Build Your Own High School: Phoenix Students Choose from 500 Classes, Internships, College Courses, Career Programs & More

At Phoenix Union City, high school doesn’t refer to a building but a personalized path of experiences that teenagers create for themselves.

By Beth Hawkins | August 3, 2023
Yaritza Dominguez drives more than 3,000 miles a month working toward both a high school diploma and a dental assistant credential. (Beth Hawkins)

Updated Aug. 8

Yaritza Dominguez glanced at her car’s odometer, which was showing one of those numbers that sticks in a person’s memory: 123,456. A month later, she’d added 3,300 miles. 

Dominguez’s 2013 Camaro serves as a kind of rolling office, the linchpin of her academic plan. A complicated tangle of chargers sprawls across the console between the front seats, which are stacked with files. Rosaries hang from the rear-view mirror.

“Since I’m on the road all day, I cannot let my phone die,” says Dominguez, 16, a rising senior at one of the country’s most innovative high schools. PXU City HS has no physical site — its 83 students create custom programs, choosing from a menu of some 500 options from Phoenix Union High School District’s bricks-and-mortar schools; its online-only program, internships; jobs; college classes; and career training programs.

The Camaro enables Dominguez to navigate this dizzying array of choices. When school starts up next week, every morning she will drive five miles to a high school in the city’s redeveloped Midtown district for two hours of classes. By 10:30, she’ll head home for lunch and log on to the few courses she needs to graduate. By 3, Dominguez will be on the road to Surprise, a far northwestern suburb about 30 miles away, where she is enrolled in a dental assistant training program. If she’s lucky and traffic has died down, she will be home again on the west side of downtown Phoenix by 7:10.

A decade ago, Phoenix Union was a plain-vanilla district of high schools facing the same problems as many large, impoverished school systems. With open enrollment and more than 20% of students attending public charter schools, Phoenix offers families lots of options, and the district didn’t have much that was attractive enough to make it competitive. 

Enter Chad Gestson, who recently ended an eight-year run as superintendent. In 2015, he announced a plan to operate 25 schools by 2025, with a goal of offering distinctive options throughout the district. In addition to comprehensive high schools with their array of athletics and extracurriculars, there would be medium-sized schools with attractive career and academic focuses and small, personalized microschools to choose from. Many of the new programs would be located in poor neighborhoods in the sprawling city, with free transportation for all students.

Phoenix Union was in the midst of a wholesale redesign when COVID-19 forced schools to close. Fortuitously, a fully online school was in the works, so the district was able to adjust to virtual classes relatively quickly.

But in the process, it became clear just how many high school-aged students were working, caring for siblings, filling in for their parents or significantly behind — or ahead and bored — academically.

As Gestson took it all in, he concluded the original redesign plan didn’t go far enough. PXU, as the district had restyled itself, needed to give up the idea of high school as a building where students spend a certain number of hours a day, for a set number of years, until they graduate.

For 60 years, experts had bemoaned the concept — central to the very DNA of the American high school — that being physically present in a prescribed set of classes for a defined amount of time adds up to a quality education. A few individual schools, particularly charter and private schools, have broken the mold. But most large-scale efforts to get rid of seat time and the bell schedule — the system where everyone moves in lockstep through a standardized sequence of in-person classes, regardless of their interests — run into a thicket of red tape. 

Gestson’s decision to go bolder got a boost from the Arizona legislature, which freed school systems to innovate. But even more important, he says, was the realization that lots of COVID-era teenagers were no longer interested in a traditional high school.

So far, it seems to be working. Last fall, PXU surpassed its highest single-day enrollment in over a half-century. On state report cards, the district has more A- and B-rated schools than ever before and, for the first time, none rated D or F.

“The pandemic gave us an entree,” says Gestson. “It enabled us to go to a system with no limits.” 

If PXU City works as well for all its students as it does for Dominguez, he adds, every high school in the district ought to throw away the bell schedule and offer a truly personalized education.

