In my role as professor, I often supervise student teachers in schools serving some of the most disadvantaged students. For the most part, such education has been reduced to scripted curriculum that turns learning into a lifeless chore for students and teachers alike. I especially find it appalling to enter kindergartens, where I see these young children engaged in either whole class teacher centered instruction, or individual worksheets at their desks for the large majority of the day. All those things that the author of “Everything I need to know, I Learned in Kindergarten” learned are no longer being taught, in our rush to start our children on what we call “academics.” There is no time for creativity, children following their interests, learning to be social beings, or the engaging in the real work of childhood, which is play. Only the future will tell us what the cost of this will be to the next generation.
However, I actually am writing this column to talk about a school visit that renewed my spirit of what is possible! This was an impormptu visit last June to one of my favorite schools. On a vacation to visit friends and family in southern California, my wife and I were driving past Long Beach, when I suddenly blurted excitedly to my wife, “Can we stop here and see my friend’s school?” My wife agreed, somewhat reluctantly, as she has little interest in the topic of education, and few positive memories of her own schooling. I called up my friend, Stephanie Lee, the director of this small charter school in downtown Long Beach. She was more than happy to let us visit.
The New City School, or actually 2 sister schools now, are a pair of two-way immersion (Spanish-English) democratically run small charter schools (K-8), with multi-graded classrooms, and team teaching, using a project-based, constructivist approach to learning. With students from all walks of life, and a large proportion being from low-income Latino families, it represents virtually all the ideas I respect and admire in education.
Their new site, which I had not visited before, is a converted factory floor. The largely open space has mostly partial walls dividing the “classrooms,” with a couple of closed off rooms for particularly noisy or particularly quiet activities. The office is the old office of the factory, which looks down from above on the goings on below from its glassed in window, letting one see all the buzz of exciting activity. In walking around the school, we saw children engaged in projects of all sorts, from making life-sized anatomical drawings of the human body, to creating model cars. Each of the projects had some sort of “academic” aspect, often a written product, to demonstrate the learning of subject area content, and acknowledging that students did need to learn to become proficient in academic writing. Every wall was covered with creative works, arts and crafts. Wherever we went, students were busily engaged in work they cared about, and that had a purpose to them. My wife was amazed that this could be done in a public school, and was now glad she had agreed to come along. She loves music and dance, and was really excited to watch a group of kindergartners engaged in a hip hop dance routine as part of their elective in the afternoon as they learned their second language (dominant English speakers choose activities that took place in Spanish and vice versa).
While recognizing that standardized tests are not accurate measures of meaningful learning, they have managed to do what they need to do to keep their scores high enough to not fall under the thumb of state or federal sanctions. This is more than can be said for most of the schools I visit who use the scripted curriculums specifically designed to raise such test scores, yet still end up missing their targets. The success of The New City School has meant that they have a waiting list as big as the school (which was why they opened a second campus). Since under the requirements of NCLB and the State of California, the required scores are a moving target (each year the scores requirements are raised), how long they can sustain this is anyone’s guess. But for the meantime, this is one school where children are learning that education can be meaningful and worthwhile, and that it can allow for creativity, social learning, and be done in an environment where people treat each other with respect.
If you are in Long Beach, you might see if you can get a chance to visit! It restores my faith in what education can be. Maybe it could do the same for you!