“Enter to Learn, Build your Dreams”. This is the message that empowers the students of Zaharis Elementary as they turn down the long driveway to the school each day. The concrete marker is the first hint that something different is happening here.
Step inside the classrooms and you may see children gathered on a rug, at the feet of a teacher in a rocking chair, as they experience their favorite books together. In another classroom, you may see small groups of students performing readers’ theater depicting a moment in history. In student-led literature circles, you may hear powerful discussions about how life is reflected in literature. Perhaps you may be fortunate enough to eavesdrop on a writing conference. Listen carefully as a child shares his writing, a sacred moment. The teacher works as mentor, carefully questioning, guiding the writer as he learns the art of writing and, eventually, the power of finding his own voice.
Maybe you will walk into a math lesson. Here, you will witness young mathematicians engaged in authentic practices where real-life mathematical situations are solved with hands-on manipulatives, until the abstract becomes concrete. At Zaharis, teachers believe that inquiry develops a solid foundation of numeracy. Children work together to raise questions, investigate, and solve problems. Our classroom communities are alive with a passion and fire for learning.
We have many opportunities to help families in and out of our school community. When one of our students passed away in an accident, students and teachers rose to the call for aid, financial and emotional. After an inquiry into homelessness, a first grade classroom led the school toward an outreach to support local shelters. Zaharis is a place where people teach and learn with heart, passion, and a generosity of spirit.
Principal, teachers, and students at Zaharis regularly let down their hair, breaking into a rehearsed flash mob, wearing medieval costumes for a full-scale knighting ceremony and feast, or dancing, sewing and making butter on the prairie, dressed as pioneers. Everyone wears pajamas for the annual bedtime stories night, where teachers share their favorite stories with families. At Zaharis, school is fun. Our special events, combined with everyday experiences, make learning exciting, motivational, and meaningful.
We have a strong community of parents and families who believe in what we’re doing. They show up to support classroom activities and events. When volunteers are needed for field trips, family game night, or working in the classrooms, they are happy to help.
There’s a sense of belonging and pride that extends beyond the walls of the school.Students leave Zaharis to move on to junior high and high school, but they still consider themselves Soaring Eagles, returning often to visit, reminisce, and wander the halls of the school they once called “home”. They say things like, “I miss being here,” and “I love this place!”
The Zaharis population draws from eight different cities within the greater Phoenix area. More than one-third of our students come from outside our boundary. There is a waiting list to get in. Parents seeking a nurturing environment and a student-centered learning model find Zaharis compelling. They clamor to bring their children here because of our unique approach to teaching and learning.
Life inside our classroom communities looks different because what it means to be a learner is different at Zaharis. Learning is both situated and applied in real-life experience. All members of the classroom community are teachers and learners. Teaching with real books, learning through inquiry, placing a premium on student talk and discussion, and empowering students to think critically, provides our students a with a unique experience.
Saguaro cactuses, like sentinels, welcome the children, parents, and visitors who enter. The beauty of the setting doesn’t stop at the door. It continues through the muraled halls to the glassed walls of the African Sulcata Tortoise habitat ,where 200-pound tortoises live among us. Cozy living room areas, replete with comfy couches and baskets of books, provide space for reading, writing, and discussion, and act as extensions of the classrooms.
The classrooms are designed by the teachers and students to create welcoming, safe environments where young learners can thrive. They are places where questions are raised, answers are sought, thoughts are shared, and students and teachers work side-by-side in a workshop setting.
Each day, we recognize, name, and combat inequalities-not just in our classrooms, but in the world in which we live. Our teachers plan inquiries into sensitive subjects such as civil rights, poverty, homelessness, immigration, and prejudice. Literature inspires us to roll up our sleeves, take action, and do something to make a difference. All learners, big and small, strive to see the world through the lens of social justice. Social studies are not an independent discipline--they are part of who we are and everything we do.
Students and staff alike form close relationships with children with severe mental and physical disabilities. They volunteer their recesses to work in the classroom, and give smiles and high-fives in the hallways. These special students are known by name and loved by all. We refer to this as our “curriculum of caring”. We believe that caring for one another is just as important as any curricular decisions, instructional strategies, or books we use. We recognize that while many things are learned through language, some are best learned through thoughtful, caring, compassionate relationships.
We teach our children the importance of living a healthy and active lifestyle by creating running clubs, having frequent classroom activity breaks, taking on the “Jump rope for Heart” challenge, providing active recess games, having healthier lunch time food options, and having a staff who leads by example.
Our teachers walk in the Heart Walk. Our students run in the Pat Tillman race. Our principal even ran 50 miles with Dean Karnazes in his Run Across America! One look around and you’ll see, we are active.
Out here in the Arizona heat, and in an educational climate of high-stakes testing, learning is still fun. Kids, teachers, and community members love coming to school. Our teachers are united in their commitment to providing learning experiences that matter. When things heat up, Zaharis teachers stick to their beliefs and do what is best for children. And that’s what makes us cool.