Lots of light and pure water’

The Phoenix Union district itself was born 125 years ago as a different kind of bold experiment.

Completed in 1910, Phoenix Union High School’s Domestic Arts and Sciences building was intended to make a grand statement. Not yet a state, Arizona was then dotted with tiny schoolhouses serving young children, most of them destined for jobs farming or performing physical labor. Previously, the territory’s entire high school student body had been wedged into four classrooms in an elementary school. 

In contrast, every Beaux Arts detail of the new, modern secondary school reflected the nation’s burgeoning love affair with public high schools. Designed by Norman Foote Marsh — the architect who replicated Renaissance-era Venice in Southern California — its grand entrance was framed by neoclassical columns supporting a soaring cornice. The structure was supposed to anchor a multi-building complex — “a well-ventilated campus with lots of light and pure water,” as Arizona State University historians noted.

Inside, classrooms were appointed to facilitate the study of everything from literature to skilled trades, the menu of offerings that would come to characterize comprehensive high schools throughout America for the next century.

The grandeur sent a signal. At the turn of the 20th century, schooling for most U.S. children ended in eighth grade. But rapid changes in technology sparked demand for literate workers. Recognizing the prosperity that higher-skilled jobs could bring, employers and families alike clamored for more public secondary schools. 

Leaders rushed to open schools to prepare young people for this new economy, igniting the era historians call the High School Movement. In 1910, just 19% of American teens were enrolled in what was a small number of high schools. By 1940, 71% of Americans ages 14 to 18 were attending.

As the numbers of high school buildings and students rose, so did the desire among employers and colleges for a uniform definition of what a diploma signified. The trustees of industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s newly created Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching proposed a set of standards: 120 hours of exposure to a subject should equal one credit. To graduate, a student should earn at least 14 credits in four years. Thus was born the Carnegie Unit, now better known as seat time, used to calculate everything from the length of an academic year to the amount schools would be reimbursed for their services.  

For several years, Phoenix Union High School was the only secondary school in the area — and the largest school, enrollment-wise, west of the Mississippi. When more high schools were eventually built in other parts of the fast-growing city, what had begun as a single school became the Phoenix Union High School District. 

Phoenix Union High School then and now. (Phoenix Union High School District; Wikimedia Commons)

The school system today would be unrecognizable to the architects of the original domestic arts building. In the 2022-23 academic year, Phoenix Union served almost 29,000 students spread across the city’s 500 square miles. Some 90% are low-income and nearly as many are Latino. Students speak more than 100 languages and represent 50 tribal communities. 

Phoenix Union does not face many of the same problems as other large, urban districts. Enrollment has not declined — partly because of the city’s boomtown status. Despite Arizona’s low per-pupil funding, the school system is fiscally sound. It attracts veteran teachers and pays them well above the state average. The community repeatedly votes for bonds that enable the district to build, renovate and equip modern facilities.

At the same time, Phoenix Union is confronted with numerous challenges. Arizona’s wide array of school choice options makes it compete for students with wealthier neighboring districts, tax credit scholarships for private schools and one of the nation’s largest charter school sectors.

As recently as a decade ago, Phoenix Union’s graduates were attending college in low numbers and earning degrees at even lower rates. Students were not leaving high school equipped for middle-skills jobs — well-paid positions in growing fields that don’t require a four-year degree. 

A fervent believer that it was time to reimagine high schools, Gestson had been a principal himself. While head of his district’s Camelback High, he had started some specialized academic programs. As a result, he knew redesign efforts were fraught with contradictions.

Students at Camelback Montessori play a grammar game. (Beth Hawkins)

Worried their kids will slip through the cracks in a large student body, many families want small schools. But they also want the clubs, sports and other opportunities a big high school can offer. Some want career training programs that will lead to a good job immediately after graduation, while others want college prep. Phoenix Union, he believed, needed to become all things to all families.

