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Phoenix Elementary students show college spirit

PHOENIX — Each classroom at Phoenix Elementary School has adopted a college, knows the school's fight song and wears its colors on Friday.

But the school spirit isn't just about having a good time. It's part of a No Excuses University program the school has joined to help create the mindset among its students that college is a realistic goal and to start the preparation for a successful college experience.

"It's hard to motivate a kid if he doesn't know why he has to do it," Principal Jeff Carpenter said.

Tying learning to college attendance can help supply the motivation for the 370 students at the school.

Carpenter was joined by now-Superintendent Teresa Sayre of the Phoenix-Talent School District, six teachers and two classified employees at an NEU institute in the summer of 2012, as they thought the program might fit well with existing efforts.

Another group of five went to the fall 2012 NEU conference. Phoenix Elementary started to implement NEU strategies a year ago even before it was accepted into the program. Its application was approved in March.

No Excuses University offers trainings but has no dues. Schools are selected for their potential, according to NEU's website. Each year, schools take part in a reapplication process and 150 are selected to participate.

A map in the "college hall" leading to the Phoenix Elementary media center pinpoints the colleges that the school's teachers graduated from. There are college pendants hanging from the ceiling and posters on the walls with pictures of students as graduates of college classes from 2025 to 2030.

This month, the students are learning about responsibility. They explore a daily question on the subject and study a person each week who exemplifies the quality. They'll also study trustworthiness, respect, caring, fairness and citizenship.

Students from Dan Preskenis' combined fourth- and fifth-grade class talked about responsibility Friday.

"When someone gets in trouble, they can't give excuses. They have to take responsibility for what they did," student Carson Joe said. Carson said he would like to play sports at the college level and knows good behavior would relate to that goal.

Student Martin Scala says responsibility plays into challenging learning situations.

"You don't really say 'I can't.' You just think about it. You give it a chance," Martin said.

Preskenis said his class's adoption of the University of Oregon as its college has helped bring the class together.

"We work so hard as teachers to bring them along in terms of math and reading, while this is just a fun thing to add to that," Preskenis said.

Implementing the program has added another level of accountability among the faculty, Preskenis said.

"We focus on what else do we need to do to help the kids," he said. "It has us holding each other accountable."

If a student is falling behind, all teachers at that grade level will consult to see what can be done to get him or her back on track, fifth-grade teacher Joani Howell said.

"A big focus that we have is students setting their own goals," Principal Carpenter said.

Working with teachers, students set targets that are printed out and attached to work books.

NEU's website says the program creates exceptional systems under an umbrella of college readiness. These include a culture of universal achievement, collaboration, standards alignment, assessment, data analysis and interventions.

The educators at Phoenix Elementary School say they are making good progress on developing those systems. But more important in their minds is that their students are making progress on a path that will lead them to college.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Correction: The spelling of Dan Preskenis' name has been corrected throughout this story.

Fourth-graders Sofia Villarreal, left, and Gabi Martinez sing the LSU fight song during class Friday at Phoenix Elementary School. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore