Arizona’s oldest continuous school focuses on science, math

January 3, 2010

By hammersmith

Paula Rhoden, The Daily Courier

For 103 years, students have attended Washington Traditional Elementary School – the oldest continuous school in Arizona.  Before the building at 300 E. Gurley St. was a school, it was the territorial capital.

Because of its downtown location, Washington faces some challenges. Principal Harold Tenney said his school has the “smallest grass area of any school in the Prescott district. I have to replace the grass every year. We have lots of concrete and asphalt, but we have managed to work with the Highland Center to create a habitat garden.”

Washington is a three-story building without an elevator. Because of the building’s historic status, the school does not have to install an elevator to meet Americans with Disability Act requirements.

The historic aspect of the building does not reflect the education students receive at Washington. When Tenney took over the reins of Washington three years ago, he asked his staff to define what makes the school what it is – what does it mean to be a “traditional school?”

According to Tenney, being a traditional school is “more of a concept and a philosophy with characteristics based in programs and research. At Washington Traditional, we try to provide the best in education with strong parental support and respect for teachers. One of the core components at Washington is that parents sign an agreement that they will be involved in their child’s education. Also, we had a Character Counts program before it was known as Character Counts.”

Academically, teachers emphasize phonics, reading, writing, math and science.  “Research shows that students with strong phonics instruction do better in state testing,” Tenney said.

One aspect of education that might surprise people is Washington’s push to teach students the “art of writing in cursive,” Tenney said. “It teaches eye/hand coordination. Also, students must learn to write their signature.”

Respect is also important at Washington – students for teachers and teachers for students.

Students line up outside of the school building everyday before school starts. Their teachers then “invite” them into the building, setting the tone for the rest of the day.  “Also, desks face the front of the classroom toward the teachers. The teacher is the sage on the stage, not a guide on the side,” Tenney said.  “We push them with rigorous instruction. Rigor begins in K-2 grades. The students have 30 new spelling words per week, which is pretty tough,” Tenney said.

Despite its emphasis on traditional subjects such as reading, writing and math, Washington is not mired in the past. Its education includes today’s technology to prepare students for the future.

Washington is the only PUSD elementary school with two computer labs – one for primary students (K-2) and the other for intermediate students (3-5).

At Washington, reading is paramount. “Students learn to read then read to learn,” Tenney said.

When Tenney first came to Washington, about 35 percent of its students qualified for the free or reduced-lunch program. Today, the number has increased to about 53 percent.  “The demographics are changing, partly because of the economy,” the principal said. “One of the challenges for our teachers is a more diverse student population. I am happy to say that we have changed our curriculum to bring students that are struggling to the point where they can pass state standards.”

Today, Washington is an Excelling School based on state labeling criteria. It also is a Title I (reading) school.

Washington is home to a B.E.S.T. (Building Essential Skills and Techniques) Autism program.

Tenney likes the fact that Washington Traditional School is located in downtown Prescott.  “We are not so much a neighborhood school as we are a magnet school,” he said. “Sometimes there are misconceptions that we are rigid, strict and not child-centered. I would argue that we are warm and child-centered. That is the reason that parents keep their children here for years.”