“There is still magic in large, comprehensive campuses,” says Gestson. “Lots of kids in this country go to school not for math but for theater or the chance to go to MEChA [El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, a national Mexican-American club] or the Black student union.

“The challenge was to take large schools and make them feel small.” 

When he took over as superintendent, the district had 11 high schools and three schools serving students with disabilities or who were significantly behind academically. When he stepped down last spring to start an education innovation research organization at Northern Arizona University, the district was operating 24 schools: the 11 comprehensive high schools, six small specialty schools, three microschools, the three alternative programs and an online-only school.  

Phoenix Union now includes four small high schools with specific themes: law enforcement and firefighting; coding and cybersecurity; the college-preparation program AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination; and a bioscience school. In the fall, Phoenix Educator Preparatory will welcome its first students.

Uniquely, the district also operates microschools, standalone programs housed in wings of existing high schools. There is one of the country’s only Montessori high schools, a microschool geared for students working toward admission to highly selective colleges and a gifted and talented academy. 

The existing big high schools have been reconfigured. Metro Tech, for example, now is a career-technical education magnet offering 19 workforce training programs. South Mountain is home to distinct programs focused on media arts and design; science, technology and aerospace; and public and social services. At North High School, students work with an adviser to choose their own classes instead of following an established sequence.  

Each high school also has a freshman academy, intended to accomplish several things. To help them take advantage of the district’s specialty programs, ninth-graders are exposed to a variety of career and higher ed options and given the skills to navigate an individualized path. Because they come from 13 K-8 school districts within Phoenix and dozens of public charter schools, it helps them acclimate to PXU. Once students have an idea of what interests them, they can switch schools.

When creating the menu of options, district leaders ignored the temptation to locate popular programs in the city center — a tactic used by many school systems in the name of efficiency that typically excludes the students with the fewest resources. 

For example, Phoenix Union’s gifted and talented program is located on the city’s west side, home to a number of disadvantaged neighborhoods. Transportation anywhere is free for district students, with some able to count on yellow school buses or passes for public transit. 

District leaders were at work creating a fully online school, Phoenix Digital, when the pandemic hit, and when schools closed to in-person learning, having a system for remote schooling was a godsend. As face-to-face classes resumed, however, it became clear that a digital option would be key to Phoenix Union’s ability to offer every student a truly personalized high school experience. 

A just-right school 

When Dominguez started high school in fall 2020, COVID was raging and Phoenix Union classes were online. She flew through the material, but she was lonely. 

“I was like in a bubble,” she says. “I was alone in my room. I had a dance class, and I had to dance in my room in front of my camera.”

She enrolled at North High School when in-person instruction resumed. There were clubs and activities, but the classes were too slow for her. 

Like the rest of her family, Dominguez has a work ethic on steroids. Her grandparents immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, supporting their daughter when she became a single mother at 15 in the hope that their grandchild could continue her education past high school. 

Focused and ambitious, Dominguez knew at an early age that she wanted both to work in the dental field and have a creative side hustle. Until recently, she earned extra money by setting up dessert tables at parties on weekends and selling candy at events. 

Headed into her junior year, she was leaning toward transferring to Phoenix Union’s then-new full-time digital school in hopes of also attending a two-year dental assistant program. That way, she could get the prerequisites for her degree out of the way while she was in high school and finish a four-year training program in two years. 

Then, Dominguez’s mother heard about PXU City. She plunked down $1,500 for the girl’s first semester of dental assistant school, bought the Camaro and ordered her to stop working at weddings and quinceañeras.

“My family is like, ‘Your job is not a necessity. If you’re not going to do well in school, you’re going to quit that job,’ ” Dominguez says, adding — with an almost imperceptible eye roll, “My mom also needs me to be a teenager.” 

Sitting through hundreds of hours of classes that, for her, moved at a crawl would waste Dominguez’s time. But it would also not give a future employer so much as a glimmer of information about her focus and drive. 

