Zaharis School

Mesa, AZ

An Inspiring Whole Child School in Mesa, Arizona

“Enter to Learn, Build your Dreams”

  • A school designed by the principal and a collaborative group of educators, parents and community members
  • Students as democratic participants in the world whose voices and opinions count
  • Critical thinking nurtured through a workshop pedagogy where the focus is placed on inquiry-based, hands-on learning
  • A “curriculum of caring,” founded on the belief that caring for one another is just as important as any curricular decisions or instructional strategies

ETWC Report Summary: Zaharis Elementary provides a model to inspire other schools and to help them see what is possible. Interviewing teachers, support staff, students and parents had some very common threads that reflected some extraordinarily uncommon insights, all leading back to Principal, Mr. Oliver’s, unceasing support, encouragement and indefatigable vision that every child is bestowed with gifts awaiting encouragement and cultivation. Three specific characteristics make the school distinctive: 

The first distinctive element is the primacy of great school  leadership. Principal Mike Oliver’s love for children, teachers, staff, parents and all of humanity is clearly manifested in each interaction, throughout each and every day. His office is always open, unless he is in a meeting with someone; a rare event during the school day.  Students, parents and staff are welcome to borrow a book from the floor to ceiling book shelves filled with a rotating list of children’s literature. Mike Oliver is passionate about the primacy of literature and reading.  Mike is a highly regarded and sought after presenter at NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conferences around the country. His school reflects the positive impact of  great literacy teaching and learning. 

A second distinctive element is the cultivation of student voice and agency. Activism and inquiry based learning, addressing sensitive social justice subjects as a means to recognize, name, and combat inequalities - not just in their classrooms, but in the world in which they live. At this very high functioning school children participate in reaching decisions made by the professionals who educate and care for them. Most notable throughout interactions with the staff is the commitment to the use of authentic, self -selected literature to support literacy practices grounded in principles reflecting a whole language/whole child approach to learning. Students read and write for authentic purposes, conduct research, learn about concepts to support self-chosen projects on which they work, while engaging in animated and relevant discussions about their learning, all within a workshop framework. Inspired by literature, all learners, big and small, strive to see the world through the lens of social justice. Social studies are not an independent discipline; they are taught with real problems from the real world.

The third distinctive element is the strength of the Zaharis school’s strong community of parents and families who believe in what the school is doing. They show up to support classroom activities and events. When volunteers are needed for field trips, family game night, or working in the classrooms, they are happy to help. There’s a sense of belonging and pride that extends beyond the walls of the school. Students leave Zaharis to move on to junior high and high school, but they still consider themselves Soaring Eagles.

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