The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on nearly every sector of American life, but perhaps no more than on the world of education. Since the second quarter of 2020 when the pandemic struck, schools, students and parents have had to make massive adjustments to the learning environment, transitioning to online learning or a hybrid of online and in-person learning.

As Arizona’s kids make a full return to the classroom in 2021, some glaring issues have arisen. First and foremost is the fact that many students in the Grand Canyon State have fallen behind. 2021 saw a record number of kids in Arizona taking summer classes just to try and catch up.  Some teachers and administrators warn it’s going to take a few years to get back to fully normal.

To accomplish this schools are changing how they teach, employing more tutors, one-on-one instruction, while trying to tailor programs to suit the individual needs of its students.

This tactic, however, is not new to all schools. Arizona’s charter schools have been reinventing the education model since the state legislature passed the nation’s most sweeping charter school law in 1994. Charter schools operate outside of the traditional public school system but are still accountable to government educational standards.  The law allowed students to enroll at a public charter school outside of their own school district, without paying any tuition. Today Arizona has the highest level of enrollment in charter schools of any state in the country.

It’s an educational model that has not only proved wildly popular and successful, but has also proved very timely. With more students needing personalized education instead of the one-size-fits-all approach, charter schools are ideally placed to help students in this highly volatile era succeed.

“It’s all about student centered learning,” said Shannon Smith, Executive Director of The Calibre Academy, a K-8 charter school in Surprise, Arizona with around 500 students that has served the local community for 22 years.  “The traditional way of looking at learning and schools is that teachers teach and students learn. Teachers talk and pour out knowledge into the brains of students and then test them on what they learned and students are expected to soak it all in and learn. But is this how humans learn best?  Research shows that kids learn the most when the learning process is individualized and hands-on.”

In practical terms this means giving a student a topic and letting them choose a project based around that topic. It means allowing kids to work at their own pace, letting them, with a teacher’s guidance, to plan and assess their progress. In other words, kids take ownership of their learning and in the process develop confidence, self respect and a desire to learn even more.

It’s a model that has proved highly successful and popular with both students and parents., a non-profit organization that ranks charter schools around the country, assessed a wide range of data and gave high marks to Calibre.

“Students at this school are making more academic progress from one grade to the next compared to students at other schools in the state,” the website said in its analysis. “Strong progress with high test scores means students have strong academic skills and are making bigger gains than their peers at other schools in the state.”

Because of its long experience offering individualized learning, the school was able to seamlessly make the transition to the different styles of learning environments now required. Calibre offers parents and students a choice of both in person and online learning, covering the full spectrum of subjects that adhere to Arizona Department of Education guidelines, including math, science(including STEM subjects), language arts, arts, computer science, social studies, and physical education.

As students across Arizona attempt to get back on track in the 2021-22 school year, Smith believes that charter schools, with their long established focus on the needs of the individual student, are ideally placed to lead the way.

“(This) educational environment promotes development and growth of the whole child by integrating principles of character development with a challenging academic curriculum. All students, regardless of their individual backgrounds, talents, and abilities are encouraged to achieve their personal best at every level. It’s about responsibility for oneself”