January 10, 2005
Students in Nan Sylvester’s third-grade class know the drill so well they can recite it by heart. "Pencils down. Backs are straight. Feet are flat. Hips are forward. Eyes are here."
When they finish, they are facing their teacher ready to begin another phonics lesson.
There is no fidgeting, no whispering — just a roomful of third-graders conservatively dressed, sitting in rows paying attention to their teacher at the front of the room. Their desks are perfectly neat — nothing out of order.
Watching the scene, you might think you somehow have been transported back to your elementary school days. And in a sense you would be right.
This is third grade at Gilbert Unified School District’s GPS Traditional Academy at Neely Campus — where everything old is in again.
The district opened the school in 1999 after parents clamored for a "back-tobasics" school. Schools that are called "traditional" have sprung up all over the East Valley.
PARENTS LINING UP
Tempe Elementary School District recently announced it will open its first traditional school in the 2005-06 school year. Chandler Unified School District plans to open its second one at that time as well.
Traditional schools vary in scope, but most have several things in common. Students work independently and sit in rows. Teachers instruct from the front of the room. A dress code is in place. Discipline is enforced. Students learn to read phonetically. And, parental involvement is not just encouraged, it’s required.
East Valley parents who like the trend don’t have to travel far to find its roots. The Mesa Unified School District opened the first traditional school in Arizona and the third in the nation in 1978. The school, called Franklin Elementary School, has expanded since then and now has four locations.
Marc Mason was the school’s first principal and remained at that post until 2001. Today he serves as an educational consultant to the district.
BLAME IT ON SPUTNIK
Mason said the back-tobasics concept came about because parents weren’t happy with the "experimental looseness and lack of academic standards of the late 1960s early ’70s."
Parents pushed back against changes in education that began in the late 1950s, when Americans began reevaluating their education system, Mason said. The reevaluation can be traced back to a pivotal event: Sputnik.
"People got scared because Russia was putting up satellites." he said. "Then came the National Defense Education Act (of 1958) and two years later John F. Kennedy is appointing an educator to a Cabinet-level position in the federal government.
"Everyone was asking, ‘What’s wrong with American education?’ and with all the wondering came money, lots of money."
Mason said money generated experimentalism in education approaches. "Prior to the 1960s you were going to have to fund your own experiments, but after that, the weirder it was — regardless of whether it had educational basis — it was going to get funded."
All the experimentation brought changes in everything from school design to curriculum.
Rows of desks became pods. Students began to work cooperatively instead of independently. How students learn to read and write was called into question.
Mason believes the hardest hit was mathematics.
"You started seeing all these new math theories and it wrecked a generation of students," Mason said.
Traditional schools aim to undo all the changes by going back to the fundamentals of American education. Most rely on Saxon Math curriculum which teaches math by building on skills already learned. Lessons are distributed throughout the academic year, not in units. Reading, writing and spelling instruction is carried out via the Spalding Method instead of the more common whole language approach.
Nearly 50 years old, the Spalding Method teaches students to read by teaching them phonics. The method has regained popularity and now is taught in schools as far away as Australia and Singapore, said Mary North, director of research and curriculum for the Phoenixbased Spalding International.
Spalding’s newfound popularity doesn’t surprise Mason, who said it’s a fundamental approach that until recently was considered to be old-fashioned and outdated, "even though it worked to educate generations of students."
East Valley educators say they favor offering variety to parents and plan to offer traditional schools in addition to modern public school education.