Sun Valley’s Story

How a Mesa Charter School Renewed the Hope in its Students’ Lives

While some say Sun Valley High School is a place for “bad kids,” the real story of the school and its students is one of revived hope.

It’s a place where students who were once on the verge of dropping out are now making the honor roll and joining the National Honor Society.

It’s a place where students who were once bullied for their appearance and lifestyle have now found acceptance, gained confidence and overcame anxiety.

Many of these students have been cast aside as they struggled with homelessness, teen parenthood, adjudication, working to support their families or just not being able to adjust to a traditional large high school.

But they’ve now found teachers and staff at their East Valley charter school who push them to succeed, show genuine concern for their lives, and accept all students, no matter their circumstance.

“The teachers care, the staff cares. They will take time out of their day to help you, and understand you and get to know you,” said Cheshire Wilson, 17, a senior at Sun Valley. “This is probably the first time in my life I’ve actually liked school.”

Sun Valley, which is part of The Leona Group network of schools, opened about 20 years ago in Mesa. The school is one of the first Leona Group schools to open in Arizona.

“There was a tremendous need in the East Valley, as there is throughout the Valley, for alternative type of educational services,” said Sun Valley Principal Joe Procopio, who founded the school with Leona Group CEO William Coats in 1997. “It’s been a remarkable opportunity for all of us who have worked here over the 20-year period to be able to serve the students who are walking through our doors and reaching that pinnacle of success.”

The alternative charter school runs a block schedule, dividing the school year into four semesters instead of two, providing greater flexibility for students who need to make up credits. Students take three classes during the day, with each class usually lasting an hour and 50 minutes, Procopio said.

Sun Valley also offers a variety of career training and certificate programs, including a construction training program in partnership with Home Depot, a nursing assistant program that requires 50 hours of clinical practice at a long-term care center and an 18-week child development program.

In addition, the school partners with dozens of local organizations to provide resources for students who need housing and emergency shelter, food, clothing, medical care and other services, such as programs that help abuse victims. Sun Valley even received donated bikes to give to students who need transportation.

The school, which serves over 500 students, is driven by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which means helping to meet their daily needs, Procopio said.

“You can’t expect to educate a young person if they’re hungry, if they don’t have a place to live, if they don’t have the proper clothing or proper hygiene,” he said. “We look at this as much more than a job. It’s a ministry. It’s who we are, it’s our purpose, our life’s passion.”

Wilson, a transgender student, dropped out of his previous school two years ago after attempting suicide due to bullying.

He contemplated taking online classes before his grandmother suggested Sun Valley.

“I was thinking about just doing online school because my anxiety got so bad that I didn’t want to leave my house,” he said.

Wilson decided to attend Sun Valley, but was “shaking and close to crying” during orientation. The fears started to alleviate after walking around the small campus.

“I wouldn’t exactly say it saved my life, but it helped me to not stay rock bottom where I was and I’ve never felt so accepted at a school before,” he said.

Other students, such as Jesus Valenzuela, were deficient in their credits and in danger of not graduating.

Valenzuela felt out of place when he first arrived as a freshman after transferring from his former high school. But he quickly realized the teachers supported his success. Now Valenzuela receives straight A’s on his report cards.

“When I got here, I felt like a I didn’t belong, but the teachers here were different. They wanted to take time out of their lives to help someone out,” said Valenzuela, who is on the honor roll. “They really care about the students here. They changed my life.”