Excalibur Charter Schools marks 20 years of operation

From left are Justina Valenzuela, national school lunch program director at Avalon Charter School; Janette Benziger, office supervisor; Stacey Kaldahl, receptionist; and Mike McCord, CEO for Excalibur Charter Schools Inc. (Richard H. Dyer, Independent Newsmedia)

When students fill Avalon Elementary in Apache Junction on the first day of school July 29, they will join the ranks of thousands educated by a charter school company that marked 20 years in 2019.

The kindergarten through eighth-grade school is run by Excalibur Charter Schools, which started in 1999.

“It’s gone by very quickly. I really enjoy watching all of the different kids. Being doing it for 18 years, I still see some of the kids in the stores here,” Janette Benziger, Avalon Elementary School office supervisor, said.

“Some of the kids who were in the high school are bringing their kids here now, so that’s kind of a great thing to see — them being successful in their lives and starting new families and stuff like that,” she said.

Excalibur Charter Schools first had a K-12 Avalon campus where the Bealls Outlet is, at 725 W. Apache Trail in Apache Junction. Avalon Elementary School’s K-8 opened at 1045 S. San Marcos Drive in 2003. A high school was on the southeast corner of Signal Butte and Main streets in east Mesa, but it closed about five years ago due to low enrollment.

Mike McCord, CEO of Excalibur Charter Schools since 2011, started at Avalon Elementary School as a teacher in 2006 and has seen a lot of progress at the educational institution, he said.

“I think we’ve made a lot of great strides in trying to always keep the parents and the kids first in our decision-making and then always focusing on if a kid is struggling, how do we move them forward,” he said.

One way to help a struggling student is with Vice Principal Al Mendoza, the school’s instructional coach. He meets with teachers to discuss student data and, if a student needs help, what to put in their next week’s lesson plans to not just re-mediate but to enrich, Mr. McCord said.

“That’s how we catch kids slipping between cracks — before they slip — and they don’t get left behind,” Vice Principal Mendoza said later.

Avalon Elementary School generally has about 315 K-8 students enrolled, but the charter school could have as many as 1,000. The school has four bus routes and can pick up at local daycares, Mr. McCord said.

“Charters are public schools, so we offer a lot of the same things. We have P.E., we have music, we have computer lab for the kids,” he said. “We follow the state standards as far as educating the kids.”

To celebrate the 20th anniversary, Avalon Elementary School plans to host a Touch-a-Truck event where kids and adults can view and climb on vehicles.

It was held at the end of the 2018-29 school year and was well-attended, Mr. McCord said.

“The roads department brought front-end loaders, we had a helicopter here, the fire trucks here, the ambulance, we had the SWAT team guys bring their vehicles, we had Yamaha bring some of their stuff and we had some food trucks and stuff and we thought, ‘We had a lot of success with that, so maybe what we should do is do that earlier in the year as our kind of celebration.’ We’re planning to do a tailgate-type of event with that in October… That would be our big birthday celebration,” he said.

The date and information will be on the school’s website at excaliburschools.org.

New this year

Avalon Elementary School received new computer equipment this summer for the lab and laptops for the teachers, Mr. McCord said.

“We’re a Title I school, so that’s federal money to the school for those type of projects; or paraprofessionals, interventionists to work the students that are potentially falling behind,” he said.

Title I provides technical assistance, service and support to local educational agencies and schools to help ensure every child has access to an excellent education, according to the Arizona Department of Education’s website.

The charter school also is part of the Title I free and reduced-lunch program, offering a free breakfast on-site to each student, Mr. McCord said.

“We do breakfast in the classroom, so every one of our students gets a free breakfast. So, whether they can pay or not or whether their family might feed them at home or not, if they come in in the morning, they’re offered breakfast. They have the ability to have it and it’s free to our students,” he said. “That way we make sure every kid is getting their breakfast meal and they have energy to learn.”

Teachers returned to the school July 15 for training, including on a new Discovery Education science and social studies curriculum.

“Better-quality material, updated; and it’s in an online format,” Mr. McCord said. “They can be continuously adding to the curriculum, which is positive,” he said.

Teachers were also to be trained by the local fire district in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and automated external defibrillator use, and have a refresher course on Eureka Math. Other training was in special-ed; Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a school-wide standard of behavior focusing on what students do right; and love and logic, on how to talk to students.

The school’s meet the teacher day is 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday, July 25, according to excaliburschools.org/events.

Editor Richard Dyer can be reached at rdyer@newszap.com

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