not enough to change the current state of education.
They began talking about the idea of starting a school that would provide rigorous and relevant educational experiences to students in order to affect this change at a large-scale level. After completing their Master’s Degrees through the Arizona State University Teach For America Fellowship Master’s Degree program in Educational Administration, they were accepted into the Aspiring Leaders Fellowship (ALF) through the Arizona Charter Schools Association, where individuals interested in starting charter schools could research best practices in education and travel to excellent charter schools throughout the country to see them in action.
Starting a Charter STEM School
Ms. Cruz and Ms. Fernandez began discussing the possibility of actualizing their idea to start SySTEM Phoenix during the Aspiring Leaders Fellowship. They dreamed of a school where students and teachers would regularly analyze and reflect on rigorous content, and, ultimately, where students would be inspired to create innovative change in their community. They were awarded a three-year AZCSP grant for $690,000 and a $250,000 Walton Family Foundation to support the planning and start-up costs of SySTEM Phoenix. SySTEM Phoenix opened in August 2014 with 90 6th and 7th grade students. The school currently serves students in grades 6-9 and will add grade levels each year to eventually serve students in grades 6-12.