For decades, researchers had known that the Carnegie Unit was a poor proxy for quality of education and a student’s skills and aptitudes. But despite general agreement that the credit hour had outlived its usefulness, getting rid of it seemed all but impossible.

COVID’s arrival upended seat time overnight, forcing states and school systems to rethink, at least temporarily, everything from what counts as attendance online to how to ensure that homebound seniors had enough credits to graduate.

Like many states, Arizona had allowed school districts to tweak their approaches to seat time even before the pandemic. But securing permission to truly experiment — to replace conventional lessons with hands-on projects, give students credit for independent study or internships, let them demonstrate mastery of a subject instead of logging time in class, blend remote and in-person instruction, create individualized schedules — was still cumbersome.

Because schools got state funding for documenting Carnegie Units, innovation was disincentivized. To count for credit, for example, a high school class had to meet for at least 123 hours a year, regardless how long it took to cover the material. Students had to take four such classes, even if a larger number of shorter courses would better suit their needs. And because many laws governing online schools were aimed at regulating troubled, low-quality education companies, few policies encouraged expansion of remote learning. Similar inflexibility stymied innovation in transportation, food service and technology.

Then, in 2020 and 2021, Arizona legislators allowed districts to adopt local policies enabling more flexibility but ensuring that the freedom to design different kinds of learning did not mean students received less instruction. 

Until her recent appointment as Virginia’s deputy secretary of education, Emily Anne Gullickson was head of A for Arizona, a nonprofit focused on school quality. Once the pandemic forced the state to build flexibility into its seat-time laws, she says, districts “were able to come back and say, ‘Don’t take it away.’ ”

Lawmakers also created a $55 million fund for schools wishing to explore alternatives to yellow buses and, for the first time anywhere, allowed for public microschools, which Gullickson envisions as appealing to families and teachers alike. “Arizona is no different than other places in having a mental health crisis,” she says, “and having those very small, safe environments will definitely allow us to keep some very high-quality educators.” 

During the pandemic’s school closures, Gestson asked every district employee to check in with 10 families every day. After surmounting their first big challenge — not knowing how to reach many students — educators started using these newly strengthened relationships to understand the difficulties kids and families faced.

Now, students at PXU City, which opened last fall, are encouraged to attend daily morning advisory groups online. Staff meet weekly to review each student’s progress. This, for example, was how a counselor realized Dominguez was not speeding along independently in math the way she does in other subjects. To help, she got regular coaching. 

In its first year, the school was a very lean operation, says Principal Leah McKiernan: two licensed educators and three support staff brainstorming transportation, troubleshooting schedules and making sure students had the kind of solid relationships with PXU adults that would keep their autonomy from devolving into disarray. Next year, with the addition of two new staffers, PXU City adults will visit students at their job, college and internship sites.  

In many ways, the challenges PXU City’s staff are thinking through mirror the issues that the district’s other schools are grappling with as they move away from bell schedules. A good example is Bioscience High School, located a block south of the original Phoenix Union High School building. 

With capacity for 400 students, Bioscience is the oldest of the district’s small, themed specialty schools. Instead of sitting at desks for a prescribed number of hours, students are required to spend time at nearby engineering and biomedical facilities — including an adjacent research campus where the 1910 Domestic Arts and Sciences building still stands. 

To make time for these outside experiences, students typically complete most of their graduation requirements before their senior year. Teachers set each grade level’s schedule according to what they want students to focus on during a year or a term, says Principal Neda Boyce. But they can put the calendar aside if, for example, students need extra time for projects. 

Starting in their freshman year, all students work on annual, year-long projects where they research a real-world problem, create an intervention and evaluate its effectiveness. One engineering group turned a plot of sunflowers growing behind the school into biofuel and then built a car that ran on it.

Camelback Montessori is a 150-student microschool located in an airy, self-contained wing of a 2,200-student high school. Teachers work in teams to make sure students are engaged in interrelated lessons as they move between subject-specific classes. Dictated by the instructors’ personalities, some classrooms are hushed while others buzz with motion.  

