Cutting-edge Learning Center to Open Soon

A one-stop learning center for higher education debuts Monday in Surprise, Ariz., with a name that reflects its cutting-edge concept.

The Communiversity @ Surprise features three universities, three community colleges and a technical program for high-schoolers at the new Surprise Civic Center.

Inside the newly-built campus, students will find classmates who range from 16 to 73 years old, all under one roof. They will confront the latest in education delivery at the Communiversity, with some classes taught online, some in person and some in a hybrid format with elements of both.

Grace Rodil, a 32-year-old Surprise resident, is not comfortable with online classes, although she will take them if she must to get a bachelor’s degree in business. She already has an associate degree in child development, but she wants to move on and Communiversity at 15950 W. Civic Center Plaza is in her backyard.

"I will try to take classes in person," she said, while perusing a school brochure. "I think I learn better that way." Proximity is one of the main attractions for Rodil and others in the far West Valley.

"I don’t want to have to haul myself to Phoenix," Rodil said.

Administrators expect to serve about 10,000 students during the first year. Some may be full-time, others online and still others will drop in for just a class or two, said Todd Aakhus, Rio Salado College’s director of community partnerships.

More than 40 college and university programs make up the Communiversity. Officials are eyeing construction of a high-school laboratory and a new "fab lab" linked to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology within a few years.

"There’s so much happening," Aakhus said. "All good things."

The first "good thing" will be the first day of classes at the Communiversity – the first of its kind west of the Mississippi.

The fab lab, which will allow inventors to translate digital plans to 3-D prototypes, would be only the 10th such laboratory in the country. The Western Maricopa Education Center, or West-MEC, hopes to open the labs by 2011.

The Communiversity @ Surprise brings programs from Rio Salado, Phoenix College and Glendale Community College together with Ottawa University, University of the Incarnate Word and Western International University.

Students can earn as many as 90 credits at one or more of the colleges and then move into the four-year institutions without leaving campus.

"There is no loss of time, no loss of resources," said Allan Hoffman, executive officer of Ottawa’s Arizona programs.

Communiversity administrators expect students to save on tuition by staying in community college longer, since four-year colleges typically accept only 64 community-college credits.

High-school students can come for the technical and occupational classes West-MEC offers and then start their tenures in higher education in the same classrooms.

"What makes this interesting is a community-college system going up, partnering with a university," said Gregory Donovan, West-MEC superintendent.

"We’ve driven it down to high school. I call this the ultimate-advanced placement program."

Surprise officials and Rio Salado, which spearheaded the Communiversity idea, sealed the plan in 2007. City officials realized the economic downturn meant they would not need an additional office building on the Civic Center Plaza, where a new City Hall opened in June. They leased the site to Rio for $1 a year.

Surprise Mayor Lyn Truitt said the long-term goal is to lure more employers to the city.

Building projects around the Valley may be languishing, but construction workers have bustled around the glass-and-stone Communiversity to meet the opening deadline – laying fresh sod, hanging flat-screen TVs, installing electronic white boards – and placing ergonomically-correct chairs in the study areas.

Students can choose programs offered through six degree pathways: business/management, education, healthcare, information technology, liberal arts and public safety.

West-MEC, which operates as a school district, offers professional and technical classes to 40 high schools in 12 districts. Usually, the instructors bring the classes to the high schools. But in an agreement approved last week, Surprise will lease West-MEC a 3-acre site on the same campus as the Communiversity and City Hall for $1 a year.

Donovan said that West-MEC plans to build a laboratory and is in talks with MIT to open the fab lab in the same complex.

West-MEC will start offering classes in October to high-school students at the Communiversity, combining them with community college and university students.

"What’s happening now is we’ve taken a national model and for the first time we’re expanding it into the high-school area," Aakhus said.

"We’re expanding the model to ensure that children start to earn credits at an earlier age. We’re getting them a head start on their higher-education experience too, since they are taking college classes concurrently.

They’re earning their degrees quicker and they’re contributing to the workforce faster." (

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