Maryvale Preparatory Academy, Phoenix, AZ

When Tori and I walked into our first classroom – 8th-grade Literature and Composition – at Maryvale Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, we knew we were in for a treat. A student approached us, shook our hands, and said, “We’re having a Socratic Seminar about Lord of the Flies; please have a seat.”

The question Mr. Franichevich has on the board is a big one: Between the two approaches to making a new life on the island, Jack’s and Ralph’s – which approach is more right? A veteran of the seminar format, he lets the kids lead the discussion, participating almost as a peer. He lobs in rich vocabulary words – which all the kids seemed to understand; words like overbearing, preoccupation, and oblivious – and doesn’t allow things to get off course (with reminders like, “How does that help us answer this question?” or “No hypotheticals will be entertained here.”), but that’s about it.

Visiting the occasional 6-8 classroom along our tour has been a privilege – as it has allowed us to witness, in its full glory, the results of knowledge-building taking place in the earlier grades.

Jack Franicevich’s 8th grade Literature and Composition class prepares for a Socratic seminar

Maryvale Preparatory Academy is part of a network of classical charter schools called Great Hearts Academies. 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 predominately 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.

Maryvale – 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 8th grade (and getting their own copies to keep!) – everything from Charlotte’s Web and Pinocchio to A Christmas Carol and The Merchant of Venice.

Images of art masterpieces – hung as in a gallery – line the halls of Maryvale Preparatory Academy

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 Preparatory Academy. As we visited with teachers and parents, they continually return to the impact of the school’s focus on the moral formation of its students.

We talked at length with Great Hearts Chief Academic Officer, Robert Jackson, about this. He attributes it to the classical tradition of education, going back centuries, which emphasizes the integration of intellectual and 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”, he says.

Nine core virtues are prominently displayed in most of Maryvale classrooms: responsibility, perseverance, integrity, honesty, courage, citizenship, humility, friendship, and wisdom. Tori and I can’t help noticing how they show up in the great content these kids are getting. Dean of Academics Crystal Cruz tells us that what we’re seeing is the result of teachers intentionally developing their “Essential Questions” with the core values in mind. We saw:

  • 6th graders discuss the pros and cons of Athenian juries that contained hundreds, even thousands, of jurors.
  • 2nd graders in Mrs. Scofield’s class read a segment of Charlotte’s Web thinking about qualities a noble person possesses and asking themselves if any of the characters possess these qualities. “Be ready to tell me a character who is exhibiting these qualities.”
  • 4th graders complete a writing assignment about The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle that asks, “What kind of virtue does this character show? What virtue do they lack?” – while other students are engaged in a discussion of why Captain Jaggery is so evil.
  • 1st graders in Ms. Grado’s class ponder if they’d have had the perseverance to return to Virginia after discovering everyone in the Roanoke settlement had perished.

That’s what it looks like in school. What it looks like at home is Elise Romo overhearing her kindergartener tell her stuffed animals, “That wasn’t responsible of you to forget your homework.” “You need to persevere.” Or “You need to show friendship if someone on the playground is sad.”

8th grader Cielo Romo with her mom Elise

Elise and her husband drive 35 minutes each way so their two daughters can attend Maryvale. Without a doubt, it’s a burden on the family. But Cielo (8th grade) wants to go to Harvard. And they knew she wouldn’t get there from her neighborhood school. “At my old school, they were there for the fun…Here everyone is working hard and has a high standard.”

We asked Cielo about her favorite subject. She said that Literature and Composition has really opened her eyes; that “Mr. Franicevich raises such interesting questions” – like Should Anne Frank’s diary have been published?

Everywhere we went at Maryvale Prep we witnessed the lovely melding of consistently strong instruction, rich and thoughtfully sequenced curriculum, empowering content, and, yes, intentionality about elevating the virtues.

Mrs. Horne’s 1st grade class

Maryvale was our first charter school visit on the tour – and the flexibility it has to hire teachers inclined toward their 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 themselves in content to the degree these teachers are. But such factors – and a whole lot of “heart” – certainly make for one very special school.

Tori Filler, Student Achievement Partners, talking with students
Ms. Devries’s 2nd grade class is reading and finding text evidence.

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The Authors

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, NY.