Zaharis Elementary principal Mike Oliver

Eight school days ago, vehicles filled with kids and backpacks, stretched for blocks beyond Zaharis, a pulsating east Mesa elementary school. It nestles in the shadows of Red Mountain, camouflaged in lush sagebrush and cacti.

That traffic crush, come to think of it, is a regular event. Buses pick up students within Zaharis boundaries, but with one-third of the 900 students coming from eight surrounding cities, jams are nothing new. They tell a tale of parents doing what it takes to get their children to the best of the best.

It’s all about motivated students whose curiosity and learning styles are honored, and about helping them apply Common Core education standards ( core standards) to today’s world.

Zaharis’ success is not a secret. This month it’s recognized in the “Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine” as one of the top 25 “coolest” schools in the nation.

In fair disclosure, I discovered Zaharis because my granddaughter, Payton, is a student.

One has to meet the guy who’s leading the charge for change in the public classroom. Principal Michael Oliver, who grew up in the West Valley, took the helm of the brand new school a decade ago, determined to make it the “premier school in all America.”

“So what’s the deal,” I asked Oliver. “Why is Zaharis considered one of the best when in fact it has a B rating in regards to the AIMS’ test?” And, with that, I received my education on the “Oliver” philosophy, which is embraced by his staff and a whole bunch of involved parents.

It goes something like this: Certain national and state standards must be met. We hear all about rigorous AIMS prep instruction. But, at Zaharis, the “curriculum of caring” philosophy successfully embraces children’s learning styles beyond testing indoctrination.

Oliver says, “We all are familiar with Einstein’s take on measurement: ‘Not everything that can be measured counts and not everything that counts can be measured.’” At least via scores A through F. Oliver has an additional measuring system: “Every time I walk in a classroom, I see new eyes.”

He explains: “We want children who raise questions, investigate, problem-solve and interrogate the world around them. We call this a curriculum of becoming. It’s dynamic, alive, and fluid.”

Yeah. Then what? How do you change the paradigm of puppet learners lined up in a row? Classrooms are filled with what Oliver calls “real books,” specifically selected to address family and societal challenges. Couches and ottomans and other casual seating beckon to student readers. Respectful discussion and activities make sense out of real world issues.

Oliver raves — raves — about the quality of his “diverse” teachers he carefully, hand picks: “They must be willing to give up some control and let students take some ownership; it requires brilliance and expertise. They are my heroes; they are smart, passionate and humble.”

Well, one small column falls short of how this works, but happy parents and students are the telling factor. You’ll want to check out the Zaharis website at

I suppose the statement, which became the clincher for me was this: “Things students remember most, they learn from the heart.”

As for that B rating? Sure, Zaharis strives for the A, but won’t sacrifice success to get it. Oliver tells of the many visitors, national and international, who regularly tour his campus. Last year, a dozen of Russia’s highest ranking education officials, came to see a school “reflecting democracy in education.” Let’s hope they take the philosophy home. We have a world full of young people desperately in need of embracing personal responsibility, who are trained, critical thinkers, who know how to use choice. It looks like Zaharis is on to something. And to think, it’s a public school.

(20) comments


You mean the Earth is not flat. That is news, I mean our Pastor told us all about not taking cruises as we may fall off the side. Not flat huh? I will have to ask him about that when we return back to the regular sermons on shunning homosexuals and talking down to non christians. I mean that is what all churches teach- right?


Great column, Linda.

Yeah, I'm back. It's been a long while since I've posted. I can't even remember when that was.

The main reason I was gone so long - and this will make sense only to the few people who have read my comments - is that I discovered that I will be leavin on my mission a lot sooner than I thought. It will actually be sometime in February or January, it depends on a few things.

This means that I will not likely be posting again for even longer. I have many things to do between now and next year. I just won't have much time.

And when return, I may not stay here. As much as I've loved this state, it's a little too hot for me. At least in the summer. Winter is just perfect because I'm used to cold weather, and even though 50 degrees may seem cold here, it's nothing compared to Idaho. That's where I was born, in case you were wondering. I miss the winter snow a little too much. I may move back there.

Until I return, God bless you all! (And yes, that includes even you, Engaged Voter.) [smile]


I'll consider that a compliment EnRaged coming from you.

Engaged Voter

"Kind of like the stuff that you wrote EnRaged that got the column post pulled about ChickfilA's president communicating his personal beliefs."

"Must have got one right out of the public school administrator handbook."

Conspiracy theories are one thing...but these are the rantings of a deluded mind.

JMJ, your comment is right on target. Alas, because of the length and the vocabulary used, it will probably not be read by many on this forum...reading comprehension (or a lack thereof) isn't limited to school administrators. ;)


I seriously wish the administrators I knew could actually read and form their own opinions and thoughts. There is no administrator manual, unless you count the lesson plans that are prepared and given to PE teachers who transition into the administrators of MPS. And, if there were, don't worry, they can't read above a fourth-grade level to understand anything, anyway.

The teachers outperform and run circles around most of the administrators I knew. They are now being forced to practice new methods that have been "discovered" by a few in the curriculum and instruction department. The teachers are not "liberal" in their thought processes, they are basically under house arrest and being fed what the district wants them to eat and regurgitate. It is NOT liberal and progressive by any stretch.

You have no idea how far off you all are about accusations of "liberal" and "progressive" thought processes even being anywhere near a public school in Arizona. If "we" were that "liberal" and "progressive", the East Valley would be leaps and bounds ahead of where it is currently--which is: stuck in the mire of nothing progressive nor innovative, devoid of all thinking processes and critical thought--because things have been dumbed down so much by the Republican majority tyranny that runs our schools, their [lack-of-]funding, and not one progressive thought around for miles and miles. The influence of a certain large, religious institution reaches deeply into the thought processes [limited though they be] with regard to innovation and change. Everyone is safe from actual thinking, don't worry.

The far right majority is what is to blame, here, not the "liberal" "left". The far right majority is running this state, most especially the East Valley. How's that workin' for "us" as a state? It ain't.

The small colleges which have been invited to open in downtown junkie-ville Mesa, AZ, offer largely liberal arts-based curricula, which is going to help a small minority of matriculants do...what? Work in the tech fields? How? Are our K-12 kids going to be prepared to even apply? I think that's what the latest thrust is pretending to be regarding preparation for a college education. Shouldn't that have always been the thrust?

There is NOTHING earth-shaking or innovative or scary in Mesa, Arizona, nor its schools. Sorry to say, but you look at the posts in this far-right rag and those of you who rant and rave against the liberal left have no clue about what you all sound like--intelligent design dwarves who hitch your stardust on a guru planet-leader who has no clue what it is like to be in the trenches, dealing with real, actual people. Oh, but he is someone just like you: Insulated, afraid of the "rot", and hiding in plain sight among your own. You enjoy the benefits of a democratic society while you'd deny others the rights they should have within that same society. Segregation is back, albeit manufactured and "safe".

Respect lifers, right? How about respecting the lives of people who are already here and need some direction, instead of avoiding all of humankind that does not reflect your exact values or your skin color or your "family values", which generally mean, "THOSE PEOPLE are not actually people, so don't go near them."

The charter school mess has blown up in our faces, and you all blame the public schools for everything under the sun. Even this article, as "sweet" as it was trying to be in lauding the "coolest" school misses the mark. Zaharis is a Franklin on steroids. Its boss is a former PE teacher, much like the administrative pool that keeps getting promoted in Mesa. But, the PE guru has discovered books, and he has a gaggle of women who just adore him, parents who adore him, and, a "B", people. A "B". A "cool" school with a largely White clientele that can't pull off an "A"--on the dumbed down AIMS test with a hand-picked FAR RIGHT clientele. Just like YOU, who are shaking in your boots about "liberal", "progressive" "rot". AIMS tests the basics: Reading, Writing and Math. It's not about philosophy or politcs or the Republican Party. No teacher has time to brainwash any kids, right now, nor have we ever as far back as I can remember. Again, don't worry about the administrators. They're still trying to figure out the bell system. They are not dangerous in the least.

We need some progressive thought to motivate and move and shake this system, which adopts a "new" methods program and locks in those lyrics, without regard to the drop in morale and the DROP in the district's grades, overall, compared to Chandler and Gilbert and Higley.

You don't want to be exposed to all the "rot" that is out there? What "rot"? There's not a thought in anyone's head about how to solve the "problem" with public schools except to run and insulate oneself at the local Chick-fil-A, while you all pick a Christian school or homeschool or find some Charter which will blow sunshine where the sun don't usually shine. Circle your wagons after you order your waffle fries, but, against--what? Trust me, there's nothing out here to be afraid of regarding anything progressive. Especially at Zaharis.

My kids would not be in the schools they attended 20 years ago in Mesa, but it isn't because they are progressive or liberal. It's because when they attended, they were encouraged to think [mainly by me as their parent], they knew they were going to college from the time they first sucked a lungful of air, and the teachers were allowed to be innovative and teach their passion for their subject matter. Going to the public schools now, OR the private Christian schools, is one and the same. No one thinks outside the box or the Bible, and "love thy neighbor" becomes "except at Chick-fil-A".

What I wouldn't give to have our schools go back to the way they were run back before all the idiots were put in charge. From ADE all the way down to the current administrators. I feel badly for my former colleagues who have to jump through more and more and more hoops to earn less when they don't make their goals.

This is not a "bottom-up" problem; it's a "top-down" problem. A progressive and liberal thought could probably turn it around.


Must have got one right out of the public school administrator handbook.


I have a dream. I dream of the day when our flat earth religious right is no longer allowed to dismantle our public school system and they allowed to flourish again.


Again, Mike this isn't a one-off factoid that proves a point. It's a choice we made as a family 15 years ago and one of the best decisions we've ever made. I want my family to be removed as much as possible from cultural rot. Kind of like the stuff that you wrote EnRaged that got the column post pulled about ChickfilA's president communicating his personal beliefs.

Engaged Voter

"Everybody gets a good grade whether they deserve it or not"
"Can't pledge to the flag."
"Can't speak of God."
Wow! What school is this happening at??

"berated for wanting to join the military"
And no lawsuit? Did this actually happen? Where, when, and who??

Oh, the commenter is mnjcpa...normally I'd ask the person making these claims to support them...but I feel I would be wasting my time in this case...

But I admit I COULD be wrong...time will tell.

Mike McClellan

1. Pledge said every day at thr start of homeroom in my district; last year, at thr school where I tutored and at the school I'm at this year, the day begins with the pledge.

2. Taught Bible allegory Everyman in h.s.

3. Morons who chastise kids for their opinions don't deserve to be in the classroom, but that's hardly the norm

4. Everyone gets good grades --where?


All you have to do is observe the thinking coming out of Harvard - Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama to see what's happened to our education system.

It's been a long time since mine have been in public schools, but here are a few: Everybody gets a good grade whether they deserve it or not. Inability to customize a student's learning path. Little focus on substantive subjects like math and science. Can't pledge to the flag. If you wear a flag on your shirt you're sent home. Can't discipline appropriately. Can't speak of God. Passing kids that can't even read. Inability to keep quality teachers or pay them adequately. Big Government Union - Dept of Education & administrators are the big winners. The tutor for my grandkids was just telling me that some of her friend teaching chastise kids if they say anything negative about Obama. My son was berated for wanting to join the military. I could see the direction public education was going many years ago.

Liberalism is a disease Mike, it's not a one-off factoid. I don't want my family around it.

Mike McClellan

Still waiting to read a specific "liberal BS" idea teachers put in Arizona school kids' heads -- "societal and family diversity" is a good talking point, but let's see a specific one.


Yeah cerulean that's the good liberal way - shut up the dissent. The last I checked I'm not the president of the US whose influence is considerably more than mine. And in my opinion Obama takes Chicago thug politics to a new level. Sorry you can't be intellectually honest.

