Several years ago, Jay Brown, a Tempe music teacher and softball coach, finished the certification he needed to become a principal.
Though a die-hard Tempe resident – he attended high school there and graduated from ASU – he was wooed to the West Valley to work for a large charter school.
But his heart never left the East Valley, so with the help of members in the community, he forged the idea of a small, intimate, academically challenging charter school.
Patriot Academy was awarded a charter in January 2003. The school now sits in the heart of Queen Creek, across from an equestrian training center, and next to the town’s popular Water & Ice.
From the start, the school wanted to give students “individualized” education. Saxon math, Spaulding (phonics-based reading) and the Core Knowledge curriculum were adopted, all rigorous, with nationally known standards. For its academic achievement, the charter school earned an “A” from the state this year.
Students come to school in brightly colored collared shirts. Brown knows each of them – 112 students this year -- by name.
The school believes children should be taught at their level – even if that means they’re in classes with students older or younger than themselves.
“If they need caught up and you’re teaching at their grade level, then you’re teaching above their heads,” he said. “You need to catch them up.”
That’s why for reading, writing and math, the students are taught in ability groups, rather than by grade level.
“I had one student who went through three (levels of) books in one year,” he said. “It keeps kids challenged.”
The school’s six classrooms are tucked into a cluster of modular buildings and an adjacent strip mall. The younger classes stay put in their two rooms while the older students transition mostly between four classrooms.
Brown said there are plans to add another building, as well a school office, but the plans are going through Queen Creek’s planning and zoning process.
Even with the additions, Brown doesn’t expect to grow as much as put all the students on one plot of land. While other charter schools are adding classes and teachers, Patriot Academy has hovered around 120 for several years. Brown – who wears multiple hats as principal and teacher – said he and his five-member teaching staff don’t want it to get too big.
“It’s easier when it’s smaller,” Brown said.
Not that parents haven’t asked for more. The school ends at eighth grade. That’s when parents start questioning, “Where can we go for a high school that does what you do?”
Brown hasn’t found a high school that keeps classes and school size as small as he has it, but students have transitioned well into schools in neighboring districts.
They go with a sound academic foundation, as well as a taste of the arts, thanks to a Patriot Academy tradition that started when there were fewer than a dozen students.
Twice a year, the entire student body is involved in a school performance. The first one this year will be “A Christmas Wizard of Oz.”
It’s a natural fit for Brown with his music background, but it’s also become a signature piece for the school.
“Our students have blossomed,” he said of the change since that first student-written play was performed.
Now Brown’s peers from bigger schools come to the Patriot Academy plays and talk about how the Patriot students are on par with their high school peers.
“We’re doing ‘Grease Jr.’ in the spring,” Brown said. “The kids can’t wait.”
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