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Maricopa Wells Middle School

Thad Miller became principal at Maricopa Wells Middle School this year. Photo by Mason Callejas

Maricopa Wells Middle School Principal Thad Miller has spent his entire professional career at Maricopa Unified School District. And his 20-plus years as an employee were preceded by 13 years as an MUSD student.

“It was a small farming town back then, but we always had high expectations,” said Miller, who attended Maricopa Elementary School.

Miller, a 1986 MHS graduate, moved with his family to Maricopa from Maryvale when he was 5 years old.

After receiving his teaching certificate from Arizona State University, Miller returned to Maricopa to teach middle school science in 1997.

“It was a pride thing,” Miller said of his decision to teach in Maricopa. “I wanted to help the community I came from, and that’s the way I still feel.”

He spent 15 years coaching middle school football, basketball and other sports on the same fields and courts he played on in high school.

“I grew up Maricopa Rams,” said Miller, who still sports his iconic, red, Converse sneakers every Friday.

Miller has been married to fellow MHS alumna Pauline Miller for 20 years, and their seven children have all attended MUSD schools.

In 2012, Miller began easing into administration at MWMS as a part-time teacher on special assignment focused on discipline, while still teaching science courses, before becoming a full-time assistant principal there.

Miller worked nearly a decade under former MWMS Principal Rick Abel.

Photo by Mason Callejas

“He was a great mentor for me, and we had a great situation. And it just so happened things went the way they did this year and changes were made,” Miller said.

District officials transferred Abel from the middle school to Maricopa High School last fall after MHS principal Renita Meyers resigned.

Miller said the transition was tough on students and staff – as it was not the first temporary change in administration that semester. Months before Miller was named principal, he had been placed at MHS to fill the slot of another assistant principal for a short time.

Miller’s return to MWMS helped staff and students better adjust to the transition, he said.

“It was one of those things where you don’t like change, but there is no reason to sit around and whine and complain. Our solution is to work together and move forward, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Miller said.

The former teacher, coach and disciplinarian said he practices positivity in every encounter with students in an ongoing effort to build relationships.

Abel said Miller has always been a “student-focused” educator.

“As a classroom teacher he had great management skills, and I think it’s the same in his administrative role,” Abel said. “Kids understand what they are expected to do, and he’s consistent with working with them.”

Among the changes at MWMS this school year, students welcomed 270 sixth graders back to campus, growing the student population to nearly 850, Miller said.

Additional challenges came from parents criticizing the school online, claiming student behavior is not properly addressed by administration. Miller said there is no major discipline problem at MWMS, though parents and guardians are welcome to visit him to express concerns.

“Passionate parents are who I like dealing with. They may have complaints at times, that’s OK.” Miller said. “I’m here to solve those complaints and make things better.”

Photo by Mason Callejas

This story appears in the March issue of InMaricopa.

Joseph Szoltysik, aka Mr. S, guides Blended Learning students through a crime-scene project at Maricopa Wells Middle School. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

He’s a celebrated teacher in a non-traditional, middle-school classroom with a name as unique as the program he teaches.

Joseph Szoltysik teaches language arts and social studies in the cutting-edge Blended Learning program at Maricopa Wells Middle School. In May, he was voted one of three “Best of the Best” teachers at Maricopa Unified School District.

Students affectionately refer to him as “Mr. S.”

“The first thing I learned about Mr. Szoltysik was that his last name was nearly impossible to pronounce, but over the course of my three years at Wells, I learned much more,” said former student Emma Schrader. “I soon learned that our assignments would not follow the traditional classroom’s straight-out-of-the-textbook curriculum, but stay engaging.”

Blending Learning students like Schrader learn inside a “technology room” where they utilize computers and tablets during independent learning. They also receive direct instruction from two teachers and mentorship in group projects with their peers.

Inside Maricopa Wells, Szoltysik partners with Blended Learning instructor Robyn Rice, who teaches math and science. The pair splits around 70 students per day and are one of three Blended Learning cohorts at the school.

“Honestly, my favorite part of this job is trying to create lessons that I know they’re going to enjoy and run with,” Szoltysik said. “I always think of certain groups of kids when I’m writing a lesson plan and think, ‘What would they do with this?’”

His customized teaching philosophy is popular not only among students but fellow teachers as well. And it is a quality that helped get him nominate him for the district award.

