By Brittany Bowyer
GSN Contributor

Queen Creek Unified School District last week opened its second high school — a high-tech building located in Mesa’s fast-growing community of Eastmark.

Eastmark High School sits on 68 acres near the intersection of Ray and Ellsworth roads and is one of two new schools Queen Creek has opened in the city. The other, an elementary school, opened in Cadence at Gateway, another rapidly growing community.

Close to 715 students from seventh to 10th grades enrolled this year at Eastmark High — well-above the previously projected enrollment of 627, according to the school’s principal, Paul Gagnon. 

The school will grow to accommodate students up to 12th grade, with the seventh and eighth graders in a separate building, over the next two years.

Gagnon has been deeply involved in getting Eastmark ready for its debut. The district assigned him early last year to Eastmark after serving for two years as principal of Queen Creek High School.

He has been interviewing prospective staff, picking out furniture and creating the school’s mission statement — and already has made an impact on molding the culture and academic atmosphere of Eastmark. 

“We’re really challenging all to develop the skills of innovation, collaboration and respect,” said Gagnon. “Those are kind of the key talking points I’ve really gleamed from our mission statement and vision statement process. Those three things are outcomes we want to be judged by.”

Innovation can be found in every room at the school. Each classroom is equipped with a Smartboard and students will be issued a Google Chromebook laptop to complete assignments and access course materials.

Lessons and classroom activities will take a new approach, straying from the old “stand and deliver” method.  

“The old way of teaching and learning is not engaging and exciting for students,” Gagnon said. 

Gagnon said the technology will help students become more engaged.

Besides that high-tech approach to learning, he said, it’s also important to know when pen-and-paper techniques work best.  

The campus also promotes face-to-face communication among students.

“That’s something that our industry partners have talked about frequently — that kids really struggle with the ability to work together as a team and to communicate,” Gagnon said.

“We want the kids to be put in situations, whether it’s their career path academy class, or an AP class, or even just their regular English 9. We want them to collaborate,” he added.

Gagnon said respect is the most important aspect of the school’s mission statement.  

“I think respect is in short supply, and the ability to have conversations and to disagree respectfully is something out kids need to be taught,” Gagnon said.  

Eastmark aims to provide students with opportunities to thrive in the future.  

District officials have implemented a “Career Interest Inventory,” a mix of questions about interests and personality traits. Students take the test in middle school to see what jobs they may like, or would possibly excel at based on their results. They take it again their freshman year before meeting with counselors to discuss results and choose electives. 

Students interested in the business and leadership tract can enroll in the marketing program or NJROTC.

The fine arts and media tract offers a wide variety of courses, such as digital photography, graphic design, film and TV.

Sports medicine and a CNA program is available for students interested in a healthcare profession. In the STEM program, students who excel at math and science can take courses in engineering, computer science — or a coding class offered through a partnership with Apple. 

Gagnon wants to use to those business partnerships to create a solid foundation for students.

“One of the big things I think we are sometimes guilty of is only asking people for donations,” Gagnon said. “We don’t tap into the expertise that they have in their profession, whatever that may be.

“We have a retirement community here in Eastmark and we absolutely want people from that community to share with our kids what it is that they did before they had retired.”

The school has established a presence in the community to get people involved. The public was asked to submit ideas for the mascot, and the finalists were selected by school and district officials. Members of the community then voted for the popular option.

They chose the Firebirds, paying homage to the fact that the school, like much of Eastmark, is built on the old GM proving grounds, which manufactured the popular Pontiac Firebird.

Different models of the Firebird throughout the years can be seen worked into the background of the design on the cafeteria walls along with the school’s color scheme of teal, copper and black.

“We wanted to have students know where this came from and the whole concept of the Firebird,” Gagnon said.  

Community involvement has also been essential to grow the athletics programs. Before the school even had a gym or equipment, head basketball coach Shawn Lynch was out working with young basketball players in the area, cultivating a relationship early on. 

Lynch found facilities within the Queen Creek area and ran skills camp sessions in the spring and summer for students from elementary school to 10th grade.

Head football coach Andrew “Scooter” Molander, widely regarded as one of the state’s best coaches from his time at Brophy Prep in Phoenix, said parents are a huge part of the community.

“I want to make sure that we are involving the parents, in some fashion, after the game when it’s appropriate,” Molander said.  “When you get to start your own football program from ground zero, you get to set the expectations, the standards within the Firebird community and the Firebird way.”

It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Lynch.

“It’s a blank slate. It’s a program you can build from the ground up in a great community, a great area,” Lynch said. “We can build it in terms of the philosophy that I have for basketball, for leadership, for student athletes, but then you can merge it into the philosophy of the school.”

Both coaches recognized the value of teaching student athletes what it means to be a team player and good person. 

“Think of others first. Leave places better than you find them. Pick up trash. Look to find work,” Molander said. “When we are taking equipment out, help somebody.”

Lynch said his main focus is to help his student athletes grow character and learn what it means to make a commitment, adding that there will be community service opportunities for his team to show them that there’s more to life than a score.

Eastmark will not be placed in one of the state’s six conferences this fall, giving Lynch and Molander options when creating schedules.