As the new principal at Kyrene de la Estrella, one of the first items Sarah Collins unpacked and pinned on the bulletin board behind her new desk was a fading photograph.
The 1985-86 school year photo is a typical class picture, with then-9-year-old Sarah Gentis sitting in the front row of her fellow classmates at Kyrene de las Lomas Elementary, hands folded demurely in her lap.
“I think I‘m the first Kyrene principal who was a Kyrene student,” she said proudly, looking at the photo. “I’m a former Kyrene kid working with Kyrene kids and that makes me very happy.”
Ahwatukee schools are a family thing for the Collins Family.
Husband Phil Collins is a sixth-grade history teacher at Altadena Middle School. Their elder son Tony, 17, is a junior at Mountain Pointe High School. And younger son Brody is in eighth grade at Centennial Middle School.
Like their mother, they grew up attending Kyrene schools.
And that’s just the tip of their local history in Ahwatukee schools, where classes begin tomorrow, Aug. 2, for Kyrene. Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista high schools open for the 2018-19 school year on Monday.
Involvement in Kyrene schools began even before Sarah Collins entered first grade at Lomas in the 1983-84 school year.
“My mom was a teacher at (C.I.) Waggoner who then helped open Lagos, and later, Kyrene de la Sierra,” said Collins. “I grew up helping her in her classrooms. She inspired me to enter education.”
Collin’s mother, Deb Gentis, passed away 11 years ago from cancer. There is a Deb Gentis Desert Memorial Garden at Kyrene de la Sierra in her honor, and a scholarship awarded in her name annually to an eighth-grade student through the Kyrene Educational Association.
“She was a beloved staff member of the district for a long time,” said Collins.
Collins’ school history in Ahwatukee intertwines with a lot of Kyrene schools, and even Mountain Pointe High School.
After completing sixth grade at Kyrene de las Lomas, back when breezeways connected classrooms, Sarah Gentis and her friends were bused to Kyrene Junior High School in Tempe.
“We had no junior highs on this side, so all my friends and I went to Kyrene. They were still junior highs back them. The district was building Centennial, and we came back the next year and opened Centennial Middle School as eighth-graders,” she recalled.
And then there is her Mountain Pointe High history.
“The year Mountain Pointe opened, I was a freshman. That first year it was only freshmen and sophomores, and each year there was another class added. I was in the first graduation class that had attended all four years,” she said of her 1995 graduation.
The Ahwatukee teen opted to attend Arizona State University while remaining at home.
Her first teaching job, after earning her B.A. degree, was in 1998 at Kyrene de las Manitas, where she taught grades one through four, but mostly third grade, for 13 years.
“That’s where I really got my foundation in elementary education,” she said.
Of course, other connections emerge when one stays in one community. A student in Collins’ first full-time teaching assignment – firs-grade class at Manitas – is now a close friend and neighbor who had Sarah’s husband officiate her wedding.
Phil married Sarah eight years ago. An ASU Student Teacher of the Year Award recipient, he is starting his 11th year teaching, his sixth at Altadena.
Following Manitas, Sarah moved to Cerritos in Ahwatukee, where she served four years as dean of students before taking the principal’s position at Mesa Public School’s Red Mountain Ranch Elementary.
Now entering her 21st year in education and finding herself back in the Kyrene School District where she and her boys attended school and where her husband teaches is an exciting prospect.
Before the teachers’ actual contract year began last week, she was impressed that “a lot of teachers spend this time off contract getting everything ready for their students and Meet the Teacher night. That’s totally what we do; teachers give much more than what’s expected of them.
“All my teacher friends are doing the same thing,” she added.
Collins greets everyone with a friendly, genuine smile that seems to stay in place even while she speaks.
Her enthusiasm in contagious.
“I’m so excited. This is my personality,” admitted the vivacious blonde as she stood at her computer desk, the top shelf of which holds a globe with the words “Adventure Awaits” printed at and above the equator.
Hanging to the left are her diplomas: Her 1998 ASU bachelor in arts in education, summa cum laude; a 2002 Northern Arizona University master of education in elementary education, and a 2013 NAU master of education in educational leadership. She’s currently enrolled in a K-12 educational leadership doctoral program that she hopes to complete in 2020.
Her husband and two boys express admiration for her history as well as her enthusiasm for education and life in general.
“I’m so happy to have Sarah back in Kyrene; she’s back where she belongs,” said Phil. “We have an incredible level of understanding about each other’s jobs and know how to best support one another. And Sarah’s enthusiasm for life, and passion for her work, inspires me to be the best educator I can be. I greatly admire her work ethic, professional knowledge and compassion toward all individuals.”
Oldest son Tony said even at Mountain Pointe, fellow students tell him they had his mom as a teacher – and they recognize him from photos she had in her classroom or office.
“I think it’s pretty cool how my mom went to the same schools as a kid that I go to. We’ve gone to schools that Mom went to as a kid and also that she worked at,” said Tony. “When she was at Manitas as a teacher, we went there in preschool and kindergarten. Then we moved to Lomas when she got her job at Cerritos. My brother went with her to Cerritos, but then came back to our neighborhood school to go to Centennial. My mom, brother and I all went to Centennial Middle School.
“That’s really cool.”
“My mom and I both went to Lomas and Centennial, just far apart. I think it’s cool my mom was at Centennial the first year it opened, and we both ran cross country at Centennial. She showed me pictures of her at her meets,” Brody chimed in.
Of course, having parents in education can have its drawbacks, the 13-year-old admits.
“I can’t get away with anything at school because I know my mom and Phil know all the teachers and the principal. If I do get in any kind of trouble, Mom and Phil always believe the teachers over me. Some of the teachers recognize me and tell me they knew me when I was a baby in diapers or the say they knew my nannie (grandmother Deb Gentis).
“In the morning, Phil wakes me up and then I’m home until I have to get on the bus. Two times I missed the bus and my mom made me ride my bike all the way to school.”
Sarah is also an adjunct faculty member for Rio Salado Community College’s Teacher Preparation Program. Her father, Chris Gentis, is a former Phoenix police officer who’s now president of the Ahwatukee Homeowners Association board of directors.
He remarried a former Kyrene preschool teacher, Patricia Smith Gentis – “Miss Pat” to her young students.