Zaharis named one of America's 25 Coolest Schools
"If you think public education in America has lost its edge, think again. All across the nation, schools are finding ways to engage students, families and communities inside the classroom by thinking outside the box." — Scholastic Parent & Child magazine
Something different is happening at Zaharis Elementary. Judging by the out-the-door waiting list, it’s definitely something good.
The draw is a literacy-rich, inquiry-based learning style that downplays textbooks and instead emphasizes what Principal Mike Oliver calls “authentic learning experiences.”
Students, he says, “do what real readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists and social scientists do.” That means joining book clubs where they learn through discussion, investigating answers to their own questions and solving problems collaboratively.
Fifth-graders studying the 19th century’s westward expansion wear pioneer garb, churn butter and dance the Virginia Reel, while the king and queen of the sixth-grade Medieval Feast live like Renaissance royalty — eating with their fingers by candlelight.
Meanwhile, several classes share in the care of five 200-pound African Sulcata Tortoises that live in the school’s open-air atrium. Sales of the hatchlings — 103 this year! — are used to fund school projects. “Ultimately our ideas flow back to [philosopher] John Dewey,” says Oliver about creating curriculum. “He said, ‘Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.’”
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East Valley Tribune newspaper: "Mesa school is where children 'learn from the heart'"
"Principal Michael Oliver raves — raves — about the quality of his 'diverse' teachers he carefully hand picks: 'They must be willing to give up some control and let students take some ownership; it requires brilliance and expertise. They are my heroes; they are smart, passionate and humble.'”
The Arizona Republic newspaper: "Two schools make 'coolest' list"
"It is very exciting and very validating," said Mike Oliver, principal at Zaharis Elementary since the school opened 10 years ago. Zaharis has 909 students this year, and about 400 used the state's open-enrollment policy to transfer in from other districts or from other schools in Mesa. One family this year drives all the way in from Coolidge," Oliver said.