Blended Learning teacher at Desert Wind Middle School Shannon Hull said Szoltysik’s mentorship helped her become a more creative and confident teacher when she entered the program three years ago.

“He showed me how to create lesson plans for Blended Learning that were thoughtful and engaging for students,” Hull wrote in the nomination form.

Szoltysik came to MWMS in 2008. He spent his first four years at the school teaching eighth grade English language arts and social studies in a traditional classroom. Szoltysik and his wife Jennifer, who teaches Blended Learning with Hull at DWMS.

He was one of the first teachers to spearhead the Blended Learning classroom in the district and has watched it evolve into an in-demand program.

MWMS Principal Rick Abel also nominated Szoltysik for the award. Mr. S said it was likely because of his loyalty and near decade spent at the school.

“I always felt like I wanted to be here when (MWMS) became what I know it can become,” he said.

For Szoltysik, that means becoming an A-rated district and middle school and all the factors that get them there – an effort he said they are close to reaching.

“I come back every year because I want to be a part of that celebration when we’re finally where we need to be.”


This story appears in the October issue of InMaricopa.

MWMS Principal Rick Abel

The principal of a local middle school is on a “temporary leave of absence,” according to school officials.

Tom Beckett, human resources director with Maricopa Unified School District, said Principal Rick Abel of Maricopa Wells Middle School began administrative leave Friday.

In his place will be acting Principal Thad Miller, Beckett said.

A separate shakeup in administration at the middle school before Abel’s absence caused parent uproar on social media and during the district’s governing board meeting Wednesday night.

Two weeks ago, the district transferred Thad Miller, who was MWMS assistant principal, to Maricopa High School to take the place of MHS Assistant Principal Mallory Miller, no relation.

Mallory Miller moved from MHS to Thad Miller’s position at MWMS.

During the school board meeting, friends and family of Thad Miller expressed their displeasure toward the district’s decision to remove him from MWMS, describing him as a favorite of students and staff.

Superintendent Steve Chestnut said he made the decision to switch the administrators “in the best interest of MUSD.” Chestnut said he would not comment further on the matter when asked to elaborate. Thad Miller and Mallory Miller could not be reached for comment.

Only days into his position at MHS, Thad Miller finds himself back at Maricopa Wells – this time as interim principal.

Beckett said he could not comment on the reason for Abel’s leave of absence. Abel also declined to comment.

Abel joined MUSD in 2005 as principal at Santa Rosa Elementary.

It is still unclear the reasoning behind most of the administrative changes at MWMS, but the school has recently come under fire for what parents assumed was a district-wide, zero-tolerance policy regarding student violence on campus.

Wednesday’s school board meeting produced concerns from a parent of a Maricopa Wells student recently involved in a fight at the school.

Julia Ivy said her son received the same amount of suspension as another student who, she said, was the aggressor. Ivy’s position was that zero-tolerance policies re-victimize students who try to defend themselves.

Afterward, Chestnut clarified the district’s student violence policy as a “case-by-case” issue, adding, it does not have a zero-tolerance policy in place at any of its schools and student safety is MUSD’s top priority.

Maricopa Wells Middle School

Although school has ended for most, principals and staff are still on campus over the summer preparing for the 470 additional sixth grade students at Maricopa Unified School District middle schools.

The move comes after the voter-approved override allowed the district to hire more teachers. That includes teachers across all six of MUSD’s elementary schools, which have housed sixth-grade students for the past four years.

With increased need for additional space in elementary, MUSD approved the move in January.

Maricopa Wells Middle School Principal Rick Abel said 270 new students will take their seats in classrooms in the original sixth-grade wing of the school when classes start in August.

In 2013, the sixth graders were in the middle school but were shifted to elementary schools.

“They had talked about possibly closing a middle school, so they moved the sixth graders back. There was room in the elementary schools at that point in time,” Abel said.

Both MUSD middle schools remained opened, however, and as enrollment numbers grow, principals say they are ready to welcome sixth graders back to campus.

June Celaya, principal of Desert Wind Middle School, said she has also been working to ensure the transition from elementary to secondary is easier on staff and the 200 incoming sixth graders.

“I’ve rearranged the entire school and how teachers are in classrooms,” Celaya said.

