E.V. schools’ quest: Keep students - East Valley Tribune: News

E.V. schools’ quest: Keep students

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Posted: Saturday, February 7, 2009 7:45 pm | Updated: 8:59 am, Thu Jan 10, 2013.

Chandler Traditional Academy. Franklin. Zaharis. Gilbert Classical Academy. Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies. These East Valley elementary schools have two things in common: They are run by local school districts and they have had waiting lists for enrollment.

Chandler Traditional Academy. Franklin. Zaharis. Gilbert Classical Academy. Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies.

These East Valley elementary schools have two things in common: They are run by local school districts and they have had waiting lists for enrollment.

Open enrollment is taking place this month in most East Valley school districts. And in a time when Arizona school districts face potentially disastrous cuts from the state, attracting and keeping students has taken on more urgency.

In pushing the envelope for education, Arizona has one of the most liberal open enrollment policies in the country. Parents can apply for their children to attend any public school for kindergarten through 12th grade, no matter where they live.

And with a growing charter school movement, competition for students is fierce.

Even a smaller town like Queen Creek offers a range of choices, including six schools operated by Queen Creek Unified School District and three charter schools.

Add to that a number of high- profile private schools, and Valley school leaders are reaching out to offer parents what they want: a choice.


That’s exactly what went into the creation of the Chandler Traditional Academies in the Chandler Unified School District, said Don Shelley, principal at CTA, Independence campus, 1405 W. Lake Drive, Chandler.

“Northeast Chandler had a huge pocket of people going to private and charter schools and they knew if that’s what parents wanted, they would provide it,” Shelley said.

That led to the opening of Chandler Traditional Academy, Liberty campus, 550 N. Emmett Drive, Chandler, where Shelley was the first principal seven years ago. The school attracts parent interest from as far away as Queen Creek, as well as from Chandler and Gilbert.

“Their whole goal is, ‘If you want this, we’ll do this,’” he said.

Chandler Unified now has four elementary traditional academies that focus on whole group, direct instruction using the Spalding method for reading and writing, where students learn phonics. Chandler Traditional Junior High School will open for the 2009-2010 school year in the current Pathways Learning Center, 191 W. Oakland St.


Mesa Unified School District was the first district to offer parents a choice of schools, said spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss. The Franklin schools started more than 30 years ago with a back-to-basics format, school uniforms and whole group instruction, in which students move along the curriculum at the same pace.

“People used to camp out,” to get into the schools, Bareiss said. The enrollment process has changed since, but there is always a great interest in the four campuses.

More recently, Mesa Unified opened the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies, which offers accelerated classes for students in grades five through nine. Because students there are usually more focused, class sizes are larger, with about 30 students. And the school, along with Mesa’s Frost Elementary and Hendrix Junior High, is a candidate for International Baccalaureate authorization. Mesa’s other IB program is located at Westwood High School.

The students are “a year ahead of the curriculum,” at Mesa Academy, said principal Bob Crispin. “We promote inquiry, discovery through working on teams, research and presentation of research.”

The idea is to help students make their own connections through learning.


The Gilbert Classical Academy is in its second year in the Gilbert Unified School District, and it’s proving popular with students and parents.

Like Mesa’s academy, the program puts an emphasis on inquiry, in which students are encouraged to examine topics through their own research. Students start learning Latin in seventh grade and music is required for all students in grades seven through 10.

Meg Gillett said she steered her son, Blake, toward the Gilbert Classical Academy when it opened because of the school size and opportunities he would receive.

“He is definitely a math and science kid who thrives in a smaller setting,” she said. “I think with the program they offer, it’s definitely more academically challenging. For us, it was a nice fit.”

Plus, because it is a smaller school, Blake was able to join the cross country, golf and basketball teams.

“Most of the other Gilbert high schools are very competitive. If you’re not playing club sports, it’s very difficult to make the team,” she said.

Even neighborhood schools have adopted different personalities with a variety of learning styles and programs.


Highland Arts Elementary School in northeast Mesa exposes all students to the fine arts. Zaharis Elementary School, also in northeast Mesa, emphasizes literature and helping students learn about social issues through reading.

“Choice programs are good for kids. If we can find a program that jazzes a student and helps them want to learn, then we’ve done our job,” Bareiss said. “We can do that through the choice programs because they appeal to the students’ interest.”

Both Chandler and Mesa have high schools with International Baccalaureate programs, which offer international, accelerated education used at schools around the globe.

“Within each school, there are magnet programs that attract parents and folks to the school,” said Terry Locke, spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District. “People are attracted to athletics, the biotech programs, the nursing programs at Basha High School … You don’t necessarily have to have specialized schools to attract families.”

Locke said Chandler doesn’t focus on bringing kids in from other districts, but on retaining the students already living within its borders.

“Our first priority is to make sure parents are aware of programs in our district. Our marketing promotes Chandler as a great place to live, raise kids and go to school,” he said.


Still, school districts know there may be thousands of students living in their boundaries that may be attending a charter school — a privately operated public school — in another area.

And sometimes, because of childcare needs, parents may choose to put a student in a school closer to work, or near a grandparent who’s available after school, said Joe O’Reilly, executive director for student achievement support in the Mesa district. O’Reilly helps compile enrollment data for the district each month.

“It’s also the fit between the child, the parent and the school,” O’Reilly said. “One school is preferable to another for some reason. That’s on an individual basis.”

The 35 parents touring Chandler Traditional Academy, Liberty campus, last week listed a number of reasons for looking at the school, from a desire for more structure, to following a school format similar to what they grew up with.

“They have this traditional method of teaching,” said Shamiul Azom, who is looking for a kindergarten for his child next year. Azom, an immigrant from Bangladesh, said the academy looks similar to the schools in his home country.

Robin Miller is looking for structure for her son and was impressed by what she saw during the tour.

“It looks like it would be a good fit,” she said. “The class size is good and their method of teaching looks like a good fit.”

She said she may look at another charter school, but the academy was the only public school she was going to examine.

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