things to do
back to school
Things To Do
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Things To Do
Back to School
Ashlea Deahl, Adam Klawonn & Keridwen Cornelius
August, 2009, Page 122
While education activists are ruing the loss of arts and science classes and worrying that “teaching to the AIMS test” replaces a well-rounded education, numerous Valley schools are cultivating Renaissance kids through a suite of programs so unique they’ll make you want to go back to school.
Spanish Immersion, Desert Willow Elementary School
It’s no secret that language-learning aptitude has diminished by the time most schools offer Spanish 101. But this Cave Creek public school, which received A+ recognition from the Arizona Educational Foundation, gives students the option of learning Spanish during half their school day beginning in kindergarten and continuing through fifth grade. The Spanish immersion program integrates various subjects, including art, math, science and social studies.
Vitruvius Program, Summit School of Ahwatukee
One semester, students in an art class at this private school were told to design a light rail station that incorporated an innovative blend of architecture and sculpture presented to the class through photography, drawing and painting. They were third-graders. The Vitruvius Program – the brainchild of Summit art teacher Kathleen Kupper and her husband, Eugene – uses civic design to foster community-minded problem solving. Try tackling this sixth-grade assignment: Design an entrance chamber from a hermetically sealed drilled shaft into a gallery displaying the prehistoric animal drawings and handprints within the Cosquer Cave of southern France.
Grammy Award-winning music program, North High School
This spring, North High School in central Phoenix became one of 14 schools nationwide selected as a GRAMMY Signature School for 2009. North won the Enterprise Award, recognizing commitment to music education by schools with “economically underserved” students. It received a $5,000 grant to purchase computers and Smart Music software for its band and choir, which regularly perform at schools and festivals. The software will give students instant feedback, virtual accompanists and recording ability both at school and at home. “We’re taking cutting-edge technology and mixing it with traditional music training,” says band director Matthew Bock. “It’s the future, and it’s here.”
Reading Olympics, Andalucia Primary School
Created by this Alhambra district public school, Reading Olympics (an Arizona Educational Foundation A+ Exemplary Program) livens up literacy learning with a healthy dose of competition. The Olympic theme song plays while students brandishing a plastic torch read aloud to the class. Classmates time them, teachers analyze performances, and medals are awarded for “world records” in oral-reading fluency.
Broadcast Journalism, Stapley Junior High
Every day, the eighth- and ninth-graders in this Mesa public school’s broadcast journalism class anchor a live news show that’s beamed into every classroom. But it’s the longer Friday shows that allow them to stretch their creative muscles. That’s when they might film and edit a segment about popular music at Stapley, surveying students about their favorite bands, or research the history of a holiday for an educational piece. “Our motto is to inform and entertain,” says broadcast journalism teacher Rebecca Martinez, who says that the kids are so enthusiastic and busy with the class that in the four years since it started, she’s never seen any behavioral problems.
5. CHARTER SCHOOLS
We’re not getting into the public vs. private vs. charter debate here. We say variety is the spice of the education system, and Maricopa County’s 250-plus charters offer just that, from an award-winning arts school to a district that wants to be known for more than its horses.
Tempe Preparatory Academy
While most schools have their sights fixed on the high-tech future, this liberal arts-based, grade 7-12 academy’s teaching philosophy is inspired by the past – 400 B.C., to be exact. The school promotes the Socratic Method, in which educators teach not by telling but through questioning and discussing. The high school curriculum centers on the Humane Letters Seminar – a two-hour daily Socratic seminar on readings from Western civilization’s philosophy, drama, history, poetry, novels and essays. All junior high students study Latin, and high schoolers are required to perform in two plays. By the time they graduate, students have read everything from Dante to Dostoyevsky, Sophocles to Steinbeck. You can call it old-fashioned, but you can’t argue with the results: last year 100 percent of sophomores passed all three subjects in the AIMS test.
Arizona School for the Arts (ASA)
Contrary to what you might think, ASA is not a Phoenician Juilliard matriculated exclusively by young Mozarts. Admission is based on a lottery system (Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon’s son had to try his luck for a spot just like any other child), and kids don’t have to audition to get in. While the school boasts some musical prodigies, many kids come in as rank beginners, and graduates frequently go on to pursue non-arts subjects.
In the mornings, students take a relatively traditional course load, but afternoons are devoted to a choice of piano, strings, voice, ballet and drama. It’s hard to argue with the theory that arts education increases academic performance: 100 percent of sophomores meet or exceed standards on all portions of the AIMS test. The school has been ranked “excelling” by the Arizona Department of Education every year since 2003 and recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.
Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center (AAEC)
AAEC is used to being called “the horse school.” But this independent high school district has a general college preparatory curriculum and insists that agribusiness has come a long way since Old McDonald had a farm.
