National News
August 26, 2009

ASU charter on track despite economy

By Ray Parker, The Arizona Republic

Even with hefty support from the Arizona's largest university, Polytechnic Elementary School will stay in an east Mesa office complex until the lending market changes.

Arizona State University officials opened the charter school in the temporary location a year ago, while plans were in the works for a permanent location on the ASU polytechnic campus.

"We're now waiting for the economy since we'll build the (new school) with bonds," Polytechnic Principal Donna Bullock said.

As part of its efforts to boost K-12 education, ASU officials plan to build one K-12 charter school near each of the four ASU campuses. The first charter opened last year in east Mesa, and the second one opened this month in downtown Phoenix.

SU officials invested considerable resources in the venture, in faculty time and expertise, back-office support, and $2 million in seed money.

University leaders say the enterprise makes sense for plenty of reasons, from a strong alignment with its research agenda to a desire to help students be better prepared for higher education. Plans call for educational innovations to be hatched at the schools and then be filtered throughout Arizona.

This school year, Polytechnic Elementary added Grade 7, and will eventually offer Grades PreK-12.

Today, the charter school initiative is under the umbrella of a nonprofit group called University Public Schools, Inc.

Debra Gomez, University Public School Phoenix interim executive director, said students will have two main advantages because of the affiliation with state's largest university.

The school will offer students a college-prep program, which means they will be able to earn college credits, learn foreign languages and focus on entering a university.

ASU researchers will gauge different ways of teaching at the charter schools, whose teachers will be on year-round contracts so they can be trained in the teaching reforms.

Unlike traditional schools, the charter teachers spend six weeks a year on professional development and 90 minutes a day planning.

Charter schools are public schools run with tax money, but they're allowed more flexibility in their programs than traditional district schools.

Arizona's charter schools are authorized by the state Board of Education but are run by each school's own governing board, usually consisting of parents, teachers and community members.

Inside Polytechnic Elementary last week, a group of fifth- and sixth-graders gathered for their class projects. Sitting at desks or on the floor, the students tapped on their laptops as they created autobiographical material using photos, podcasts and essays.

"I like using the technology," said Emily Nasiff, 10. "Last year, we researched Arizona and the different regions and made our projects with (the computer program) iMovie."

Her teacher, Steve Mac, said his classroom may look chaotic from the outside but that that happens when students are given more creativity.

"This type of learning is not for every teacher," Mac said. "But this is the kind of class I wish I'd had as a student. It's also great being near ASU. Last year, I contacted an architecture professor to help with their civilization models."

Nearby, Mesa parent Kate Benson, who has a fifth-grader, Teresa, agreed the classroom could look disorganized from the outside but that her daughter has made progress since transferring to the school.

"At her last school, she got in trouble for talking during lunch," Benson said, her voice rising. "She's doing better in this environment (where) there's more personal contact. This is child-based learning and not testing-based.

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