Eight school days ago, vehicles filled with kids and backpacks, stretched for blocks beyond Zaharis, a pulsating east Mesa elementary school. It nestles in the shadows of Red Mountain, camouflaged in lush sagebrush and cacti.
That traffic crush, come to think of it, is a regular event. Buses pick up students within Zaharis boundaries, but with one-third of the 900 students coming from eight surrounding cities, jams are nothing new. They tell a tale of parents doing what it takes to get their children to the best of the best.
It’s all about motivated students whose curiosity and learning styles are honored, and about helping them apply Common Core education standards (azed.gov/common core standards) to today’s world.
Zaharis’ success is not a secret. This month it’s recognized in the “Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine” as one of the top 25 “coolest” schools in the nation.
In fair disclosure, I discovered Zaharis because my granddaughter, Payton, is a student.
One has to meet the guy who’s leading the charge for change in the public classroom. Principal Michael Oliver, who grew up in the West Valley, took the helm of the brand new school a decade ago, determined to make it the “premier school in all America.”
“So what’s the deal,” I asked Oliver. “Why is Zaharis considered one of the best when in fact it has a B rating in regards to the AIMS’ test?” And, with that, I received my education on the “Oliver” philosophy, which is embraced by his staff and a whole bunch of involved parents.
It goes something like this: Certain national and state standards must be met. We hear all about rigorous AIMS prep instruction. But, at Zaharis, the “curriculum of caring” philosophy successfully embraces children’s learning styles beyond testing indoctrination.
Oliver says, “We all are familiar with Einstein’s take on measurement: ‘Not everything that can be measured counts and not everything that counts can be measured.’” At least via scores A through F. Oliver has an additional measuring system: “Every time I walk in a classroom, I see new eyes.”
He explains: “We want children who raise questions, investigate, problem-solve and interrogate the world around them. We call this a curriculum of becoming. It’s dynamic, alive, and fluid.”
Yeah. Then what? How do you change the paradigm of puppet learners lined up in a row? Classrooms are filled with what Oliver calls “real books,” specifically selected to address family and societal challenges. Couches and ottomans and other casual seating beckon to student readers. Respectful discussion and activities make sense out of real world issues.
Oliver raves — raves — about the quality of his “diverse” teachers he carefully, hand picks: “They must be willing to give up some control and let students take some ownership; it requires brilliance and expertise. They are my heroes; they are smart, passionate and humble.”
Well, one small column falls short of how this works, but happy parents and students are the telling factor. You’ll want to check out the Zaharis website at www.mpsaz.org/zaharis/.
I suppose the statement, which became the clincher for me was this: “Things students remember most, they learn from the heart.”
As for that B rating? Sure, Zaharis strives for the A, but won’t sacrifice success to get it. Oliver tells of the many visitors, national and international, who regularly tour his campus. Last year, a dozen of Russia’s highest ranking education officials, came to see a school “reflecting democracy in education.” Let’s hope they take the philosophy home. We have a world full of young people desperately in need of embracing personal responsibility, who are trained, critical thinkers, who know how to use choice. It looks like Zaharis is on to something. And to think, it’s a public school.