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Workshop approach helps Gilbert charter school succeed

Lexi and about 15 other classmates in her fifth- and sixth-grade class are participating in one of Edu-Prize's "thematic cottages," or workshops.

This one is known as Piggy Bank and teaches students the basics of entrepreneurship, finance and economics.

The benefits of the thematic cottages are evident in student test scores. Edu-Prize remains one of the highest-performing charter schools on the AIMS science test, which its superintendents and teachers attribute to the hands-on approach of its curriculum.

All in all, 2009-10 was a year of celebration.

Last month, Edu-Prize celebrated earning an A-plus for excellence from the non-profit Arizona Educational Foundation. It was the second time the charter has won the award since it opened.

It can retain the status - a symbol of excellent teaching and high student achievement - for three years.

The school also celebrated its 15th birthday this year.

Edu-Prize opened its doors in 1995 as the first charter school in Arizona. The school serves about 1,200 students, and continues to draw families from across the Southeast Valley.

A couple years ago, Edu-Prize opened up a second campus in Queen Creek to fulfill demand from that area.

Edu-Prize administrators say the possibility of a third campus is on the horizon. But officials also are cautious. They do not want to expand too quickly.

However, "we've proven in Queen Creek that our model works," said Lynn Robershotte, who co-founded the school.

Piggy Bank and other thematic cottages or workshops are examples of Edu-Prize's approach to instruction.

Although students have lessons in math, science, reading and writing, they spend a portion of their day in thematic cottages, such as Piggy Bank or Bird House, to apply what they've learned through experiments, skits, artwork and research.

In these thematic cottages, students explore in-depth issues such as biology, environmental science, economics, geology and history. They write short essays, plays or stories, draw pictures, make crafts and even engage in games like panning for gold.

A small fountain outside in the school garden runs is filled with cloudy water - the perfect place for students to imagine they were miners in the California Gold Rush.

"Most people actually found very little gold," said Josh Geyer, 11, as he dipped a plastic tray into the water and sifted for signs of gold coins. "And some people cheated to get money in card games."

The cottages are crucial for keeping students interested in learning, founders believe.

"They learn about the concepts of science while practicing their basic skills - like measuring or math," Robershotte said.

Two factors that keep Edu-Prize among the state's best schools are its teachers and its parents.

Arizona charter schools can hire teachers who don't carry education degrees, but Robershotte said Edu-Prize learned in its early days that an education degree and specializations in various subjects are key to producing successful students and quality instruction.

Parents are asked to spend about 80 hours volunteering or some sort of service to support the school.

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