One of Tucson’s most unfamiliar schools is producing some of the city’s most impressive results.
Tucked into the rolling hills near Camino Del Cerro west of Silverbell Road, Accelerated Learning Laboratory (ALL) has found a successful recipe by mixing things up in the classroom.
A first grader might be found in the same classroom as a fourth grader. A fifth grader could be sitting in a Physics class, or learning Chinese. A senior might already have accumulated a year’s worth of college credits.
At the K-12 charter school, which got its start in 1998, there are grade levels, per say, but the real focus is placing students at an academic level that is suitable for their intellect and abilities.
“It’s a school where kids are able to go as far as they want to go,” said Administrative Assistant Audrey Bailey, a 12-year employee. “They can go as far as they are capable of going. There is no ceiling effect on how far they can go.”
One current student, for example, is a seventh grader who just tested and passed a college-level course in government and politics.
“For a seventh grader, that’s just amazing – totally amazing,” said Bailey.
Similarly, in the case of former student Trey Todnem, who graduated in 2011, the unique structure allowed him to excel at an extremely fast pace. By the time he had graduated high school, he had tested for almost 20 college courses, passing each of them with scores considered more than satisfactory.
“It really allows you to focus on trying to get a lot of AP (advanced placement) tests done,” he said. “It was a challenge, but it was fun.”
So challenging in fact, that the Washington Post this year ranked it as the 6th most challenging high school in the nation.
Students are expected to have near-perfect attendance, be punctual, and demonstrate polite, respectful behavior.
With primary focuses in mathematics, science, and language, there is a lot of studying, a lot of homework, and a lot of learning required.
“It’s a great school, but it’s not for everyone,” said Bailey. “Some kids will come, and if the parents see it’s a fight to get them to stay, eventually they will leave. But, most parents get here and love what we do. They love the way their kids learn.”
Despite the challenges ALL brings to students, the rewards are just as abundant.
Ranked in 2011 as one of the top 22 performing schools with elite students in the nation, it is not unusual for graduating students to receive college offers from prestigious schools such as MIT, or in Todnem’s case, Princeton University, where he is scheduled to graduate at least a year early.
“We’re able to give students a way of learning that helps them be successful,” said Bailey. “It opens doors for kids to fly. For example, a fifth grader can now take physics. What other school can you go to and have that happen?”
ALL offers open enrollment to any and all interested students, regardless of economic status or intellect.
Rather than placement by grade, students are plugged into courses along with others who are at the same academic level.
Still, some discrepancies can occur between the most gifted students and others in the class.
Finding the balance between the most gifted students and others in the same classroom is a task the 13 teachers making up the school have come to master.
“Teachers teach to the highest-level student, but as they teach, they incorporate everything into the lesson that will also pull the lower-level students in,” said Bailey. “Then, by repetition, the lower students get to that point, and things become easier for them.”
If a particular student continues struggling, teachers are always available for tutoring.
“Our teachers don’t have the extracurricular time,” said Bailey. From 7:45 in the morning until the kids leave, our teachers are with their kids. During lunch breaks and recess breaks, the teacher works with those kids if they need it.”
Classroom sizes remain relatively small at about 20 students to each teacher. This gives teachers the opportunity to offer a lot of individual attention to students.
All K-8 teachers are accredited. Three of the secondary elementary teachers hold a PhD, while two hold Master’s degrees.
A total of 171 students are enrolled this year. Fifteen students are also enrolled in ALL’s preschool.
“It’s a small school, so you really get to know everyone well,” said Todnem.
The 21-acre campus boasts a full computer lab, science room, and multimedia room, but also adheres to recreational opportunities and physical fitness with a swimming pool, jungle gym, and soccer course.
Registration is open year round by visiting the campus office. School begins Aug. 1.