Summit School

As proud parents snapped photos and mingled, Summit School first-grade students posed with their businesses architectural designs, and where they placed them in their planned community that culminated in a multidisciplinary unit, which began in August. Students in the foreground are, from left, Melissa Gorgun, Atticus Moses, Nathan McGinnis, Olivia Stevens and Blake Hayes.

On Oct. 22, a community-ribbon cutting and business expo was held with a near-capacity crowd but the Chamber of Commerce was not around.

Instead, it involved Summit School of Ahwatukee first-graders who just completed a multidisciplinary unit on economics and business.

Yes, first-grade students.

As part of the creative project, Summit teachers Christine Odenkirk and Leslie Gearhart encouraged students to develop their own businesses complete with creatively designed coupons and business cards to hand out at the expo.

But they didn’t stop there - students wrote and read business plans, identifed potential customers, justified decisions on specific locations and demonstrated why their community business is needed. 

And in keeping with the school’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, the lessons and experiences provided student’s opportunities like touring local businesses and posting on Yelp.

The first graders were immersed in problem-solving on multiple levels as they focused on issues such as “Does location of a business matter?” and “What’s the benefit of saving money versus spending it?”

They researched locations with Google Maps technology.

Among the scores of parents in attendance at the Business Expo were Dipali Pradhan and  husband Ashish Arora, who came to see their daughter Anya Arora’s presentation.

Both engineers, they were amazed by every presentation.

“They had such wonderful business ideas, very practical and pertaining to real-life needs; they had coupons and business cards to advertise their businesses which was so professional. One child even tried to sell us stocks in his business, which definitely got a lot of cheers,” said Pradhan.

“My daughter Anya chose Anya’s Healthcare as her business and located it close to the houses with the reason being that she didn’t want anyone to be sick or drive long hours to reach a doctor. She also offered a night service. It’s just amazing to see how the kids used this opportunity to come up with solutions which are actually real-life problems,” said the proud mom, adding:

“The models that she built for house and school were very realistic and artistic. I was telling my husband that I can take her model for our new home because I loved how she used slanting walls and open spaces that you only see in television shows.”

Summit art teacher Kathleen Kupper, who holds a master of architecture degree from UCLA and a bachelor’s degree from the California Institute of the Arts, had students integrate community planning designs into their projects and design their own business structures.

“We designed our communities by working together as a team: architects design buildings, city planners design the layout and land use, landscape architects create parks and public spaces for everyone to enjoy, and artists create public art,” explained Kupper, a Summit instructor since 2001.

“The students were immersed in the design thinking process,” she added. “After learning to define problems, the students began to research, discuss, and generate solutions. Our community design was based on new theories of urbanism.”

Students were enthusiastic about the project that began in August.

“It was fun but challenging,” said Aurelia Anderson, 6, who founded Come and Play. “I learned a lot; I learned that sometimes you can’t fit your budget to your budget.”

“My customers are kids and parents.  At my business, you can play on a play structure.  Come and Play is needed because I think parents need more places to take their child,” she wrote.  “My business is located by a neighborhood because some neighborhoods have children and children like to play.”

Simone Hart, who turned 7 on Expo day, created Toys and Accessories, a business providing “toys and accessories that teachers and moms need.”

“The unit was fun, and it was a lot of work writing about it, and I almost gave up but I didn’t give up,” she said. 

The 25 first grade students – 12 in Odenkirk’s classroom and 13 in Gearhart’s – went beyond what even their teachers expected.

“When young children are engaged in their learning because we, as teachers, take their inquiries and create lessons out of them, the children’s understanding and learning soars,” said Gearhart, who began teaching in 2000 and joined Summit School in January.  

“For example, instead of reading about producers and consumers in a text book, we created our own Market Day where the children took turns selling their own goods and services - bookmarks, superhero puppets, and cubby cleaning,” she continued. “Later, they switched roles and became consumers purchasing those items.”

She complimented the classes’ enthusiasm, noting, “Our amazing first graders were so thoughtful with their chosen locations.”

Gearhart, who has two of her three children enrolled at the school, noted that student Isabel Frank located her business, The Cutie School, near a hospital because “when moms go to the hospital to have a baby, they will see the store and want to stop and buy a stuffy for their baby.”

“Our first graders at Summit are actively engaged and thinking critically,” Gearhart remarked.

Odenkirk concurred. 

“Students might not be inclined to ask questions if they were just reading about economics or different businesses in a book,” the 14-year Summit School teacher said. 

“Rather than just teaching the vocabulary and expecting memorization, the project-based approach gave students valuable experiences that invited them to make observations and ask questions,” she said, explaining:

“The results spanned multiple disciplines, and students had a deeper understanding of complex concepts. And we love to get out and give them real-life contextual experiences.”

Field trips to a nearby business plaza allowed students to observe service and retail establishments first-hand.

 One of the more popular “real-life” experiences students enjoyed was sampling products from three area pizzerias.

They followed up by penning their own Yelp! reviews.

“Grimaldi’s cheese pizza made my heart dance and dance, and dance and dance when I tasted it,” wrote Ari Lozada. 

Anisa Arredondo wrote: “In my opinion, Barro’s Pizza is the best in my life. I will go there again.”

Audrey Sublette wrote her review on Little Caesars Pizza, one of the three she blind-tasted with fellow students.

“Even though I am six years old, I LOVE this pizza. I recommend every kid’s birthday party should have Little Caesars Pizza,” she said. 

Sergei Jin chimed in: “Little Caesars has the best pizza in the world.”

Teachers were as excited as their students and their families by the expo.

“It was so uplifting and energizing,” said Odenkirk. “What you discover about your students is their passion. … Each student had to provide justification for their business and the location, so there’s a lot of critical thinking involved.”

She and Gearhart designed this unit to meet Arizona State Standards. 

 For instance, the Yelp reviews fulfilled the mandate for first-grade students to pen an opinion piece. Utilizing Google Maps to determine their business locations answered technology mandates.

“Our inquiry project is guided by Arizona State Standards, but the depth of learning is inspired by the curiosity of the students,” said Odenkirk. “Essentially, for us, the standards serve as the floor, not the ceiling.”

“When students are given choices during the learning process and you provide numerous opportunities for their voices to be heard, they embrace their learning with excitement and a deep commitment,” Odenkirk continued.

 “Our first graders were actively engaged in the rigor of writing a business plan because they were motivated by their topic. I became aware of each child’s passion through this inquiry project.”

Summit Head of School Mark Bistricky noted, “Our job as educators is to prepare students for a world that is innovating faster than we can imagine.  Giving them opportunities for creative problem-solving that connects to the “real world” is one of the best ways we can do this.” 

Bistricky who is in his third year at the school’s helm, added, “What students learn is very important, but it’s no longer enough in today’s world. What they do with what they have learned—applying it in a real-world setting--is every bit as important.  These first graders give me a lot of hope for our future.”

Summit School, founded in 2001, serves students in preschool through eighth gradeand is located in Ahwatukee at 4515 E. Muirwood Drive.  For more information, see

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