Arches Academy charter school opening in Apache Junction

From left are Michelle Edwards, Jenifer Verdugo and Rebecca Witte, all of Arches Academy charter school in Apache Junction. (Richard H. Dyer, Independent Newsmedia)

A school centered on self-paced education for each individual student has its first classes starting Aug. 5 in Apache Junction.

“Where the rest of the country is more working on standardizing education, we are trying to personalize it and individualize it. We want to make it what each individual child needs to be successful,” Arches Academy Founder and Principal Michelle Edwards said.

The charter school, which is to have 250 students, was at 50% capacity in mid-June, Jenifer Verdugo of Apache Junction, the school’s executive secretary and health aid, said.

The kindergarten through sixth-grade school has an auditorium/library, classrooms and an additional building — all behind the Arizona Vedic Cultural Center, 1150 W. Superstition Blvd., which has no affiliation with the school.

“There’s such a strong need for more educational choice here in the area,” Ms. Edwards, of San Tan Valley, said. She used to live in Apache Junction and her six children attended school here.

“When we had put together this amazing school and were deciding where we wanted to put it, Apache Junction was one of the first things that came to mind,” Ms. Edwards said.

Arches Academy is mastery-based with a specific set of standards that students have to meet in all areas.

“They don’t just get to show up and barely pass in order to go to the next level. They have to understand the content in all areas and they’re taught at their own level in all areas and then when they’ve met those standards, they can move on to the next level even if that’s in the middle of the year,” Ms. Edwards said.

“So it’s self-paced, they can go at their own speed, get as much help as they need and support to get to understanding and competence in every subject area,” she said.

Instead of grade levels, students are in novice 1 or 2, apprentice 1 or 2, scholar 1 or 2 and master 1.

Instruction is in 30-minute or longer blocks, such as for math, math lab, reading, writing, grammar and science/social studies, according to a sample schedule on the school’s website, arches-academy.com.

“They’ll have a 30-minute math instruction period with their teacher, 1:8; and then later in the day, somewhere along in their schedule, they’ll have 30 minutes of math practice. So, while they’re still at school, they’re going to work on that assignment while they still have help and support from the staff,” Ms. Edwards said.

Fridays, chess instruction and playing is included, according to the schedule.

“Chess is amazing in the way that it helps children think and problem-solve and so those are amazing skills that can be applied across the board. So, we’re really excited about that, being able to introduce that to students and teach them that. Students who don’t like it won’t be forced to continue to participate in it, but we want to give everyone the skill,” Ms. Edwards said.

The majority of instruction time would be the first four days of the week, Ms. Verdugo said.

“Instruction will be Monday-Thursday and that leaves Friday open for children who might need more 1:1 time with teachers. It gives the opportunity for small groups so that if they are not quite grasping the concept Monday-Thursday, they can have more individualized time on Friday,” she said.

“If they are ahead of the game, they get enrichment activities,” Principal Edwards said. “If they are behind the curve, they get some intervention-type activities. There’s time in there for them to gather with the groups they’re working with on different projects. Lots of great things happening on Friday when it’s a little less formal.”

Group projects may be to make blankets for a homeless shelter, write letters to military servicemen and women or put care packages together.

“Just lots of ways to get involved and to teach students to think outside themselves and to be aware of the community that they’re in and be service-minded, to really be able to understand the needs of people around them,” Ms. Edwards said.

“I think it’s really important too that in that situation the students are going to be able to learn how to have communication with other individuals — not only to students and their peers and their teachers and things like that, but people of all different ages, people of all different backgrounds,” Ms. Verdugo said.

Students will be required to wear uniforms. Pants, shorts and skirts can be khaki or navy; and polos will come in colors such as light blue, light green, light yellow and white, with the school’s logo, Ms. Edwards said.

“Uniform has a tendency to not just unite us but to remind us visually this is who we are, this is why we’re here,” she said.

Her background includes working as an early-childhood specialist, teaching in and directing at preschools, and teaching at an Arizona charter school including at its opening. She has an associates degree in early childhood education from Mesa Community College, a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Ottawa University and a master’s degree in leadership and educational administration from Capella University.

Ms. Edwards is a longtime volunteer with the Boy Scouts of America and used its methods and ideals to come up with those for Arches Academy.

“One of the things I used to tell people all the time is that ‘Boy Scouts got it right when it came to developing their programs.’ They’re very developmentally appropriate. The right amount of choice at the right age to give them opportunities to practice making good choices and the hands-on nature of it. It was fun. And I believe that if it’s not fun, we’re not doing it right,” she said.

Ms. Edwards’ daughter, Rebecca Witte, of Florence, will be teaching art at the school, such as with clay, pencils and crayons. She has worked as a school aid and with special-needs students.

She is looking forward to the start of the Arches Academy so she can help students.

“Just basically seeing it all come together and help the students a lot, especially those who are having a lot of trouble with the general school system and see them excel when they haven’t so much in the past,” Ms. Witte said.

Arches Academy orientation meetings, with a presentation, are 6-8 p.m. Tuesdays; and open houses are being held 6-8 p.m. Wednesdays. The phone number is 480-881-7114.

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

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