Desert Wind Principal June Celaya stands on the stairs that will soon become familiar to sixth graders. Photo by Michelle Chance

Sixth and seventh grade students will be housed in the school’s second story; eighth graders will fill the classrooms downstairs.

Although the younger students will sometimes travel to the first floor to attend their elective classes, Celaya explained the separation will allow for the transition into the middle-school environment to be slow.

Sixth graders will attend five classes a day, mostly upstairs with their cohort of friends and teachers.

Celaya said that although parents might fear the change from elementary to middle, it gives the students an opportunity to grow.

“Throughout the rest of the year they find their way, and they find their voice, and they start to define who and what they want to be,” she said.

Sixth-grade teachers will also “adopt” their first period-classes and become mentors for those students, Celaya said.

Maricopa Wells sixth graders can expect four classroom options, Abel explained.

A breakdown of those options are:

  1. Blended Learning Classroom

“We will have about 50 of the kids in a blended learning setting and there will be one-to-one technology for those kids on campus,” Abel said. “It’s kind of a preparatory program to go in to what we used to call the 20+1 program at the middle school campuses.”

  1. Four-Teacher Cohort

“We will have a group of four teachers working with probably 100 to 115 kids and those four teachers will each teach one of the four core classes. That gives the kids a chance to move from teacher-to-teacher,” Abel said.

  1. Two-Teacher Cohort

“We also will have two teachers, each of them will teach two of the core subjects,” Abel explained, adding “About 50 to 55 kids there.”

  1. Traditional Classroom

“We had a number of parents who were interested in the traditional classroom which is one teacher teaching all of the core classes,” Abel said.

Classroom sizes are expected to range from 25 to 28 kids per class at Maricopa Wells, Abel said.

Both schools are adding nine teachers each – many of whom worked at district elementary schools.

“They are experienced teachers and they know how our system works, so that will make the transition a little easier, I hope,” Abel said.

Desert Wind Middle School. Photo by Michelle Chance

MWMS students Kaden Rogers, Thomas Abel, Joseph Abel, Joshua Kulinowski, Rylee Tarcola, Emilee Thompson, Nico McKinley, Ashton Owen and Adam Houser created films for Copa Shorts Film Fest. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Language arts isn’t all about parsing sentences, and science isn’t all about the periodic table. For some Maricopa middle schoolers, language and science came together to become filmmaking.

Copa Shorts Film Fest
Feb. 17-19
Friday, VIP Party, 8 p.m.
Saturday, films, noon-10:30 p.m.
Sunday, noon-10 p.m.
UltraStar Multi-tainment Center

In the case of three teams of student filmmakers, their movies surpassed their classmates just enough to be chosen for the student section of Copa Shorts Film Fest.

Four classes of 20+1 Blended Learning students at Maricopa Wells and Desert Wind middle schools completed 12 films and screenplays. Those chosen for the film festival were The Fault, The Wild Wonderous West and The Lockdown.

Because the middle schoolers are young and rookies at filmmaking, the three films will be shown as non-competitive ahead of the competitive entries in the Student Competition block on Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. at UltraStar Multi-tainment Center.

Maricopa Wells Middle School teacher Robyn Rice said the filmmaking exercise achieved specific goals in language arts and “actually falls under the science standards.”

For the students, it was fun, team-building and challenging. Teams worked as directors, editors, cinematographers, actors and writers. They had to create storyboards before they hashed out the script. The process brought about big changes from conception to finished product.

Emilee Thompson, who edited The Wild Wonderous West, said one of the early ideas was something called “Juan and the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Instead, they created a western about a sheriff.

“We really learned a lot about what to do,” Emilee said.

“We learned what not to do,” said Kaden Rogers, co-director of The Fault.

He said their idea was always a disaster movie, with team members Thomas Abel, Joseph Abel and Rylee Tarcola trapped in a precarious situation.

“The goal is for them to survive as long as possible without food or anything,” said Joshua Kulinowski, the other co-director.

But there were difficulties attached to middle school filmmakers destroying New York City.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we stick to something we can actually film,” Rylee said.

That became an earthquake in Maricopa. They used cell phones for filming, a skateboard as a dolly and some animation provided by Joseph Abel.

Adam Houser, who directed The Wild Wonderous West, said he used his mother’s camera and a tripod to capture the story with Nico McKinley and Ashton Owen.

