Academy puts kids on the fast track

North Dallas: School’s short days, math and phonics basis praised

By Staci Hupp

Staff Writer

July 22, 2007

This is not what school is supposed to look like in 2007: toddlers and 12-year-olds learning together in a one-room schoolhouse. Their curriculum is the creation of a stay-at-home mother, not a scientist.

Welcome to Campbell Christian Academy in North Dallas, a prime example of the boutique private schools meeting the needs of parents who want to supplement or replace public schools with a more personal learning environment.

At Campbell Christian Academy, kids learn math and reading at their own speed. In most cases, the speed is breakneck.

Campbell has no accreditation or so-called stamp of approval. But parents call it one of the best-kept secrets in the area.

The school’s founder, June Campbell, has a more gracious description of her approach to education: basic.

Mrs. Campbell built her school on the premise that children can learn anything as long as they grasp phonics – a reading approach that involves sounding out the letters in unfamiliar words – and they learn how to do math in their heads, such as 1 plus 1 equals 2, instead of counting on their fingers.

Her first book, Pure Phonics, is due out this fall.

“It’s like anything else – they’ve to to get the basics down,” said Mrs. Campbell, a former ninth-grade English teacher. “I think what’s most beneficial is to teach them early and to teach them well, so that no matter where they go in their academic careers, they are going to find school easy and fun because they have the tools to learn.”

Children start reading as young as 3, as Kelly Castellano of Plano proved to her mother this month.

“She read ‘Gus is a bug'” said Beck Castellano, one of Mrs. Campbell’s most ardent supporters. “I called to my husband, like ‘Honey, you have to see this.'”

Mrs. Campbell’s epiphany came in the 1980s, when she quit working to teach her two children at home in Plano.

Her daughter, Kelly, could read by age 3. Mothers in the neighborhood were so impressed that they asked Mrs. Campbell to teach their children. Soon the family’s dining room was full of students.

“I began to write down everything I was doing with them,” Mr.s Campbell said. “It wasn’t very long before we couldn’t teach out of our home anymore.”

Today, Campbell Christian Academy has another teacher: Mrs. Campbell’s 27-year-old daughter and first pupil, Kelly, a Southern Methodist University graduate.

The school, near Preston Road and Bush Turnpike, caters to pre-schoolers through third-graders during the school year. But the Campbells tutor children up to age 13 after school and over the summer. The longest school day for students is two hours.

Teacher Kelly Campbell gave her approval to Lillian McLendon after the 5-year-old completed a set of third-grade-level math problems Thursday morning at Campbell Christian Academy. The school teaches children to do math in their heads.

Religion isn’t a focus of the school day, but it’s there. Above the schoolhouse door is a sign: “Children are a gift from God. Psalm 127:3.”

Mrs. Campbell says good manners are her only admission requirement. If children can’t cut it at school, it’s usually because they’re too young.

Two-year-old twins stopped coming in June because they couldn’t stop crying when their mother dropped them off, she said.

And yet the fruits of the Campbells’ labor are most visible in their pint-sized pupils.

Proud parents show off videotapes of 3-year-olds reading out loud.

Grant Bynum, a Carrollton father of two, says he quit his computer software consulting job two years ago so he could work the school’s unusual schedule into his own.

“The results have been that startling,” he said.

Last week, Mr. Bynum’s 5-year-old daughter, Rebekah, read from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, a book suited for children twice her age. She starts second grade at the school this fall.

Her 6-year-old brother, Caleb, finished a math assignment – 80 double-digit addition questions – in less than five minutes.

“My kids are smart, but you see other kids do the same thing,” Mr. Bynum said. “It’s not just the child prodigies.”

Reading experts say the Campbells’ results are possible, but the question is whether the children understand what they’re reading.

“I think that saying a 5-year-old can comprehend what she’s reading in the Call of the Wild, that’s going to be a rare child,” said Nell Carvell, an SMU childhood literacy expert.

Mrs. Campbell believes the children do. So does Mrs. Castellano, the Plano mother who heard her toddler read “Gus is a bug.”

“I remember distinctly, I said ‘Who’s Gus?’ and she pointed to the picture of the bug,” Mr.s Castellano said. “There is comprehension.”