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1913 was an auspicious year in many ways: the federal tax was levied for the first time, Henry Ford cranked up his assembly line, suffragettes demonstrated for the vote, issues leading to World War I simmered and children found a prize in their Cracker Jacks for the first time.
Here in Arizona, citizens were proud of their new statehood earned just the year before, and newcomers marveled at the beauty of an area of north Phoenix so green and dotted with yellow Palo Verde blossoms and the purple blooms of Ironwood trees, they dubbed it Paradise Valley. For all its beauty, the environment was harsh. Only those willing to brave the heat, scorpions, sandstorms and rattlesnakes stayed.
In 1913, the hardy few signaled their determination to make Paradise Valley home by opening a one-room schoolhouse a half-mile east of 32nd Street and Cactus.
Sunnyside School served 14 boys and 21 girls that first year and became the precursor to Paradise Valley Unified School District, now Arizona’s 7th largest district serving 31,500 students across a geographical area the size of Flagstaff. The 98-square mile district is bounded by 7th Avenue and Pima Road, and Northern Avenue and Jomax Road.
Over its 100-year history, the district’s growth stuttered at times and soared others, as the community evolved. When the area failed to secure water rights for irrigation, many packed up and left. In fact there is no record of a school from 1920 to 1923, probably because there were not 10 children in the area, the required number to operate.
Throughout the rest of the 20s, the school operated with only the basics. The school, which had moved in 1918 to a barn-like building at the northeast corner of 32nd and Greenway, had no indoor plumbing but proudly boasted “an outdoor facility – one for the boys and one for the girls.” Students attended to their reading, writing and arithmetic, but also brought in wood for the stove.
By 1930, concerned citizens knew they had to prepare for growth. Edwin Nisbet donated land for a new school (the present day site of Greenway Middle School) that he’d originally bought for 50 cents an acre. Still, the area was served by a single
school throughout the 30s and 40s. In the late 1940s, when electricity first came to the area, the district began to grow.
As World War II ended, a boom was under way. The early settlers — some familiar names from traveling streets named for them — finally saw their investment in the area pay off. Among them, the Bells, Nisbets, O’Clairs, Norrises, and Vondraceks.
By 1956, the district had 259 students, which had to attend tenth grade on at Phoenix Union High School. That changed in 1957 with the opening of Paradise Valley High School (which was rebuilt in 1993). The Paradise Valley High School District formed in 1957, in July of 1976 the high school district unified with the elementary and middle schools districts into Paradise Valley Unified School District.
Preparing for the baby boomers, the district built four schools in the 60s. During the next decades, some schools were closed and others remodeled, but growth and construction were a constant for the district. The projects included 13 schools in the 70s, 11 schools in the 80s, 10 in the 90s, and nine since 2000 with the most recent being Larkspur Elementary in north Phoenix – an entire new school build adjacent to the existing school of the same name.
By the district’s centennial year in 2013, it had grown to 53 school sites and support facilities. New construction across the district reflects changing needs as the district has evolved with the community. Technology has been a driver as the district focuses on preparing students with 21st century skills. So has serving expanding areas as growth continues in the northern most parts of Phoenix and Scottsdale.
Certainly, when one of the early teachers bumped along roads no better than cowpaths in a Willys Knight automobile to greet her 24 students, she could hardly envision a district as large or progressive as what is now Paradise Valley Unified School District.