Principal Brian Rosta paced in front of Gilbert Classical Academy’s first class of students on Wednesday morning, belting out instructions and encouragement like a coach sending his players into a game.
For the academy, Wednesday was not only the first day of the school year; it was the first day of the school.
So Rosta spent his first hour as principal teaching the seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders about the Gilbert Unified School District’s new college preparatory.
“You’re gonna take cool classes,” Rosta shouted into the microphone, “like Latin.”
The students, all clad in purple or white collared shirts, cheered — though it was unclear whether the enthusiasm was for the dead language or their principal’s cheerleading.
Latin classes didn’t excite everyone at first.
“We had a lot of parents that were like, ‘What? You’re teaching what?’ ” Rosta said.
It’s an education in culture, the principal answered concerned parents, and the archaic vernacular is the foundation of some of today’s most widely spoken languages.
And, if nothing else, Latin’s presence in the academy’s curriculum signals just how different the school will be from the rest of the district’s schools.
The East Valley’s traditional district schools have year after year lost an increasing number of students to charter schools. The most successful charters have been innovative in how and what they teach students.
Hoping to plug the drain, the Mesa and Chandler unified school districts, among many others, have launched new schools modeled after the charters.
The classical academy, with a focus on the liberal arts and sciences, is Gilbert’s answer to that challenge.
“You will never hear me say a bad thing about them. They raised the bar,” Rosta said of the charters that have lured away hundreds of his district’s students.
Academy teachers will use the Socratic Method, where students learn a subject by asking questions, rather than simply digesting lectures. The academy’s senate, normally called the “school counsel,” will dress in togas when the elected officials convene.
And perhaps most importantly, every student will receive a laptop for schoolwork.
“The laptops, the technology,” ninth-grader Connor Christensen said in explaining why he opted out of a traditional district high school. “It’ll be easier to find stuff than looking at books.”
The academy shares a facility in north Gilbert with the Technology and Leadership Academy, a specialty school that is being phased out.
Rosta said the academy will add 10th grade next school year, 11th the year after that and so on. About 60 students, chosen at random through a lottery, can enroll into each grade.
Already, the academy’s waiting list has 200 students, Rosta said.
Students are broken into classes, or legions, of about 14. The smaller class sizes are another selling point.
Megan Shaw, a ninth-grader, said she wanted to avoid the crowd of thousands of students that many Gilbert high schools have. Shaw chose the academy because “the size and the teachers,” she said.