Rice said the knowledge gained in putting a film together had great value for the students outside the curriculum. The process involved problem-solving and collaboration.

The students attended a filmmaking workshop in September through Copa Shorts Film Fest. At the time, only a couple had thought about making movies. Now, after their own filmmaking experiences, most want to do it again.

And don’t worry. “Juan” may meet his “Zombie Apocalypse” in the future. The middle schoolers are coming up with ideas for next year.


This story appears in the February issue of InMaricopa.

Student-filmmakers

A rocket takes flight at Maricopa Wells Middle School during the Maricopa Rocket Challenge. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

A group of Maricopa Wells Middle School students took over the recreation field for Friday morning to try out their handmade rockets for the second Maricopa Rocket Challenge.

The event is put together by General Dynamics and Superstition Spacemodeling Society with MWMS instructors. The rockets’ time in the air was measured from liftoff at the launch pad to hitting the ground.

Laura Lopez is the counselor at Maricopa Wells Middle School. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Laura Franco got married over fall break this year. Now students at Maricopa Wells Middle School call their guidance counselor Mrs. Lopez.

It was because of her new husband that she found her way to Maricopa Unified School District four years ago.

“My fiancé moved out here, and I decided that I wanted to make Maricopa our home,” Lopez said.

As a guidance counselor, she gets to know a wide range of students and helps them tackle a wide range of challenges and goals. Lopez said the best advice she received on her own education was to “never give up and to know that I can go as far as I want.” Now, that is something she imparts to MWMS students.

“I want to provide that support and encouragement to students,” she said. “I want them to know that they have the power to make their dreams happen. The sky is the limit.”

She also encourages parents to be involved in their children’s school and to get to know the teachers. Lopez emphasizes the importance of a child seeing parents involved in their education.

And she knows when she’s making a difference. It’s what she loves about her work at MWMS.

“I love working with the students,” she said. “I want them to know that I care about them and their education.”

Laura (Franco) Lopez
Title: School guidance counselor
School: Maricopa Wells Middle School
Hometown: Phoenix
Residence: Maricopa
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Social Work and master’s degree in Education-School Counseling
Family: Mom, three siblings and new husband Rodolfo (married Oct. 9)
Teaching positions held: Full-time counselor
Years in education: 4
Hobbies: Running
First year with current school: 2011
Favorite subject when you were in elementary: Science – my teacher had lots of hands-on activities for us.
What have your students taught you? Every day is a new adventure.

This story was published in the November issue of InMaricopa News.

State Rep. Vince Leach (far right) tours Maricopa Wells Middle School with Master Teacher Treva Jenkins and students Steel Lewis and Cassidy Zimmerman. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Two Maricopa schools gave state Rep. Vince Leach a tour of their campuses Wednesday for Take Your Legislator to School Day.

“I’m learning a lot,” Leach said throughout the day.


Maricopa Elementary and Maricopa Wells Middle School hosted the District 11 Republican as part of an initiative to “expose Arizona legislators to highly effective teachers working within an authentic classroom experience.”

Leach shadowed Angelia Ebner, the vice president of the Maricopa Education Association and a nationally board certified teacher, at MES. Ebner also accompanied him as he toured MWMS with Treva Jenkins, an Arizona Master Teacher and K-12 Center Mentor Teacher, and students Steel Lewis and Cassidy Zimmerman.

He looked in on a history class with Keith Gibson and, as a history major, swapped notes with the 30-year teaching veteran. Leach also looked at the computer lab and other tech rooms, a Spanish class, a Special Education class and more.

He spoke with teachers about everything from furniture to computer servers. Leach particularly noted the extra effort needed to gain certification in Arizona even for those veteran teachers long certified in other states with tougher certification processes. He said it was contributing to the teacher shortage.

“We, and I mean we the Legislature, need to find a way not to put up roadblocks,” he said.

Eighth graders Cassidy and Steel fielded questions from the politician and others, ready to explain classrooms and programs. When asked by Ebner what she tells parents who ask her why their children should attend MWMS, Cassidy said there is an outdated misconception that it is a bad school. “They should definitely come here and find out,” she said.

Take Your Legislator to School Day is a partnership among the Arizona Educational Foundation, the Arizona K-12 Center, the Arizona Education Association and the Rodel Foundation.