Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/0811ruelas11.html

Public school grows by choice
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 11, 2003
Richard Ruelas

Paul Weaver spent the first week of school turning storage rooms back into classrooms. Even though the school choice movement has been around in Arizona for more than a decade, the principal was caught off guard by how many parents chose the type of education his school offered:

A public education.

Weaver, principal of Dunbar Elementary School, expected his school's enrollment to decline, just like it has for the past several years. He agreed to help out his district by storing boxes and equipment in what he figured would be empty classrooms.

He had no reason to think Dunbar would gain students. It's located in the inner city and has a large number of students who don't speak English. That combination is not exactly the attributes that are supposed to attract parents to a school.

But last year Dunbar posted impressive scores on state-mandated tests. It didn't do this by instituting some impressive new teaching
method. It did this because it was able to institute some old ones.

Dunbar is located on the south end of the Seventh Avenue Bridge in Phoenix. Jet planes fly over nearly constantly. For years, its students came from the nearby Matthew Henson public housing projects.

Crews started demolishing those brick apartment buildings as part of a rebuilding project. Families were relocated and the number of
students at Dunbar declined.

The Phoenix Elementary School District considered closing it last year.

Then the test scores came in.

More than half the schools' students passed every part of the dreaded Arizona Instrument to Measure Success test.

Among third-graders, the percentage of students passing the math portion zoomed up from 26 percent to 65 percent.

Among fifth-graders, 80 percent passed the writing portion and 94 percent passed the reading portion.

On the recently released Stanford 9 tests, Dunbar students scored near the top 25 percent of all students in reading and language, and hit the 92nd percentile in math.

Those numbers attracted three classrooms of new students.

The school is trying to keep the primary education classrooms down to about 20 students. The upper grades might handle as many as 30, Weaver says.

Teachers who had been transferred to other schools, in anticipation of Dunbar's shrinking enrollment, are being asked back.

"Being able to retain the core staff," Weaver says. "That's the key to the thing."

Parents have a lot of freedom to choose how their children are educated.

Arizona was a leader in creating charter schools and giving tax credits for education. Nationally, there is still talk of a voucher system.

Politicians pushing these programs say public schools don't work. But maybe public schools don't work because they haven't been allowed to.

Dunbar's success was an accident.

As it lost students, class sizes shrunk and test scores improved.

Whether in a charter, private or public school, the key is giving the teacher a small enough classroom and enough time to work with

"It certainly isn't rocket science," Weaver says. "But that's the expensive part."

Reach Ruelas at richard.ruelas@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8473.