One of Arizona’s most unique K-12 learning environments made its debut last week in Glendale. Its modern design, with open-concept learning, working and casual meeting spaces, small conference rooms and even a catering space, looks more like a tech start-up’s headquarters than a school. But the non-traditional physical design of this learning space for teens is only the beginning of the story.
START @ West-MEC was built to be a creative hub, where students from local high schools, educators, entrepreneurs and community members can come together to make innovative things happen.
“At its core, START is a collaborative space for people that care about the value of education and mentoring others,” said Chris Cook, START @ West-MEC director. “Through a variety of creative services, START blends education, business and community to move ideas and people forward.”
High school students from the 12 school districts in western Maricopa County that are members of West-MEC – the Western Maricopa County Education Center – are eligible to be a part of START.
Labs for students ring an open area where people can gather to work together, students can research opportunities at the career center, and work in an internship area just down the hall from the small businesses owners who hire them. Those entrepreneurs also have offices, meet with clients and host presentations at START, which is located just west of University of Phoenix Stadium.
START’s business partners include ADM Group, Advanced Imaging| Creative Studio, AZTECH Educational Resources, Bonanza Educational, Bryo Media, Chasse Building Team, Mediafarm Design & Post, National Coalition of Certification Centers, Point in Time Studios, Prisma, Tomko Signature Graphic Design and Yammer.
“You could probably bring back your great grandparents walk them into most classrooms today and they’d say ‘Yup, I recognize it,’ ” said Greg Donovan, superintendent of West-MEC. “But this center is different. It is unique. It provides innovation, opportunities, exposure to careers, encourages lifelong learning.”
The seeds of START began growing in 2005 when Cook, a Peoria High School media teacher, had to tell his student Vance Null that a film festival’s judges thought Null’s documentary was “too good for a high school student.”
“He (Vance) couldn’t understand it, because he put his passion into this video,” Cook said. “I said, I don’t get it either, but you have to use this as motivation later on in life. You are that good. You are better than anything I could do.”
Cook said that conversation “really changed me as a person, as a teacher.”
“At that point, I realized we truly need a place where we can connect the dots and have the idea that experiences and skills should drive mentorship, that age is definitely irrelevant,” Cook said.
START@West-MEC is that creative space that blends business, education and the community together where 14-year-olds can teach leadership skills to entrepreneurs and 40-year-old entrepreneurs can teach teenagers how to build an online startup, Cook said.
“There’s a lot of talk today about how do we encourage our young people to see their career as entrepreneurship, not just a job or a pathway, but to learn how do I develop myself and do these things,” Donovan said. “This is the first step in a major thought process change for our community in how we address education.”
START @ West-MEC includes a software development classroom for high school juniors and seniors served by schools that are part of West-MEC, a lab for STEM and engineering related activities for students, career and technical education camps, and the community as well as a media productions studio for West-MEC interns, member districts and community members.
This summer, elementary students in a summer day camp will work in the STEM and engineering lab with LEGO Mindstorm components to learn robotics and programming, said Jeremy Scott, managing partner and logistics director of Bonanza Education, which will run the camp.
“You can see some short films of stop-motion animation made and edited by students under sixth grade in our programming,” Scott said. “Over here we have basic cars fueled by different gear ratios. Look at the way the gears are connected to the motors and decide which one’s the fastest, turn it on and see if you’re right.”
Students are already using the START center, Cook said.
“We had a leadership event for DECA high school students who are competing in the International DECA competition,” Cook said. “We are having two summer camps in July, one for video game design, and the one from Bonanza Educational.”
DECA prepares emerging leaders and entrepreneurs for careers in marketing, finance, hospitality and management.
In August 2015, a two-year software development program for high school juniors and seniors will start at START @ West-MEC’s software development lab, Cook said. Students interested in it can sign up with their career and technical education programs on their campus affiliated with West-MEC.
“Students who come here will learn how to do programming, from there they will have choices for post-secondary education and many of them will likely go out into the workforce, especially with two years of training and experience under their belt,” said Brian Davis with Yammer, who is on the advisory council for the software development program.
Yammer is part of Microsoft and a START business partner.
Davis said representatives from Yammer, Microsoft and Google on the advisory council will show what they are doing in the industry to the instructors teaching the program and let them know what students need to be able to do to be hired at their companies.
“These things are really important. There’s no better way than to get started with this early on,” Davis said. “It’s a good partnership, and it only makes it better for kids. I think everyone cares about that.”
Just down the hall from the student labs at START are business anchors – small businesses who share space in the center and give back a percentage of their time to public education – business offices, editing bays, a copy center, a meeting area, a presentation area for large meetings or professional development, as well as a catering/serving area and a snack/coffee bar.
“It’s collaborative space for entrepreneurs and start ups to have a working and meeting space and be able to grow,” said Cristian Muresan with Bryo Media, a web design, development, data solutions company that is one of START’s business anchors.
The rent options at START @ West-MEC are reasonable, Muresan said, allowing him to focus on growing his business.
“We eventually want to have a student program here for software development,” Muresan said. “So for us, it’s a way to get talent, find interns and provide opportunities for them and for us.”
West-MEC Governing Board Chairman Ray Malnar said, “The vision for START is to provide our students and the businesses in our community a place to connect, learn from each other and thrive.”
“Businesses are looking for something different, parents want something more for their children, and kids want to engineer their own educational experiences,” Malnar said. “START is a place where all these ideas will become a reality.”
Glendale Mayor Jerry P. Weiers said you’d be amazed as what you can accomplish when you bring together businesses, community members and students to help each other.
“As mayor I understand how important it is to connect and to collaborate. They key is first bringing people together,” Weiers said. “START is all about bringing people together to help prepare our youth for their future.”
So what happened to the student who led Cook to envision START?
Two days after START opened, Null posted a picture on Facebook of movie-goers inside a theater watching “God’s Not Dead,” an independent film he was lead editor for that has made over $45 million so far, Cook said.
Null’s post reads “Packed out theater. People laughed when they should have laughed and cried when they should have cried. One of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences I’ve ever had.”
At a START event last week, Cook asked Null to come up for a moment then hugged his former student.
“My hope down the road is that we develop into a center that contains mentors of all ages who make people better,” Cook said. “The days of mentorship being a one way street are over. Age is irrelevant.”