Author Archives: sadiesmeck

BASIS opens Chandler campus

BASIS Schools will celebrate the opening of a new campus in Chandler tomorrow with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at which Gov. Jan Brewer will speak.

The BASIS Chandler campus will offer a rigorous curriculum for fifth through 10th grade students this August, expanding to fifth through 12th grades by the fall of 2013.

BASIS has been operating charter schools in Arizona for a decade. The school’s first two campuses opened in Tucson and Scottsdale, and both have received top national rankings by such publications as Newsweek, BusinessWeek, US News and World Report, and the Washington Post. A third campus in Oro Valley opened last year.

The ceremony commences at 9 a.m., and will take place at the new campus, located at 1800 E. Chandler Boulevard.

Seating is limited, so RSVPs are required for the event. To reserve a seat, call 480-289-2088 or email — Sadie Smeck


High stakes for kindergarteners, crucial info for parents

A new law approved in 2010 by the Arizona State Legislature will raise the bar for this year’s kindergarteners when they reach the third grade. The law mandates that students who have not met the standard reading level by the end of third grade will be held back to repeat the grade.

According to First Things First, an organization that aims to help parents prepare their young children (ages 0-5) for school, there is plenty that parents can do at home to set their children up for success in kindergarten and throughout their lives.

On the organization’s resource website,, parents can find tip sheets to help guide them through caring for their children at the various ages and stages of their early development, and learn how best to prepare kids for entering kindergarten.

Consistent talking, reading and explorative play is extremely important during early childhood, says Jolene Mutchler, a preschool teacher and member of the First Things First Central Pima Regional Partnership Council.

The first five years of life serve as the foundation for future learning and development, and students who begin school behind the standards typically stay there, research shows. That’s why it is so important to begin preparing kids early, providing them with positive learning environments, both in and out of the home, Mutchler says.

For more information, including tips for promoting early childhood learning development, visit

Fun summer learning tips

At this point in the summer, you have probably taken your child to every museum and park within a 30-mile radius, arranged play dates with nearly every classmate or friend and might even be growing tired of the swimming pool. Need some new ideas? Here are some educational activities we’ve learned about from Sylvan Learning Center, Arizona Connections Academy and Expect More Arizona.

Put on a play

If your child is a young, aspiring actor (or just has a flair for the dramatic), encourage him or her to gather friends, family and neighbors to help put on a stage play or puppet show. Help your child write the play, whether it is inspired by a favorite book or from their own imagination. And if your child is more into music? A concert is just as fun!

Help a neighbor

It’s never too early to start teaching your child the values of community service, and there’s no better time to begin than summer, when your child has extra time. A great way to start is right in your own neighborhood, helping an elderly or single neighbor with yard work, pet care, car washing or errands. Help your child to foster a friendship that will teach them responsibility and benefit your neighbor, too.

Start a book club

Most kids have summer reading lists to keep their minds busy during the few months out of school, and sometimes a list of required reading can seem like a drag. A fun way to keep it interesting for kids is to get a group of their friends together and start a summer book club, whether the books are from the required list or a favorite series. Order pizza for the gang and have them go swimming or watch a movie afterward, so book club becomes a fun activity and play date.

Create a new sports team

Are your child’s sports all out of season for the summer? Keep them active and engaged by starting a sports team of their very own, and try something interesting. Maybe they’ve never tried bocce, an Italian bowling-like lawn game. Or for avid Harry Potter fans, celebrate the series’ grand finale by forming a Quidditch team and facing off against others in the neighborhood.Encourage your kids to make jerseys on plain white tees, rig up a makeshift scoreboard, and have fun with it.

Take a hike

Beautiful mountains with family-friendly trails surround the Valley of the Sun — so take your kids out for a nature hike! Set distance goals and encourage your kids to keep a nature journal for reflection about what they see and experience, fostering both writing skills and an appreciation of the natural world. Go early in the morning or near sundown to avoid the harshest temperatures and sun. Be sure to wear light colors, bring plenty of water to drink and reapply sunscreen often.

Build a garden

Help your children try a hand a gardening — and see if they have green thumbs! Your kids will discover the wonder of botany as they learn which crops to plant in the summer months and how to care for them. They will also learn responsibility as they nurture the plants, harvest what they grow and stick to a prescribed budget.

Put their art on display

If there’s a little artist in your house, gather their work and display it on the walls for all to see, in a scrapbook or photo album, or even on a blog. Step outside of just crayons and markers and engage your child with a variety of media: feathers, beads, paint, modeling clay, even a disposable camera for photography. Involve your child in the process of creating the exhibit and showing it to others, to build confidence in their artistic pursuits.

Chalk the sidewalk

Sidewalk chalk is a great large-scale outdoor art project or game that can be easily washed away with a hose at the end of the day. Your kids can draw pictures, write words, or play hangman, tic-tac-toe and hopscotch. Also try a new twist on hopscotch by drawing a giant calculator on the driveway and quizzing your kids on their addition and subtraction skills.

