MESA, ARIZ. — Linda Gonzalez was lugging baggage through the Phoenix airport last summer when a newspaper headline that included her name grabbed her eye.
The news flash: Cambridge Academy, a tiny (68-student) K-3 charter school, had taken top honors among Arizona charters. That wasn't all: Its kindergartners were all reading at least one grade level above expectations, with about half of them comfortably mastering second-grade material.
For a school that Mrs. Gonzales had founded just one year earlier, it was exciting news.
A 25-year veteran of public elementary school teaching in Michigan, Florida, and Arizona, Gonzalez started a preschool after moving to Arizona and working with economically disadvantaged students. But when the state passed its charter school law, local parents urged her to expand. The doors of Cambridge Academy opened in 1999.
There's no magic to what she does, Gonzalez insists. Her school is simply built on a combination of experience, common sense, and the right environment. Not to mention a commitment to teaching the youngest students.
"I want to know that I've given [children] a sound basis they can build on." But in addition, she says, the simple fact is, "I love to teach reading."
Gonzalez is a person who found her professional calling early in life. She knew from childhood that she wanted to have a job that "would make a difference in the world." As a girl, she wavered between interest in the fields of medicine and education.
But her great passion was for books. "I always loved to read," she says. "I loved the way it engaged my imagination and opened up new worlds and new horizons. There are worlds you can get to only if you read."
The idea of helping children to experience those worlds was one of the forces that led her to complete a master's degree in reading instruction in addition to a bachelor's in elementary education at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
"I really felt that the lack of preschool preparation was a large part of why they struggled in school, and I wanted to do something about that," she says.
Several years into the life of the successful preschool, the idea of a larger school was floated. It wasn't something that immediately appealed to her.
"I'm a teacher, not an administrator," she says, and the thought of having to manage the business side of a larger, more complex school discouraged her.
Her husband, however, who owns an environmental consulting company but is also a certified teacher, assured her that he could help with that, and so eventually she was persuaded.
"Cozy" might be the word that best describes the tidy, tiny set of rooms that make up the school. No class is bigger than 22, and the kindergarten class - which Gonzalez teaches herself - numbers only 15. Next year Gonzalez plans to open a second K-6 charter school at another site, but will cap enrollment there at 308 students.
Certainly the small size is part of the magic of what Gonzalez does. But her school's family-style atmosphere is also a powerful lure for parents.
Gonzalez's daughter Lisa is one of the four full-time teachers at Cambridge. All four of her grandchildren, at different times, have attended. Her husband - a native Cuban - teaches Spanish to all the children once a week. (He instructs only in Spanish and expects fluency by third grade.)
Parents are strongly encouraged to participate at the school and often come in to tutor children in reading or drill them on their math facts. Although Gonzalez estimates that only about 20 percent of her students are children of college graduates, she says the school has tended to attract families who value education.
Before enrolling their children, all parents must sign a contract, promising to check homework every night and provide an appropriate study environment at home.
The curriculum at the school is simple and tends to adhere to the basics.
"Practice, practice, practice," is Gonzalez's credo for teaching children both reading and math, although she also stresses arts education as a means of developing discipline and persistence.
She describes her reading instruction as "phonics-based," but says she blends those techniques with the whole-language approach that applies reading to a child's broader, everyday experience. "Reading has to be made meaningful, and a combination of [phonics and whole-language instruction] is the best," she says.
Gonzalez has worked for years with a set of books ("Beginning to Read, Write, and Listen," MacMillan/McGraw Hill) that introduce pre-readers to the alphabet one letter at a time. She lets the children move slowly through the books, only gradually beginning to link the different sounds together.
But core to her method of reading instruction is the time she spends alone with each child. She takes time for these one-on-one sessions daily, a practice she considers essential. Even the children who struggle are not embarrassed to read aloud in private with an adult they trust, she says, and that way she is able to monitor the progress of each one.
She is not a believer in one-size-fits-all teaching techniques. When a child does falter, she seeks out individual solutions.
One little boy who couldn't seem to focus or see letters properly, she discovered, had a powerful sense of touch. By cutting letters out of sandpaper and letting him touch them, as well as designing exercises in which he could draw the letters in the sand, she was able to reach him and eventually he connected with the letters, and became a strong reader.
Last year when her charter school was brand new, Gonzalez drew no salary for herself, though she took one this year.
"I've never connected income to what I do with the children," she says. "The look that comes across a child's face when they understand what you're trying to teach - that's worth everything."
Linda Gonzalez on what it takes to nurture early learning:
"When you surround yourself with positive thinkers, it's natural to be positive yourself. That's a gift I try to give to the children."
"We all learn in different ways. The way you teach is not exactly the same for every child."
"When I work with them, I make sure that the last thing they do is a success. When they leave me, they feel they've just done something positive."
"A good teacher knows that every individual is valuable and that every one is unique. You've got to provide an environment where children feel safe enough to let you know exactly who they are.... [Kindergartners] are at that age when they still love their teacher. You take advantage of that and build on it and never betray their trust."
"Children need positive self-esteem, a safe environment, and an expectation of success. Expectations drive performance."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor