Tempe Preparatory Academy

Tempe Preparatory Academy chemistry teacher Mitchell Sweet teaches Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011, at the school in Tempe. [Tim Hacker/ Tribune]

[Tim Hacker, Tribune]

Where's one of the best places in the world to learn reading and math?

Tempe Preparatory Academy, according to a study released last week.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center released the "Global Report Card" to compare how the United States is doing educating its students in reading and math. It used the most recent test scores available at the national level - data from 2004 to 2007 - to compare the U.S. to the average achievement of 25 developed countries globally, including the United Kingdom, Denmark, Hong Kong, Israel, Korea and Canada.

The study, using academic achievement data from 25 countries, not only compares every school district and charter school to the rest of the world, but lists the top 60 U.S. schools or districts.

Joining Tempe Preparatory in the top national rankings is Veritas Preparatory in Phoenix, a school founded on the same principles as Tempe Preparatory. Chandler Preparatory Academy - a sister school to Veritas and one of the Great Hearts charter schools - ranked on the list of top places for reading education in America.

In fact, of the top 60 public school districts or charter schools in the U.S. for reading or math, all of Arizona's entries are charter schools.

Nearly two-thirds of the top U.S. schools listed for both subjects - reading and math - are east of the Mississippi. Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York provide the highest number of top schools.

Hugh Hallman, headmaster for Tempe Preparatory Academy and mayor of Tempe, points to his campus as an example of what can be done in education in Arizona.

"We are not a private school with the best and brightest. We are a public school. Our students are picked by lottery. Our incoming student base looks just like the incoming student base in surrounding schools," he said, while watching students dismiss from class Monday.

What Tempe Preparatory Academy is doing differently is keeping class sizes - and school size - small. Teachers only teach four classes a day. With a maximum of 22 students in each class, each teacher is only responsible for 88 students. That keeps those kids from falling through the cracks, Hallman said.

Tempe Preparatory Academy was founded shortly after Arizona's charter school movement began in the 1990s. Like district schools, charter schools are publicly funded. But charters have private operators who are freed from some of the regulations districts must follow. Students in both types of public schools are required to take the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test.

The biggest difference - the only difference, Hallman maintains - between district schools and charter schools is that teachers at charters do not need to be certified.

Hallman can hire teachers who are passionate about their subjects, whether or not they have teaching credentials. But that doesn't mean they don't have experience. His staff includes scientists, musicians and certified teachers.

Tempe Preparatory Academy also raises the bar, he said. Students in danger of failing, or who are failing, are required to seek help. Since he instituted the mandatory tutoring time, Hallman said, fewer students are dropping out despite the challenging curriculum.

That curriculum is also key. Tempe Preparatory Academy - along with the Great Hearts charter schools - puts an emphasis on reading literature and historic papers, such as "Henry V," the Federalist Papers, Supreme Court documents, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." Some students read those last two in their original Greek form.

"Any kid can do this. We ask too little of students. Do we have students who come to us not ready? Absolutely. We do everything we can to prepare them," he said. "Our problem in education is not that the standards are too high, but that we're testing the wrong thing."

Raising the bar is where Arizona is heading, said state Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa. Crandall, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he was not very familiar with the Global Report Card. But he said the future for education in Arizona is "exciting."

Arizona has adopted the nationwide Common Core Standards, which could be fully in place by 2014. Several education leaders are also looking at individualized instruction provided through technology in the classroom, a concept known as "blended learning," he said.

"If we hold students to the highest bar, they tend to rise to the occasion. That's good news. That's where we're going," he said.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has launched a new education initiative, Arizona Ready, to make that happen, he said.

Even without the nationwide drive to change, Arizona charter schools are revamping what they're doing to compete on a world scale, said Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association.

Competition is no longer just the school down the street, but the international marketplace because that's where the jobs are.

"They've adjusted their curriculum to create critically thinking kids," she said.

Schools like Tempe Preparatory Academy and the Basis charter schools set out to compete globally. Basis Schools - which recently opened a campus in Chandler - sends staff to watch how students are educated in Finland.

"The schools on the (Global Report Card) list have a set curriculum, but they will certainly meet the individual student needs," she said.

Increasingly, families are choosing charter schools, Sigmund said. The most recent report from the Arizona Department of Education shows another 10,000 students entered charter schools this year - from about 124,000 last year to 134,000 as of Oct. 1.

But the districts are not just sitting by.

In the last few years, several have opened new programs - from blended learning in Chandler to an advanced academy in Mesa to a classical academy in Gilbert. And many of those districts are looking at even more ideas in the future.

Kyrene Elementary School District announced earlier this fall that it will open a traditional school. Mesa Unified School District is also looking to adopt a "blended learning" option.

The Global Report Card was developed by Jay P. Greene, a professor, author and well-known education reform advocate, and Josh B. McGee, an adjunct professor at Rice University, as part of the George W. Bush Institute's Education Reform Initiative.

​Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune


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