SkillsUSA recognizes Surprise high school with “Model of Excellence” award

SkillsUSA, a national organization that promotes Career & Technical Education (CTE) programs in schools across the United States, recently recognized Willow Canyon High School as a “Model of Excellence” school. The distinction was awarded to only 24 schools nationwide.

“With CTE, what we really try to do is we try to make learning relevant,” said Adam Schwartz, Principal of Willow Canyon High School. “If it’s just learning a math equation to learn a math equation, that’s one thing, but when you start making that learning relevant, it’s showing… why learning this content is important.”

Willow Canyon High School is part of the Dysart Unified School District, which primarily serves students in Surprise, Arizona. The school offers a wide variety of CTE programs for its students including coding, sports medicine, digital media, phlebotomy, broadcast journalism, and more.

According to Gayle Silvey, Associate Director of Education at SkillsUSA, the Model of Excellence recognition is awarded to schools whose CTE programs best model the SkillsUSA Framework, which emphasizes developing personal, workplace and technical skills.

“It’s really activities with a purpose,” Silvey said. “Whether it be going to a competition, a canned food drive that the school is conducting, or if they’re conducting a social activity… how are they being intentional about building skills in students?”

The Model of Excellence recognition is part of SkillsUSA’s Chapter of Excellence Program, which annually recognizes eight schools that model one of the three SkillsUSA framework categories—personal, workplace or technical achievement. To be eligible for recognition, schools must select three notable activities their CTE programs completed during the school year and share what goals each activity pursued. Schools must also show how they conducted data-driven evaluations of their programs and activities.

The primary factor that helped Willow Canyon earn its recognition was its broadcast journalism program, Silvey said. During the last academic year, broadcasting students participated in the High School National MLB Media Day at the Peoria Sports Complex during Spring Training. Students who participated had opportunities to interview MLB players and managers and captured more than an hour of footage. Students also practiced a variety of different technical skills including camera operation, video editing and interviewing.

“These are not your plush elective classes,” Schwartz said. “These are really challenging courses.”

Schwartz said that he thinks the Model of Excellence award is a big honor for the school.

“It’s validation for our faculty and for our kids, that what they’ve been doing and the hard work they’ve put in is recognized, it’s valued,” he said.

When it comes to building strong CTE programs, Schwartz said that one of the key ingredients is hiring exceptional faculty who are “experts in their content areas” and who make the learning “rigorous” for students. He also said he thinks it’s important that schools offer CTE programs that reflect the needs of businesses in the community. Schwartz said Willow Canyon is planning on adding additional CTE programs in the future, potentially in skilled trades such as plumbing and electrical work.

“Our goal is to ensure that our students not only are receiving those technical skills,” Silvey said of SkillsUSA, “but those they need to be successful in employment, and in life and careers.”

Schwartz said he’s excited that Willow Canyon can potentially be a model for other schools across the state looking for ways to improve their CTE programs.

“As a Model of Excellence School, we would be pretty high on that list for options, for them to come out and visit and see what we’re doing that makes us special,” he said.

Nick Serpa

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