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."
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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