“The sound is ‘ah,’” teacher Richelle Owen says to a half-dozen students seated in a semi-circle. “When you go back to your seats, you’re going to be practicing the sound ‘ah.’ What sound are we going to practice?”
“Ah,” the students repeat.
In the opposite corner, intervention specialist Jon Luebke shows students photographs illustrating vocabulary words such as “glance,” “frantic,” “reluctant” and “timid.”
All eyes are on Luebke as he tells kids: “Thumbs up if you know which one is ‘timid.’” Kids are enthused, practically rising from their seats to participate in what seems like a game.
In a nearby fourth-grade classroom, students read aloud from “The Tin Woodman” – one of the original Oz stories by L. Frank Baum. When a student stumbles over a word, teacher Kandice Burton stops, says the word correctly, and has the whole class repeat it before moving on.
Repetition, review, group response, fast pacing, audible teacher cues to signal students that it’s time to respond – these are all hallmarks of a teaching method known as “direct instruction.”
Lessons are carefully designed to help students master concepts sequentially, step by step. Group recitation lets a teacher hear if everybody has mastered the material or if more teaching is needed.
The method has been around for decades, and it’s often used with special education students. But it’s fallen out of favor with educators in many mainstream classrooms who consider it old-fashioned and uncreative.
But Arthur Academies are popular with parents, who say their kids thrive there.
Casi Howard has two children at the Arthur Academy in the David Douglas School District in east Portland. She brings her kids there from another school district.
She said the academy has helped her son, who has speech problems. He learns by listening to his peers, she said. An Arthur Academy teacher tutored him for free over the summer. The teachers, Howard said, “love all their students for who they are. They do it more for the love of teaching than the love of money.”
Second-grade teacher Kaiti Miller, who’s in her first year at Arthur Academy, knows she could make more in a traditional public school. Teachers on her campus, like those at most charter schools, do not belong to a union. They start at about $32,000 annually, while beginning teachers in the David Douglas School District start at more than $39,000.
But she said she gets rewarded every day by her students’ learning.
“It’s not about me. It’s all about them,” she said.
First-grade teacher Jackie Rosales is in her third year at Arthur Academy. She likes the sense of community in the 160-student school, located in a series of green single-story modular buildings on a busy street.
“It would be hard to leave and go back to a big school,” she said. “I care about my students so much.”
The school’s handbook makes an important promise to parents: Teachers will never assign homework that requires parents to teach their kids. Kids learn at school and practice at home.
The handbook also stresses what it calls honest grading: To earn an A, a student must score 95 percent or better. Drop below 80 percent, and a kid must try again for mastery.
“We believe teaching is a technical profession,” said Don Crawford, director of the six Arthur Academy charter schools in Portland and surrounding areas. The elementary schools are named for founder Charles Arthur.
While much of the instruction is scripted, teachers can put their own creative spin on their teaching style – much the same way an actor brings a movie script to life, Crawford said.
Like many charter schools, Arthur Academies are small. At the Arthur Academy in David Douglas, there are just seven teachers, one for each grade level from kindergarten through grade five, and one specialist who works with kids throughout the school. Half the teachers have at least a master’s degree.
Like many charters, Arthur Academy has struggled. In 2008, it was the subject of an investigation after financial woes caused the school to miss payments into the employee retirement fund. But Crawford said those problems have been resolved and school management is now on solid ground.
In fact, he said, if Washington state’s charter initiative is successful, Arthur Academy would explore the possibility of opening a school across the Columbia River in Vancouver.
Don Grotting, superintendent of the David Douglas district that sponsors the charter, said the district recently renewed with Arthur Academy for another five years. It’s pleased with the job the charter is doing.
“They have had good results,” he said. “They are prepared and pay attention to detail.”
State test results released earlier this month show David Douglas Arthur Academy scored higher than the district it belongs to. But the charter is less diverse than the school district as a whole, which serves students who speak more than 77 languages at home and has a poverty rate higher than nearby Portland Public Schools.
Other charters – less prepared than Arthur Academy, in Grotting’s eyes – have tried to court the David Douglas district, but haven’t made the cut. He points out that his district was also the first in the state to revoke its contract with a different charter school that wasn’t making the grade.
When charters take their eyes off the goal of helping students succeed, Grotting said, they ultimately fail.
If there’s one thing he’d change about Oregon’s charter law, it would be developing a way to ensure that a charter operator is “in it for the right reasons.”
“I think a lot of charters are doing a lot of great work,” Grotting said. But for others, he said, “it’s an entrepreneurial activity.”Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com