Campbell Christian Academy

Kelly Smuts guides Ryan Taylor as he learns to write numbers.

With two teenage daughters deep in the Plano ISD public school system, Carol Pruitt wanted something different for her 5-year-old son, Jett.

“They’re doing well, but they could have had a better foundation to build on,” Pruitt said. “I feel like Plano’s middle schools and high schools are very good, but I felt like their foundation isn’t really strong.”

While assessing her options, Pruitt heard about Campbell Christian Academy (CCA) from a friend whose child had just started attending the private school. Intrigued, Pruitt researched CCA and said her decision for Jett to attend was a no-brainer.

“My philosophy is you’ve got to keep first things first,” said June Campbell, the academy’s founder. “If a child can’t read – and read well – they cannot learn science or history or any of the other subjects. If they don’t know their math really well, how much science could they really do? What [public schools] have done wrong is they’ve done away with teaching reading and math the proper way, and by that I mean phonics – the old-fashioned way that works.”

Focusing heavily on math and reading, CCA caters to children from age 3 through 6th grade. Children are placed in two classes – the lower class for pre-K and kindergarten, and the upper class for 1st- through 6th-grade students – which are taught in a one-room schoolhouse in North Dallas.

“I taught in the public schools for 10 years as a high school English [teacher], and I saw in that period of time that kids were coming in unable to read well, they couldn’t put their thoughts down on paper in a logical, sequential order, and the majority of them couldn’t add, subtract, multiply and divide. It was a disaster,” Campbell said. “There’s no way you can teach in situations like that. And not only that, but the kids didn’t have any kind of work ethic or self discipline, they just had been passed on year after year and accepted mediocrity.”

After long days at school, Campbell spent evenings teaching her then 3-year-old daughter, Kelly, to read the newspaper. Then came the day that Campbell decided she didn’t want to teach anymore – she’d had it with the public school system.

“We moved, and the day we moved my husband and kids were in the front yard and a neighbor said how happy she [was to have a little girl in the neighborhood],” Campbell said. “Kelly read for the neighbor, and the neighbor was just blown away. … She asked [my husband] how it had happened and if [I] could teach her little girl. He said [I’d] be happy to. I hadn’t planned to ever teach again, but she went home and called the other kids in the neighborhood and before I had the kitchen unpacked I had six students … then a dozen students. The parents were saying their kids were learning more working with me than their brothers and sisters were with 40 hours of school a week.”

Witnessing the success of her students and the delight of their parents, Campbell’s passion for teaching was rekindled. Established in 1984, CCA started at Campbell’s kitchen table, moved to various churches and even inhabited a rented office space before finding the perfect property for its signature little red schoolhouse 14 years ago.

“We built it that way because I love little red schoolhouses, and I wanted to be able to see what every child was doing at all times,” she said. “I love the fact that it’s open, that brothers and sisters can see one another in the building. It’s perfect. It really wasn’t in my hands – I didn’t dream this up at all. It was just the Lord that providentially decided this was what I was going to do with my life.”

At CCA, lower class students are taught for an hour and a half just twice a week; the upper class meets for two hours a day, four times a week. And while this may draw skeptics, many parents prefer this learning schedule to the lengthy public school regimen.

“There is so much time in regular school spent transitioning from one activity to the next, and an awful lot of time is wasted doing that,” said Angela Klattenhoff, who has had two daughters at CCA. Sophia, 6, is in the academy’s upper class. “In here, they get right down to it. Some people ask ‘What about art and science?’ and I said that too at first, but you can’t understand science if you can’t read. It’s really important for them to get all that down first, and then, when their brains are ready, it’s just going to come a whole lot easier. This is an excellent foundation.”

Campbell estimates that her phonics-based teaching method has taught about 10,000 children how to read. She published “Pure Phonics” three years ago and had a videographer record snippets of her teaching the lessons so the children can take the DVD home and watch with their parents.

“Our kids are all grade levels ahead of their friends because they know how to read well and they comprehend because they learn to read by phonics,” Campbell said. “We start them at 3 years old and teach them to read, [but] not all 3-year-olds are ready. It’s not a race, it’s mastery. That’s another thing that’s part of our philosophy. You have to teach little bitty lessons – just bite-sized pieces – and that really adds up to a big meal.”

The lower class has about 20 children in the classroom at one time, divided into smaller groups of about six or seven per teacher. Three teachers and two assistant teachers cater to each class, creating a unique personalized learning environment.

“We believe that every child should be taught as an individual, and that’s what we do,” Campbell said. “The parents love it. … They learn how to get up in front of a group and how to speak. We have speakers come in [and] there’s no bullying. They do things together [on the playground] outside, but during school it’s [all about] learning. That’s the kind of socializing you want. The kind of socialization you hear about in public schools is not what I want for my children.”

And whether public schools like it or not, the idea is catching on.

“The biggest thing for me was that he was going to get this core base of knowledge,” Pruitt said. “[Public school children] are not really reading until they’re in second grade. It’s all focused on the STAAR and TAKS testing. [Jett is] going to be reading by the end of this year most likely.”

Klattenhoff agreed, and said she appreciates the school’s dedication to mastering subjects.

“You don’t move on until you understand,” she said. “Everything is so individual. I like that the classroom is so disciplined. They don’t allow any disruptions. You come, you learn and you leave, but it’s done in a really loving way.”

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