Play board games

Classic games like Monopoly and Scrabble are great educational games for math and language practice. Monopoly tests math skills by counting money, buying, selling and making change, and Scrabble encourages kids to exercise their vocabulary and spelling by forming words. Also check out new games, and even help your kids try a hand a making their own board games, with a cardboard game board, some markers and paint, and a little modeling clay to make pieces and dice. Kids can practice their logic and writing skills as they develop and record the directions for the game.

Make a scavenger hunt or jeopardy game

With a little pre-planning, you can make up a great activity that will keep your kids entertained all afternoon. Make up some jeopardy cards with fun facts to quiz your kids, or develop a scavenger hunt in the neighborhood or even just around the house, and get a group together to make it more fun for everyone. Finish off the hunt with a popsicle prize and a dip in the pool for everyone.

Go to the library

Whatever you are reading — comic books, picture books, or the sports page of the newspaper — make it fun for your kids. Alternate letting them read and reading to them, try using funny voices, and afterward discuss what you read with them. Libraries have great books, fun spaces and most have fun summer reading programs for kids.

Take a road trip, or just go on a walk

Arizona is full of beautiful places, often with cooler temperatures, within a few hours distance. Take your kids to explore learn more about their state, or even just around the neighborhood. Play games in the car or on the sidewalk, like “I Spy” and alphabet games, to keep them entertained.

Create your own online summer school

There are plenty of websites out there with educational games kids love. try and There are print-out activities so your kids can make a workbook for themselves, and computer games that are a fun and educational way to beat the summer heat. — Sadie Smeck

Young refugees see the sights in ELL summer school

Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, laughter and fun are the same.

I was reminded of this within the first few minutes of the arrival  of Phoenix Union High School District’s English Language Learners summer school students at the Arizona Science Center. I watched as they pointed and laughed together at a giant telescope on the ceiling over the entrance, with a large eye staring back and shifting about. You wouldn’t guess that most of these kids didn’t know one another, or that many of them weren’t even able to speak to one another. They all had the same expressions of wonder and amusement.

Phoenix Union High School District ELL students played in the stream table in the "Forces of Nature" exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.


The students of Phoenix Union’s ELL summer school are refugees from all over the world, many of them displaced from their home countries, some as recently as a few weeks ago. The students speak more than 20 different languages ranging from Farsi to Swahili to Nepali. All have lived in the U.S. for less than one year, and all are at various levels of proficiency in English, from “pre-emergent” to literate.

The students have been exposed to activities like bead working, making ice cream in a bag, songs, math and other concepts in the classroom, according to Carl Hayden High School ESL department chair Karen Grimwood.

rope maze

Phoenix Union High School District teacher Debbie Kunes, left, explains how the rope maze works to Masoka, from Mozambique, in the MAZES exhibit.

In addition to time spent in the classroom, the 4-week summer school has taken the young students on field trips to see the sights around Phoenix, journeying to a bowling alley, an IMAX movie, the Musical Instrument Museum, the library, Shamrock Farms, the zoo, a candy factory and the State Capitol, to name a few.

At the Science Center, the kids romped upstairs to the third floor, where the MAZES exhibition awaited them. They immediately scattered across the large space, exploring the various maze games in the exhibit.

Zarsanga from Afghanistan enjoyed having a fort of foam blocks built around her in the MAZES exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.

I loved watching how the kids got creative, taking games and activities that were designed to be played one way, and playing them in completely different ways of their own invention. Foam beams meant to be arranged in a maze on the floor became the walls of a fort. Other students competed to see who could balance the beams on their noses the longest.

Yadav from Nepal balances a foam block on his nose in the MAZES exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.

As I observed the students at play, I realized that the exhibit allowed them to explore new concepts without the use of language. They could feel textures, see colors and shapes, follow paths and build structures, all without saying a word. Some of the kids spoke to one another in English, others had made new friends who spoke their native tongues and others weren’t communicating with words at all. Whatever the case, everyone was having fun.

I guess goofing around is a universal language.

marble mazes

A group of students in the ELL class played with the confounding marble labyrinths in the MAZES exhibit at the Arizona Science Center.

When it came time to leave, a boy from Burundi named Edgar, whom I had met playing a rotating maze board and marble game, turned and smiled at me, using one of the phrases he’s come to know well, “Have a good day!”

Story by Sadie Smeck, photos by Daniel Friedman

Summer reading, turned adventure

Linda McFayden, reading director at New Vistas School, helps a young reader meet her summer reading goal.

Encouraging your kids to keep reading over the summer is so important for maintaining their reading proficiency, and it doesn’t have to be a struggle. With a little creativity, it can even be fun!

New Vistas Center for Education, a Chandler private school for children from preschool through high school,  has developed a special program that turns summer reading from a chore into a game, complete with a theme, goals and rewards.

Linda McFadyen, reading director at New Vistas, developed the “Book a Trip – Ticket to Read” program to engage preschool through grade school readers by encouraging them to log their reading hours and achieve their goals.

