Mesa schools stick to basics in the classroom

By Cathyrn Creno

The Arizona Republic

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

At Franklin schools, students sit in straight rows looking at the teacher and a traditional green chalkboard.

There are strict dress codes — no shorts, tank tops or flashy accessories. Kids who wiggle, talk out of turn or look away from the lesson for too long are quickly called out by the teacher.

"It cuts way down on distractions when a classroom is teacher-centered," said Patti Karr, who teaches fourth grade at Franklin Northeast. "Kids aren't sitting in groups, and they aren't relying on someone else to do their work. They learn to be independent learners."

In addition, every minute of class time is expected to be spent on fundamentals. If students require special education or tutoring because they are English-language learners, they get those services after school, taking the late bus home with students who stay after school for activities like band and orchestra.

Franklin Northeast's Blain Swallow said he recalls being in kindergarten and thinking, "You're kidding me. Why do we have all these rules?"

He said he knew that kids from his neighborhood who attended other schools were not working nearly as hard. Blain said it took until about fourth grade for everything he was learning to kick in and help him enjoy what he was doing in school.

Now, he said, he loves reading about world history and geography — especially because he is doing it at a junior-high level.

The foundation of the curriculum at Franklin schools, as well as those of traditional schools in Chandler, Gilbert and a number of Phoenix elementary-school districts, is the Spalding Method, a phonics program that teaches children to read, spell and write in cursive starting in kindergarten.

Spalding was created by the late Romalda Spalding, a Phoenix resident who published her first book in 1957.

Sydna Zilm, who uses the method to teach kindergarteners to read at Chandler Unified School District's Traditional Academy-Liberty Campus and also is Spalding-certified to train other teachers, said the program allows children to start reading at a very early age because it "gives kids' brains a way to organize information."

"My kids know nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives," she said. "Once they know that, it just kind of snowballs. Then we teach them literacy appreciation by exposing them to quality books."

On a recent standardized reading test, Zilm said, her kindergarteners tested at the second-grade level.

While the Spalding Method has its fans, some argue that other learning systems having the benefit of Franklin's parental involvement would be just as successful.

"They won't teach Spalding at ASU," said Arizona State University professor of educational technology Gary Bitter, who was hired by Spalding to study the effectiveness of the phonics program.

"It's too formulaic," he said.

Bitter did a four-year longitudinal study that compared the performance of Spalding students with those in control groups and found that Spalding students performed better on standardized tests than students who did not have the same phonics training.

But Bitter said the success of Spalding might be partly the result of teachers' passion for the program, not simply the Spalding method itself.

"It could be that it works because teachers are dedicated to the approach," he said.

"They go out of their way to get training, and they buy into it. I think anything might work if you had the same kind of buy-in."

Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com

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