Innovation Road Trip: At This Phoenix School, Students Are Taught to Be ‘Thoughtful and Insightful’ Through Contact With History’s Best Thinkers

This is the fifth piece in a new travel blog series on The 74, in which the Knowledge Matters Campaign, part of StandardsWork, will take us on an adventure through classrooms across the country. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter to learn about new installments, and see the full developing series here.

When we walked into our first classroom — eighth-grade Literature and Composition — at Maryvale Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, we knew we were in for a treat. A young man approached us, shook our hands, and said, “We’re having a Socratic seminar about Lord of the Flies; please have a seat.”

Jack Franicevich is a veteran of the seminar format. He let his students lead the discussion, participating almost as a peer (while lobbing in rich vocabulary words like “overbearing,” “preoccupation,” and “oblivious.”) But he also didn’t let things get off course, with reminders like, “How does that help us answer this question?”

Images of art masterpieces line the main office and hallways at Maryvale Preparatory Academy. (Photo courtesy StandardsWork)

It’s not just Franicevich. Everywhere we went at Maryvale Prep, we witnessed a lovely melding of consistently strong instruction, thoughtfully sequenced curriculum, empowering content, and great care paid to the school’s nine core virtues: responsibility, perseverance, integrity, honesty, courage, citizenship, humility, friendship, and wisdom.

Sophia Grado’s first-grade class gathers for a read-aloud (from Core Knowledge History) about the Jamestown Settlement. (Photo courtesy StandardsWork)

Maryvale Prep is part of Great Hearts Academies, a network of public charter schools. Established in 2004, they operate 23 schools in Arizona and Texas. Maryvale Prep is in its fifth year of operation and represents a big change for the organization, since it serves a predominantly low-income, Latino student population. To fill classes their first year, Principal Mac Esau knocked on doors throughout the Maryvale community (interestingly, the first master-planned community in Arizona, back in the ’50s), assuring parents they weren’t there to sell cable, and telling them about his vision for a school that would prepare their children for college and a virtuous life.

Esau acknowledges that the Great Hearts philosophy of “truth, goodness, and beauty” probably didn’t impress as much as did the passion of his team.

Sophia Grado’s first-grade class display their work. (Photo courtesy StandardsWork)

Maryvale Prep — and indeed all Great Hearts schools — use the Core Knowledge Sequence as the content backbone of their curriculum, though it is not a full-on implementation of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). The Great Books Reading List plays an influential role as well, with students reading 50 classics by the time they finish eighth grade (and getting their own copies to keep!) — everything from Charlotte’s Web and Pinocchio to A Christmas Carol and The Merchant of Venice.

Christina Scofield’s second-graders are reading Charlotte’s Web. (Photo courtesy StandardsWork)

Throughout our visit, the level of student engagement with content was powerful — and the quality of the work high. But this is not the most notable feature of Maryvale Prep. As we visited with teachers and parents, they continually returned to the impact of the school’s focus on students’ moral formation.

“We are teaching students to be thoughtful and insightful by bringing them into contact with some of the best thinkers and artists of the ages,” Great Hearts Chief Academic Officer Robert Jackson said.

Jack Franicevich’s eighth-grade Literature and Composition class prepares for a Socratic seminar. (Photo courtesy StandardsWork)

Maryvale Prep was our first charter school visit on the tour, and the flexibility it has to hire teachers inclined toward the school’s philosophy and to support a full-time teacher assistant in all K-5 classrooms is certainly an advantage. Not every faculty is going to want to immerse itself in content to the degree these teachers are. But such factors — and a whole lot of heart — certainly make for one very special school.

Barbara Davidson is president of StandardsWork and runs the Knowledge Matters Campaign. A former classroom teacher of students with learning disabilities, she has worked for the past 30 years at the intersection of education policy and practice and has led a number of curriculum development efforts.

Tori Filler is a member of the Literacy and English Language Arts team at Student Achievement Partners. Prior to this work, she taught elementary school in Brooklyn, New York.

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