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Oro Grande School will convert to academy

January 13, 2019

In December, the governing board of the Lake Havasu Unified School District unanimously voted to expand a pilot program at Oro Grande Elementary.

The school will be renamed Oro Grande Classical Academy.

For the 2018-2019 school year, a classical education approach was used in grades K-2. The expansion for the 2019-2020 school year will include grades 4, 5 and 6.

Originally, the plan was to add one grade per year. However, the success of the classical teaching methods in the first few months convinced district officials to make a full conversion as soon as possible.

Principal Brett Bitterman on Tuesday said parents and teachers have embraced the classical education model, which is one reason for including the upper grades at the school next year.

“We can go K-6 with what we have,” he said, noting that the cost increase for converting all the grades would be minimal for the school’s 342 students.

The district earmarked $150,000 for implementing the magnet program at Oro Grande. Of that instructional improvement fund, approximately $17,000 was spent in the first year for what Bitterman called “consumables,” meaning workbooks, handouts and other classroom material that cannot be reused. He estimated the cost for full implementation of the classical education in grades K-6 would cost about $10,000 per year for the materials.

Bitterman shared some of the feedback from parents of students who are being classically educated. In several instances, improved vocabulary was central to the remarks. This speaks to one of the teaching style’s goals, which is for students to be articulate.

“It’s a more robust education. Writing and reading are emphasized,” Bitterman said. “Parents are happy. They’ve told me they’re excited to see what their kids have learned every day.”

Teachers have some learning to do themselves. District Superintendent Diana Asseier said the teacher training process isn’t complicated or prolonged, but it is a process.

“There are two parts. The curriculum is one part, especially math. Classical uses Singapore math, which gives a deeper understanding of key concepts. For instance, students get multiplication in first grade instead of second grade. The lesson plans are laid out, which helps,” Asseier said.

The second part of the training is about presentation.

“Classical education used the Socratic method. Teachers learn how to deliver the information in this way,” she said, adding that group work is rarely used in the classroom.

Nichole Cohen is a member of the district’s governing board. She was a staunch supporter of the classical education model before it became a reality in Havasu. She introduced other board members and administrators to the scope and sequence for the classical curriculum from Hillsdale College in Michigan. It is basically a template and outlines what a classical program should be teaching.

“Hillsdale said we could use it any way we wanted, which was great, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said, claiming that “we are the only traditional public school district in the country working with Hillsdale College on this.”

Most institutions that use the Hillsdale classical program are charter or private schools.

“It makes Oro Grande a magnet (school) for the best and the brightest. That we’re able to offer this is incredible,” Cohen said.

Newly-elected school board President Kathy Cox agreed with the spirit of Cohen’s remarks. When asked if there was a way to incorporate elements of the classical model in the rest of the district’s conventional classrooms, she said the idea may be worth exploring down the road. In the meantime, she sees the inclusion of all grades at Oro Grade as a promising development.

“We just have to make this work. And believe me, other teachers (in the district) are paying attention (to how it pans out),” Cox said.

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