Bethany Papajohn, principal of Leman Academy of Excellence in Oro Valley, asked a room full of fourth graders who their composer of study for the month was.

“Tchaikovsky!” burst out one girl with short brown hair and thick-lensed glasses. “I remember it as Chinese coffee!”

The tuition-free charter school founded by psychologist, author and radio personality Kevin Leman premiered in Marana in 2015. A second location was added in Sierra Vista in 2016 and a third location opened in Oro Valley earlier this month.

Head of Schools Dennis O’Reilly said that one of the school’s most vital core values was to foster relationships between teachers and administrators, students and parents.

“The real, true data is the data that comes out of when you as a teacher build a relationships with those scholars in that classroom,” he said. “We want to instill morals and values to produce tomorrow’s leaders today.”

The school’s curriculum is also heavily history-based. Different grades study different historical periods, and each month, students (Leman staffers and teachers call them scholars) have a composer of study, an artist of study and a recitation to memorize. Other subjects, such as art, literature and science, tie into a common theme.

In Elka Swingle’s kindergarten classroom, for example, applesauce is cooking on the back counter, and a book called Cezanne and the Apple Boy sits at the front of the room. Next door in Sharon Hays’ classroom, Francis Frost’s Apple Song is written on the board next to a Cezanne painting of an apple, and she is walking around showing the scholars a handful of appleseeds.

“This little tiny seed will grow into a giant tree,” she explained.

There are 552 children enrolled in the Oro Valley Leman Academy’s’ K-6 grade levels, and 81 in the preschool program. There are 27 teachers for the K-6 grades, and eight preschool teachers. Six teachers transferred their experience and skillsets over from the Marana campus.

Papajohn said there was a waiting list for the Kindergarten class this year, and O’Reilly said that the Marana campus had a waiting list for almost every grade. Next year, Oro Valley plans to add a seventh grade class, and the addition of the eighth grade level is slated for the year after that.

The school was approved by the Arizona state board for charter schools, and reports to the State Board and Department of Education, following state mandated rules and regulations such as conducting annual financial audits, administering standardized tests and implementing state curriculum standards.

Third graders in Suzi Longville’s classroom took a brief break from reading their copies of Robinson Crusoe to perform their recitation of the month–Geography, by Eleanor Farjeon–and share what they liked most about their school.

“This school has a lot of kindness, and it is very good at challenges,” one boy said.

Several students agreed that they enjoyed the school’s challenging curriculum, particularly when it came to math; Papajohn said Leman students are a year ahead in the subject. Another little girl especially appreciated the Leman’s focus on history.

“I love history tests, and every summer, I can’t wait for the next year of history,” she said. 

Longville, another teacher who transferred over from the Marana location, said that she appreciated being able to work with parents and teach life lessons along with academic ones.

“I love that Leman provides the teacher with a wealth of curriculum and materials to choose from,” she said.

Hannah Sabal’s fifth grade classroom featured a miniature statue of Michelangelo’s David, which Hannah said one of the students had asked to bring into class. Although there were admittedly a few giggles over the statue’s nudity, the students were excited to discuss and appreciate the piece of art.

“They even asked, ‘can we have a Socratic discussion?’” Sabal said. 

An atmosphere where kids are enthusiastic about learning is eye opening for parents, Papajohn said, and it was common to hear parents say that they didn’t know schools like Leman existed.

Jenny Duenas, the mother of fourth and sixth grade boys at the school, said her son had had a hard time adjusting when her family moved to the area from Texas. He missed his old school and friends, and wanted to move back. After a few months at Leman, his parents asked him if he still wanted to return to Texas, and he said there was no way he was leaving the school, or his friends. He didn’t even like to stay home from school when he was sick, she said.

“They’re so excited to be in school,” she said. “The kids love being here. It was a blessing.”

Papajohn said that many schools had caring teachers and staff members, or creative curriculums. But to her, Leman is special because it works to build an entire culture around teaching virtues and serving whole students.

“That, I think, is the difference,” she said. “This is systemic, and it’s powerful.”

 

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