Founded in partnership with Maricopa Community Colleges, it’s connected to four community college campuses: Paradise Valley, Mesa, South Mountain and Chandler-Gilbert. Students attend college classes and receive college credit, which also goes toward high school graduation. Many students eventually pursue degrees unrelated to agriculture, but it’s still the obvious choice for teens interested in veterinary studies or the emerging fields of plant and animal biotechnology.
Photo courtesy Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center
Students receive a lesson at the Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center.
6. MOVERS & SHAKERS
David Garcia sees stories in numbers. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he once devised a statistical method that assigned a numerical value to education-related keywords used by politicians in speeches and pamphlets to derive an “education quotient” that showed where that politician stood on certain education issues. Then there’s the “risky behavior” study, which uses a variable he devised with existing data to find out how likely it was that certain teenagers would smoke, become pregnant or get into trouble.
Today, Garcia is 39 and an assistant professor of education leadership and policy studies at Arizona State University. Technology – and the interest from education institutions – has caught up to Garcia’s field. After working in the Arizona Department of Education, he is one of the most sought-after analysts in the state when it comes to teasing the latest trends out of the growing mountain of test scores, school nutrition studies and education data. It’s the kind of stuff that makes Garcia’s eyes widen and a superintendent’s eyes glaze over.
His goal is to develop new methods of measuring academic success beyond standardized testing.
“We stretch [test results] as far as we can, but we don’t come away with the knowledge that the students have actually learned something,” Garcia says.
He is now collaborating with key state lawmakers – both Republicans and Democrats – to temporarily remove five charter schools and one large public school district from the state’s testing standards so that they can explore new standards. Next year, Garcia says he will propose that ASU and the Arizona Community Foundation partner to create a think tank to shape new education policy and support it until 2015.
Then there is the indomitable Yvonne Watterson. The former principal of Gateway Early College High School, a nationally renowned charter school, has found a new role in west Phoenix schools after leaving Gateway Community College last December.
Watterson, the daughter of an Irish bus driver and credit union clerk, got her teaching start in Northern Ireland during “the troubles” of the 1980s, when violent cultural wars between the country’s Catholics and Protestants led to segregated school facilities.
She came to Gateway’s high school campus in 2003 and brought reform by reshaping the curriculum in a way that put more emphasis on improving immigrant teenagers’ academic performance and college preparation. She turned the school’s lamentable dropout rates and math scores around, then was forced out as the spectre of Arizona’s Proposition 300 – which denies in-state tuition rates to children who are illegal immigrants – shadowed her fundraising efforts to help pay immigrants’ tuition. The Arizona Republic’s headline read, “Celebrated principal fired from charter.”
One educator saw an opportunity. “I’m reading the paper and thinking, ‘Gosh – this is why I want to hire this person!’” recalls Alhambra Elementary School District Superintendent Jim Rice.
Through a mutual acquaintance, Rice contacted Watterson and lured her to the Alhambra district, where about 80 percent of the children come from underprivileged Latino families.
In August, the district will unveil Alhambra College Preparatory High School at the site of a refurbished grade school. It will offer classes on everything from note-taking and syllabus reading to college entry-level English and math classes under a dual enrollment deal with Glendale Community College. There will be electronic chalkboards – dubbed “smartboards” – tied to the teacher’s computer in every classroom, and each student will have a laptop. Watterson will be the principal, and the first class of 150 freshmen will begin their coursework this fall.
“Some of [the students] don’t know what the best is, and our job is to show it to them,” Watterson says.
For policy issues, pay close attention to Paul Luna, president of the Helios Foundation. With a $600 million endowment, this nonprofit’s capital is larger than the 2008 gross domestic product of Sweden and gets passed around to education programs in Arizona and Florida. Luna, a former executive for IBM and Pepsi-Cola who previously led the Valley of the Sun United Way, is the quarterback.
Luna begins his day by leaving the family’s Ahwatukee Foothills home to drop off his son at Brophy College Preparatory in central Phoenix. From there, it’s a blur of meetings that include myriad advisory boards, lunches and coffee with administrators of Helios-supported programs. They tend to focus on literacy, language acquisition and scholarships to benefit students in grades five through 12 – a period that Helios folks call “the transition years.”
But you won’t see Luna at the state Legislature – yet. Despite massive cuts to schools to help shore up Arizona’s $3 billion budget deficit, Luna says Helios is not ready to wade into policy debates with lawmakers. It’s still building its street cred, he says, and will continue to back a $2 million multimedia marketing campaign to bring public awareness to education issues.
“We have to create a cultural shift. We have to make education the No. 1 priority in Arizona,” Luna says. But more than that, Arizona has to prepare students for jobs in a professionally flat world. “This is a global competition,” Luna says.
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