I haven't had a child in the public school system for 15 years and still pay my taxes to fund them but choose not to join. I don't want my family learning liberal BS and am willing to pay for it to avoid it.


I am not saying that mnjcpa is destroying America – but he’s doing his best at it because it is his job as a blogger. As such he pits Americans against other Americans on the internet. It is a pitiful shame too that he is not even intellectually honest about it. However, we have no choice but to accept mnjcpa for what he is
Every day he doubles down on issues that he is totally tired of. Every day he says, “I’m tired of . . .” you fill in the blank.

mnjcpa, every public school teaches the basics and more. In my opinion, your home is the best teacher of social values, but when your children are in public school they must also learn how NOT to be a self righteous bully. Do you agree?


For the full Coolest Schools in America list on Scholastic Parent & Child, please visit Join the discussion on Twitter, too, by using #PCcoolschools: your tweets will get looped into the site.



I never said that Obama single-handedly destroyed America - but he's done a real fine job of it. Pitting Americans against other Americans is a pitiful leader in my world, and it's a shame you can't be intellectually honest about it too. I've met many die-hard Democrats lately that see this guy for what he is.

Obama has just made it dramatically worse because his platform doubles down on this whole notion that everyone should be the same. Where creativity is non-existent and achievement is frowned upon.

We pulled our kids from public schools 15 years ago and my grandkids won't step foot in the public school system. Why? Chatman defined it perfectly - `There seems to be an emphasis on societal and family diversity instead of reading, writing and arithmetic. So it's no small wonder we don't produce kids with an education that they can actually compete globally - something that is a lot more important to me than whether kids `feel good` about a non-existent achievement.

The teachers I hired to teach my kids/grandkids are incredibly gifted educators from the public school system that feel the same way and have taken their gifts to a private business where they can actually help kids be the best they can be and not be ashamed of it because someone else chose to take a lesser path. Obama didn't create the problem, but he lives the liberal nonsense that I just described. For this taxpayer, I want my kids educated differently.

Mike McClellan

yep, welfare began in 2009. Everyone knows that American history only began after Obama was elected. And schools were fantastic until then. And the economy was going great guns until Obama got in the Oval Office.

Yep, you're right, mnjcpa. That Obama has single-handedly destroyed America.

By the way, will you please cite one example of "liberal nonsense" that has "invaded" young Arizona minds as a result of public schools?


Tell me about it chatman. Used to be it was respectable and honorable to work hard and make a success of yourself. In Obama's zero sum game world the extraordinary effort and risk it takes to run a business is grounds for contempt. I'm convinced the man wants to confiscate profits in the name of keeping everyone the same. And the public school system is a joke - another institution that invades young minds to believe liberal nonsense where everyone gets a trophy whether they excel or not. The world is upside down.


Chat, rest assured, that in the culture of Zaharis, where books were first discovered, the staff simply adores their fearless leader. To be selected to teach there is a wooing process worthy of the Stepford Wives. Flowers are delivered, in person, when a teacher is "accepted" into the fold. It is one of the most ultra-conservative schools in Mesa. It is hardly progressive. It is hardly liberal. It is a place where the local hero [if not mascot], Mitt Romney, would refer to those "other than" the Zaharis culture as "you people". Do you "get" my drift? As an aside, I must qualify my statements with a disclaimer: I do not know if the male teachers get roses when they are allowed to teach at this hallowed school. But, I am sure they know who the alpha is on the premises. Yawn. My kids wouldn't be caught dead there. They were raised to think for themselves. They are progressive and, while not totally liberal, they wouldn't have their kids at Zaharis, either. Zzzzzzzzz. Going back to sleep on my Cadillac pension.


Sounds good for now but I'm not sure a school run by the students' motivation will succeed in moving them forward. What happens when they have to perform at some more demanding level in the future? Looks like the liberal/progressive indoctrination of our children is starting earlier and earlier. There seems to be an emphases on societal and family diversity instead of reading, writing and arithmetic. Being one of the "coolest" schools is not necessarily the best option for a better education. Also is being one of the "coolest" schools an euphemism for liberal/progressive studies?

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