National News
September 29, 2009

ASU creates K-12 charter schools

By Ray Parker

Wanting a research pipeline and college-prepared students, Arizona State University officials are creating their own K-12 schools.

The first ASU charter school opened last year in east Mesa, and the second one opened this fall in downtown Phoenix.

Plans call for two more schools near the ASU Tempe and West campuses in coming years.

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

University leaders say the enterprise makes sense for plenty of reasons, ranging 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 filtered throughout Arizona.

The ASU charters are part of a growing national trend. Universities around the country are creating their own K-12 schools, and the University of California-Davis, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, Stanford, University of Chicago and others have started high schools in recent years.

All of them, including ASU, focus on steering disadvantaged kids toward the university gates.

"Our affiliation with ASU means the students will have access to (university) resources as well as exposure (to higher education)," said Debra Gomez, interim executive director of the University Public School Phoenix. Gomez leads the newest ASU partnership with the Phoenix Elementary School District, which resulted in the new campus at 735 E. Fillmore St.

Classes started in August for 550 students Grades pre-K to 8 in the former Phoenix Preparatory Academy. High-school grades will be added each year.

Gomez said students will gain several advantages from the affiliation with state's largest university: The schools 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 also 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.

The ASU charter-school initiative is under the umbrella of a non-profit group called University Public Schools Inc.

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.

Unlike in traditional public schools, the University Public Schools teachers will spend six weeks per year on professional development and 90 minutes per day for classroom planning. This extra time allows for classroom innovations.

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

It opened in the temporary location a year ago, while plans were in the works for a permanent location on the ASU Poly campus.

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

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

Inside a Polytechnic Elementary classroom, a group of fifth- and sixth-graders recently gathered for their class projects. Sitting at desks or on the floor, each student tapped on their laptop 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's what 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."

Mesa parent Kate Benson, whose fifth-grader, Teresa, attends, 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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