Mesa schools stick to basics in the classroom

By Cathyrn Creno

The Arizona Republic

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 12:05 a.m. MST

Patti Karr checks Justin Kramer's spelling words in her 4th grade classroom at Franklin Northeast Elementary School in Mesa, Ariz., on Feb. 6, 2012. For more than a quarter-century, Mesa's Franklin schools have been teaching kids to read and write in a manner similar to the way the children's great-grandparents learned. Students sit in straight rows facing a teacher and a chalkboard. There are no small group projects or reading circles. Classroom computers don't materialize until after the sixth grade. The schools remain unapologetically low tech in an age when many parents choose schools that offer the latest technology.

The Arizona Republic, Mark Henle, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MESA, Ariz. — Mesa Public Schools sixth-grader Blain Swallow has a very basic word to describe his "basics" education at Franklin Northeast Elementary: "Hard."

Blain and other sixth-graders at Mesa's Franklin traditional schools are already doing the work of junior-high students. The schools push kindergarteners to master first-grade reading, writing and math -- then stay at least a year ahead academically after that.

"You have to be disciplined to go here," said Blain, who is 12 and Franklin Northeast's student-body president. He said he typically takes home an hour and a half of homework each night.

For more than a quarter-century, Mesa's Franklin schools have been teaching kids to read and write in a manner similar to the way the children's great-grandparents learned.

Students sit in straight rows facing a teacher and a chalkboard. There are no small group projects or reading circles. Classroom computers don't materialize until after the sixth grade.

The schools remain unapologetically low tech in an age when many parents choose schools that offer the latest technology.

Yet Mesa's five Franklin elementary schools and one junior high all have waiting lists. The schools have 2,650 students collectively — a 560 percent increase from when the original Franklin school opened in downtown Mesa in 1978.

Mesa officials — including Franklin Northeast Principal Jeff Abrams and assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction SuzanDePrez — acknowledge Franklin's style is not for everyone.

"Parents who send their children here want something different than the neighborhood school," Abrams said.

"They want structure, an accelerated curriculum and a place where students are going to be pushed to achieve."

For such parents, Franklin schools are wildly popular. Mesa officials expect enrollment to increase by a few hundred more students at the start of the next school year.

To meet the demand, the district is closing a half-empty junior high school and turning it into a basics school for as many as 1,200 kindergarteners through eighth-graders.

The remodeled school will replace three smaller Franklin schools now housed in aging portable buildings and will have room for new students, whom district officials hope will arrive from surrounding school districts.

Shutting down three older Franklin schools and consolidating students makes strategic sense to DePrez.

"Students at Franklin have never had a gym or a cafeteria," she said.

"This is a way we can increase our square footage and give them a facility with a 'real school' feel."

Officials hope a larger Franklin school also will attract more parents like Mary Beach, a Gilbert resident who is a cardiac registered nurse at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa.

Beach said she searched the Arizona Department of Education website and picked out Franklin Northeast for daughter Ashlyn because of its test scores.

Franklin students typically score above the 90th percentile on Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards. And Franklin Northeast, along with Franklin East and Franklin West elementary schools, has won national Blue Ribbon awards from the U.S. Department of Education based partly on top performance on state and national standardized tests.

"Education is the foundation for everything," said Beach, who isn't troubled by the drive she makes from Gilbert to the school every day.

"It's what you have to fall back on in life. They mean business here. The children are here to learn, and I like that."

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