Kids work with the same teachers for all four years, fostering close relationships. The school sees the pillars of the Montessori philosophy — hands, heart and head — as highly effective in guiding students’ self-discovery.

“Hands” includes experiences such as an all-school kayaking trip to learn about the ecosystem. To satisfy the “head” component, all classes are honors-level. The work of the “heart” includes Socratic seminars and close attention to mental health.

“You don’t recognize all of the possibilities until you see what the kids figure out about themselves,” says Principal Danchi Nguyen. “We always say we want you to see what your role is.”    

Coming online this fall, Phoenix Educator Prep may be the district’s most audacious effort to integrate a specialty school with the larger community. It will train future teachers, school counselors and psychologists, as well as encourage students to have not just the vocation of working in a school, but to study something else — like art, music or botany — that they are passionate about. 

After a freshman year dedicated to a smooth transition to high school, Principal Alaina Adams says, students will begin earning an associate degree in their chosen educator track. Upperclassmen will use a version of PXU City’s flexible model to get as far as they can in higher ed, in partnership with one of five Arizona colleges.

Graduates will be encouraged to complete teaching residencies — year-long, hands-on training — at Educator Prep, where they will have financial and logistical help with housing, transportation and other issues that challenge new teachers with low starting pay.   

Later, Adams hopes to position Educator Prep grads to earn two BAs in three years so the would-be teachers can explore their own passions, too. She says she hears over and over that having a “side hustle” is energizing to the current generation of students and educators alike.

“You have to do a lot of listening,” says Adams. “You have to accept that they want more. They want options. They want to change the world.

“It’s turned into a really fun dreamfest for us.”  

‘The best of both worlds’

In April, PXU City held a rare all-school assembly. Dominguez was one of 32 students who showed up to spend the day in a glass-walled conference room in the basement of the district’s administration building, participating in leadership and team-building workshops put on by civic and district leaders. 

Like Dominguez, some kids drove, while some used public transit. McKiernan and PXU City’s other four staffers picked up others using vans the district had purchased to help move students around the community during the school day. 

The aroma of lunch — Cane’s chicken fingers — lingered as students shifted their attention to an exercise in decision-making and how one’s perceptions can sometimes make it hard to see all options. It was being led by the district’s chief talent officer. Other speakers of the day included Gestson, the vice mayor and an executive from the Mayo Clinic. 

The different sessions focused on the so-called soft skills — cooperation, negotiation, self-advocacy, etc. — that students need to navigate learning opportunities outside a conventional school setting. But they also gave PXU staff a chance to cement the personal relationships that are the glue that makes sure whatever students are doing in place of earning Carnegie Units is purposeful.

Indeed, the Carnegie foundation is tracking a handful of school systems trying to devise meaningful replacements for seat time. One goal is to find ways to evaluate mastery that go beyond measuring how much classroom instruction students retain. With its portfolio of schools offering opportunities to learn on college campuses, at research organizations, by working on projects and at job sites, the Phoenix district — and especially PXU City — is closely watched.

The confab had started to wind down when Dominguez got a text from her mother asking if she could pick up her baby brother. As luck would have it, her dental instructors were doing professional development that day, so she had a rare opportunity to take the boy home and play with him. 

Though Dominguez has zero interest in going back to a conventional high school, she was pleased by the assembly. She got to see several friends — including a girl she bonded with virtually during her online dance class — and spent time with the counselor who is helping her with math.

And she got a little encouragement to start thinking about the fall, when, as a senior, she’ll have less than two hours a day following a conventional class schedule. 

“I like a fast-paced life,” she says the next morning, parking the Camaro for a brief moment to grab a latte. “This school, it’s the best of both worlds.”   

Disclosure: The XQ Institute, which has partnered with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to explore alternatives to the Carnegie Unit, provides financial support to The 74.

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