Saguaro High School

Saguaro High School is one of five high school finalists in ASU’s The Better Together Challenge. With special education teachers Joe Muecke and Samantha Trivelli (far left) and science teacher Scott Milne (far right) are students Kathleen McMahon, Sydney Flook, Daniel Hutton, 1. Johnny Corte, Joey Hale, Joey Harmon, Jacob Lara, Todd Johnson, Carsten Ramirez, and Frank DiGregorio.

Inclusivity, integration, acceptance. 

These are all words Saguaro High School students use to describe their latest project – a special education prom and school garden – funded by Arizona State University.

Saguaro is one of five high school finalists in ASU’s the Better Together Challenge, which encourages schools to design a plan to encourage a more inclusive, positive school climate. As a finalist, it will receive a $300 grant to implement the project on campus.

Saguaro’s proposed school garden and special education prom aim to build environments specifically to include students with special needs. 

“With such a large special education population here at Saguaro, it’s important for us that we’re an inclusive environment, that everybody feels they belong here no matter who you are,” said Principal Ann Achtziger.

Currently, Saguaro has 50 to 60 students in its SCA program. 

“This being one of our largest classes of graduating SCA, this was really perfect timing,” said Joe Muecke, special education teachers at Saguaro. “This aligned with giving them an opportunity to experience this unique part of senior year and the high school experience.”

The ASU committee said they received many strong applications but found Saguaro’s project proposal to be one of the best.

“We believe their plan to both create a garden and host a prom for students with sensory or additional limitations represent multiple activities that will work to change their school climate and create a lasting impact,” said Janniqua Dawkins, program manager at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at ASU.

Saguaro set up two committees, one for the special education prom and one for the school garden.

The special education prom is organized by seven students and two school advisors, Muecke and Samantha Trivelli, who are special education teachers.

“We noticed there wasn’t necessarily an opportunity for the special needs students to have a prom, where they can be involved. So, we decided it would be a good idea to have one for everyone,” said senior Joey Hale, 17.

To plan the special education prom, the group had to ensure they accommodated all of the students’ needs.

“You take into account sensory issues, personal space, things to allow them to not feel like their stressors are overwhelmed, which is what happens sometimes in a traditional prom setting. There’s just a lot of things happening. [We’re] trying to simplify the experience but also make it as enjoyable as would be another area,” Muecke said.

For example, one idea they have is to have headsets available for students sensitive to sound.

“The music connects to all of the headsets and everybody’s listening to the same thing at the same time so  everybody has an equal chance to enjoy the music,” said senior Joey Harmon, 18.

If the prom is a success, they would like to make it an annual event.

“We don’t really see students including special-ed students, so being able to be a part of the first group who really brings the whole entire school together as one [is] really nice,” said junior Jacob Lara, 17.

“The first [special-ed prom] not only brings about inclusion but [also] integration into what we offer; it’s pretty awesome. I think the community would love to see it happen,” said senior Johnny Corte, 18.

In addition to making the special ed prom an annual event, Muecke said they’d like to eventually expand it to other SUSD schools.

The garden is spearheaded by the Saguaro E.C.O. Club, founded this year.

The club, which stands for Environmental Conservation Organization and currently has about 15 students, will create three total gardens located on the north-west side of campus — two smaller gardens comprised of native desert plants and one garden with herbs and vegetables.

The gardens will have eco-bricks created with plastic bottles stuffed with non-recyclable materials, like candy wrappers, potato chip bags, plastic bags and more.

“[The eco-bricks] are pretty common in developing countries. It hasn’t really hit the United States quite that much yet,” said Scott Milne, club advisor and science teacher. “The whole idea behind this is ... none of this makes it out into the environment. So, it saves a lot of plastic.”

They will then pour concrete around the stuffed plastic bottles, and the school’s art department will then decorate the bottoms of the bottles. 

So far, the club has collected about 300 plastic bottles from trash cans around campus during lunch as well as from their respective homes. 

“They’ve been going around ... once a week to collect recycling from the school with the special education department,” Milne said.

The club hopes to have the gardens built by the end of the school year and wait until next fall to do the planting.

To measure the impact of the garden, the club plans to weigh the trash-filled bottles before setting up the garden.

“That weight will show the amount we’ve kept out of the environment because everything you throw away will end up in the environment,” said sophomore and club co-president Kathleen McMahon, 15.

Milne added they can also track the number of classes at Saguaro using the garden. 

“That’s one of the major goals, beyond having people involved in making the garden, is making it obvious how much has been kept out of the environment and getting people continually involved in it,” Milne said.

The club members hope the garden will not only make their high school a more sustainable campus and environment but also bring awareness for recycling to fellow students.

“Hopefully when they see all the trash [in the garden], they realize it’s just a small, tiny segment of all the trash that gets thrown in the recycling bins from places all over the world. Then they might think, maybe I’ll be a little more wary about actually making sure I’m putting the right thing in the right receptacle,” said senior Daniel Hutton, 17.

In addition to $300 given by ASU, both programs are also supported by additional resources and funds from outside sources, including the Saguaro PTO and other grants, according to Achtziger.

The BTC was developed by the Center for Child and Family Success (CCFS) at ASU in fall 2017 to work in partnership with Maricopa County public schools to support students’ success.

The goal of BTC is to support and enhance middle and high school-aged students’ engagement in two areas: identifying the issues at their school that may undermine school inclusiveness, and “developing, implementing, and evaluating their own strategies for addressing the self-identified issues,” Dawkins explained. 

By identifying the barriers to inclusion, Dawkins continues, the students and their advisors can create environments that are safe and inclusive for all students. 

“At Saguaro, we try and make everyone feel welcome and show the community you know we are all one, together,” said senior Todd Johnson, 18. “It’s probably one of my favorite things being involved in this.”

On May 12, Saguaro will be honored at the ASU Tempe campus, along with the rest of the finalists, which include five middle schools and four other high schools.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the Better Together Challenge is the end-of-the-year award ceremony. Students, teachers, and families are invited to come to the ASU Tempe Campus to be recognized for their achievements and to hear about each of the projects that have been implemented over the year,” said Laura Hanish, professor and deputy director in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at ASU.

The E.C.O. Club also welcomes non-recyclable donations from the community, which can be dropped off at the school’s front office.

“Stuff we’d really like to be donated would be stuff you can’t really recycle. Plastic that’s going to end up floating in an ocean somewhere or polluting a forest: That’s the kind of plastic we want to stuff into the bottle,” said senior Daniel Hutton, 17.