Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What If Our Schools Looked Like This?

In New Jersey, we are currently in the midst of our "testing season." Opting Out (refusals) is the story of the day. Parents are pushing back on a system that has become largely impersonal and very standardized. 

While opting out is one way of expressing extreme displeasure of what our schools have become, the reason is because we have to have a new conversation -- one that includes teachers and parents and students -- about what schools should be like. 

I have no doubt if you asked a hundred people what they think it should be, you'd get a hundred different answers. However, I think you'd also find some very basic common threads in those answers. Fully funding all public schools. High quality pre-school for all children. Student-centered learning. Teachers who are well trained and can continue to hone their craft as their careers progress. Clean and safe physical environments. Field trips. Hands-on learning experiences. Unique learning experiences. Opportunities for students to demonstrate what they've learned. Authentic, teacher-driven assessments. Parent and community participation. Transparency. And, all of these attributes are for everyone. 

The Willow School would be a great example for many of these qualities. 
✔ High quality pre-school
✔ Student-centered learning
✔ Well-trained teachers
✔ Clean and safe environment
✔ Field trips
✔ Hands-on learning experiences
✔ Students demonstrate what they’ve learned
✔ Authentic, teacher driven (not standardized) assessments
✔ Parent and community involvement

What is The Willow school? Well, it's a private independent school here in New Jersey, located on a 34 acre campus. Its founder is the New Jersey State Board of Education President, Mark Biedron. 
"At The Willow School, children discover who they are, the joy of learning, and the wonder of the environment around them." 
Sounds pretty great, right? 

The Head of School has this to say about student experience:  
"At Willow, our shared dedication to academic excellence thrives on the constant development of the intellectual capacities of our students. Academic preparation, without the intellectual muscle to think independently, deprives students from fully engaging in the challenging future awaiting them. Academic excellence at Willow means that our learning objectives not only include the mastery of content needed for the next level of academic challenge, but also includes conceptual understanding in the broader world, and the rich connections to our school culture." (emphasis mine)

This is from the overview of the school's curriculum:
"The integrated curriculum allows students to learn material in great depth as well as to see the connections that naturally exist among subject areas. The primary device for integration of the curriculum is the development of communication skills using the English language. Parallel to that usage is the study of French or Spanish from kindergarten through eighth grade, with Latin introduced in sixth through eighth grades. While the disciplines of mathematics and science, and of language and social studies, are often connected at The Willow School, it is also important for children to learn, for instance, how scientific and technological advances have shaped the ways humans relate to each other or how the use of mathematics determines the design of music and architecture. All learning is spiral; the child returns to skills and subject matter that becomes increasingly complex and challenging." (emphasis mine)

Ok, sign me up. I want to go this school. 

The teachers. What about the teachers? Who are the people guiding these students as they develop "intellectual muscle?" Take a browse through the teacher profiles. Mark, I have to give you mad props for your team. Masters degrees. Many years of both teaching and heading up similar schools. Not a TFA member in sight. 

One of the teachers answered a short, get-to-know-you Q&A on his profile page. I highlight these two questions and answers because every parent wants this, and I am sure every teacher does as well. 
What do you love about being a teacher at Willow?
I feel as though Willow affords me the opportunity to be flexible with my curriculum to create something new with my students every year.  Learning doesn’t happen in the same way for all children and Willow allows for changes to be made that benefit all types of learners in each class.  Willow inspires me to make learning come to life because I’m allowed to teach and learn with students among various themes/topics with a curriculum that I am truly passionate about.
What satisfies you the most about your work at Willow?
Being able to see examples of student actions and work that reflect deep and connected learning is the pinnacle of my teaching experience at Willow.

What about the physical environment? The Willow School has a long list of accolades. You can read all about them here. They have been recognized for their green buildings, earning the highest awards for USGBC LEEDS-certified buildings. I'm going to make a wild guess here and say you won't find lead in their drinking water, mold or peeling paint, rodents, or broken heating/cooling systems in those buildings. 

As you would expect, the price tag is pretty steep, like college tuition steep. The middle school grades are just shy of $30k a year. It is interesting though, that their pre-k program demonstrates what "choice" ought to be. You can send your 4-year-old to school for five half days, or five full days, or a combo of half and full days. 

Why am I telling you about this school? Mark Biedron and his cohorts are fully supporting PARCC as the testing requirement for graduation in New Jersey, beginning with the class of 2021. (I say "the," but really it's SIX PARCC tests to graduate.) He fully supports, at least publicly, Common Core State Standards and the aligned testing. Given the tenets of his school, CCSS and the aligned testing are for everyone else's children. Not for his. And not for the students at his school. 

I don't doubt that The Willow School's price tag is commensurate with what those parents are getting for their children. Heck, the 34 acres alone would be expensive to maintain. 
What I want to know is, why isn't Mark fighting like mad to have every school in New Jersey look more like his? He clearly believes very strongly in that kind of an education. It's a spectacular example of opting out of a standardized education. The disconnect is astonishing, and remarkably disappointing. 

On May 4th, the State Board of Education is having their monthly meeting. It's also one of the rare times when open public comment is allowed. I encourage beg you to attend and tell Mark what you want your children's education to look like. Sign up to attend here

1 comment:

  1. Amen! Will be there and thanks for a great post!