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Sweeping change: Classical method used for teaching all Oro Grande Academy students

In a time when public school enrollments are declining across the nation, one school in Lake Havasu City saw an appreciable increase.

“We have 31 more students than we did at this same time last year,” said Brett Bitterman. “We’re at 352 students, versus 321 last year.”

Bitterman is the principal at Oro Grande Classical Academy on the city’s south side. The school was previously known as Oro Grande Elementary. In December, the governing board of the Lake Havasu Unified School District unanimously voted to rename the school to reflect a sweeping change in teaching style at the school.

Oro Grande offers a classical education for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. It involves a pattern of learning that is language-focused. For instance, Latin is introduced in third grade. Ultimately, learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken. Language-learning requires different habits of thought that lead to critical thinking. The liberal arts curriculum is focused on math, science, history and language arts, followed by attention to music, art and foreign languages.

Bitterman said the classical approach was appealing to many parents. For the 2019-2020 school year, many chose to withdraw their children from other local schools outside the school district and enroll them at Oro Grande.

During a tour of the school last Wednesday morning, it was apparent that a great deal more than the school’s name was changed for the 2019-2020 school year. The library was overhauled, creating more space for gatherings. It now even has a small stage. Wall art was changed or removed in hallways and classrooms.

“We wanted to create a clean, clutter-free environment,” Bitterman said. “It was our goal because kids are going to learn more with fewer (visual) distractions,” he said.

The classical method isn’t entirely new for the school.

For the 2018-2019 school year, a classical education approach was used in grades K-2. The expansion for the 2019-2020 school year includes grades 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Originally, the plan was to add one grade to the classical program per year. However, the success of the classical approach in the first few months of the pilot program convinced district officials to make a full conversion as soon as possible.

The district earmarked $150,000 for implementing the magnet program at Oro Grande. Of that instructional improvement fund, approximately $17,000 was spent in the first year for what Bitterman previously called “consumables,” meaning workbooks, handouts and other classroom material that cannot be reused. In December, he estimated the cost for full implementation of the classical education in grades K-6 would cost about $10,000 per year for the materials.

When the school board made the decision to fully convert Oro Grande, Bitterman shared some of the feedback from parents of students who were being classically educated. In several instances, improved vocabulary was central to the remarks. This speaks to one of the teaching style’s goals, which is for students to be articulate.

“It’s a more robust education. Writing and reading are emphasized,” Bitterman said at the time.

Moral character and civic virtues are also heavily stressed. By viewing the world through a lens of history and virtue, a classical education aims to teach a child how to learn, no matter the subject. The concept is almost opposite of conventional teaching, which instructs a student how to perform individual tasks.

As the new school year got underway last week, district Superintendent Diana Asseier was pleased that Oro Grande’s pilot program morphed from pilot program to full implementation

“I am very excited to have the classical academy open for grades K- 6,” she said. “We have added enough students to Oro Grande that we were able to add another teacher for this year. We are also piloting the classical English curriculum at Thunderbolt, so this year’s sixth graders will be able to continue classical studies at the middle school.”

Asseier’s visit to the school ended on a high note.

“The training that we had over the summer (for teachers) was evident in the classrooms that I walked through (last) week at Oro Grande. Students were already learning the virtues, learning how to be scholars and learning exciting content,” she said.

Bitterman sees a remarkable year ahead for the Oro Grande family. He believes students will improve both their academic and private lives.

“This year, I have more of a focus on students being structured and disciplined,” he said, citing an example.

“Last year, kids would come to school and just drop their bags and backpacks anywhere. Their things were scattered everywhere. Not this year. Now we are teaching students how to arrive at school. They have a sense of structure before they even step foot in the building,” Bitterman said.

As students arrive on Oro Grande’s campus in the morning, they assemble on the school’s basketball courts. Every teacher and paraprofessional is present to greet the students and supervise their quiet, orderly procession into the school.

“What was once unstructured time is now organized,” Bitterman said, adding that the disciplined approach helps the students quickly slip into a scholarly state of mind.

“The whole point here is that we want students to find wonder in what they learn,” he said.

 

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Pam Ashley, Today's News-Herald
Aug 12, 2019

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