Preschool through second grade students strive to log 300 hours of reading over the course of the summer, while third through sixth grade students must reach or exceed 600 hours. At the start of the school year, McFayden plans to distribute awards to recognize students who complete their reading goals.

McFayden also organized an accountability system called “Check and Chat,” through which students have the opportunity to come in to three sessions throughout the summer, which serve as check points to keep students on track.

The program at New Vistas is inspired by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, which provided the reading list from which New Vistas students have made their summer selections in subjects ranging from mystery to mathematics.

McFayden says parents have been instrumental in facilitating the reading program, coming up with creative ways to keep books accessible and fun for their young readers. Some have begun to keep books in the family car, developed their own special incentives for meeting reading goals and organized neighborhood book clubs.

You can inspire your own young reader in similar ways, developing curiosity, vocabulary and confidence. Just get creative, and read for fun with your child this summer! — Sadie Smeck

RAK Archives
Find links to summer reading programs at Valley libraries.

SRP funds new math, science programs

Salt River Project has donated a total of $124,000 to implement special programs that support math and science education in 29 Arizona schools.

Recipients of Learning Grants by SRP are schools representing elementary through high grades all across the state. Grant funding will enable robotics and engineering courses and clubs, water testing and analysis, ecological conservation programs, gardening projects and more.

Below are just a few examples of the incredible programs being developed at a few of the recipient schools.

Photo courtesy of St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary.

Avondale. St. Thomas Aquinas will implement a program in which students will learn about the role water has played in Arizona’s history, work with water-saving devices and show their parents and fellow students what they’ve learned at a Water Conservation Awareness/Science Night.

Photo courtesy of Verde Valley Montessori.

Cottonwood. Verde Valley Montessori will now have a garden space at the Cottonwood Community Garden. Through the Life Cycle of a Garden Project, students will test soil, chart plant growth, prepare a meal from their crops and donate surplus of the harvest to a local food bank.

Fountain Hills  

Fountain Hills High School engineering students will construct and equip a solar-powered, fully robotic and automated astronomy observatory on the roof of the school’s science building with live Internet video feed. The district’s teachers will have access to the system to use as a teaching tool in their own classroom, and astronomy classes at Fountain Hills High School will also use data and images from the observatory for their own research projects.


Gilbert Elementary will combine social studies and science to create a year-long theme that will incorporate the study of water throughout Arizona’s history. Students will use GPS devices for geocaching treasure hunts, study Theodore Roosevelt Dam, visit the Desert Botanical Garden and more, ending with a “Water Night” for parents and community members.


The Cesar Chavez High School robotics team students will compete in the FIRST Tech Challenge (beginning level robotics engineering), FIRST Lego League (intermediate level robotics with an emphasis on climate connections), and FIRST Robotics Competition (an expert level engineering competition involving improving the functionality of a robot system). They will also mentor elementary school students interested in learning about engineering.


Girls Leadership Academy of Arizona math and biology students will gather ecological and hydrological samples from the Nina Mason Pulliam Audubon Rio Salado restoration area in Phoenix. They will compare their data to 2008 data to determine changes in the habitat and hydrology, and will present their findings.


Mountainside Middle School sixth graders will lead a campaign for an energy-free day – “Lights Out Day” – to raise awareness about renewable technologies and saving energy. They will participate in several data analysis activities to determine the cost and energy savings for one day of no-energy use.


Desert Vista High School’s Engineering Academy students will participate in the Shell Eco-Marathon and design hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles. They will design and build three test vehicles with the goal of acquiring the highest miles per gallon, comparing different designs, constraints, and materials.

Find the complete list of recipients here. SRP annually gives more than $1.3 million in  contributions to educational programs and partnerships that provide teacher training, mentoring and hands-on learning. For more information, visit

SUSD Preschool expands to south Scottsdale

Last year, the Scottsdale Unified School District moved its preschool, the Early Childhood Campus Cholla, to what used to be the campus of the Cheyenne School in north Scottsdale.

This year, the preschool will expand to include a second location, the Early Childhood Campus Oak, on the existing Sierra Vista Academy campus at 7501 E. Oak St. in south Scottsdale.

Before- and after-school programs are offered at both two locations. The Oak Street campus will also include a Head Start program, a no-cost childhood development program for families in need. Tuition rates will remain the same for infant through pre-K students (ages 1-4).

The preschool will subdivide by age group into three programs, all of which will be taught by certified teaching staff:

The Toddler Program (ages 1-2) promotes early learning, as well as social and physical development.

The Preschool Program (age 3) explores such subjects as introductory literacy, mathematics, science at an age-appropriate pace and level and social and physical development.

The Pre-Kindergarten Program (age 4) aims to prepare each child with the cognitive tools they need to begin kindergarten, with a special focus on developing essential language skills for reading and writing.

About 50 children are expected to fill the new campus’s six classrooms, which will open for school on Aug. 8.

Applications and registration are currently available online at For more information, contact Carla Partridge at 480-484-6223 or — Sadie Smeck