It seems like not all that long ago we were doing all the alternative preschool tours. And now we’re done with all the tours of the alternative elementary schools in our area. We are life learners at heart, although Ali is craving the structure and social aspects that come along with school, so IF we are going to do elementary school, it will need to be a very progressive school. What we are looking for is exactly this: Progressive Education; Why it’s hard to beat but also hard to find by Alfie Kohn. To summarize the most important points for our family:
- little or no homework (we feel that family time and individual pursuits and passions are
just asmore important than school work)
- no letter grades (too competitive and judgmental)
- collaborative (working in a group is not considered cheat*ng)
- wholistic (not only looking at academics but also the child’s socio-emotional development)
- inquiry based/project based/hands-on learning style (does not rely on textbooks or worksheets)
- no rewards or punishments (see Dan Pink on intrinsic motivation and anything by Alfie Kohn)
- students call the teachers and principal by their first name (indicates mutual respect and also indicates to us that teachers see themselves as partners in learning rather than as authoritarian purveyors of knowledge)
- social justice (my dear husband and I are both working joyfully to make the world a better place and it would be great to find a school which is closely aligned with these values)
- no attendance requirements (we travel a bit and do family day trips and we also don’t force our kids to go to school – if the teachers are good enough at what they do, then the children WANT to go to school)
- inclusive of a diverse community (we want our children to be accepting of various cultures, races, sexual orientations, religious backgrounds and varying abilities)
- we don’t want to deal with grueling hours (heck, she’s only going to be 5)
I know you are laughing by now.
So here are the schools we visited:
School 1 (The ‘too traditional for us’ school). Incredible campus with lots of trees and beautiful outdoor spaces with a creek running through. The younger grades seemed to have wonderful indoor-outdoor classrooms with lots of natural light and new & well organized supplies. The general (constructivist) philosophy sounded great on paper. But seeing it in practice made my stomach lurch. The 6 and 7 year olds were sitting around looking bored in a math class while the teacher was in the front of the room giving the lesson as the purveyor of knowledge (rather than as a partner in learning which is more what we have in mind). The 8 and 9 year olds were in a ‘writing workshop’ and I took one glance at their papers and could see spelling errors circled in red (which would personally put me off feeling inspired to write anything creative). The science classes sounded fabulous (project and field based learning) but we didn’t get to see that in action. We also noticed the structure of the day and all the subjects were segregated (we feel that one can learn about more than one subject simultaneously and they need not be separated). The school is also at least half an hour from our house. Lastly, my dear husband did the calculations and we would have about 8% chance of enrolling, but we’re not interested anyway. More pros: movement around the classroom is the norm; working in groups; no time frame on when an activity must be completed. However, ”Limitation of materials” is another part I’m not too crazy about.
School 2 (The ‘too grungy for us’ school). I had high hopes for this school as it is the only freedom based (democratic) learning school in our area. The principles and philosophies are in line with ours. We have seen videos of other schools (such as Summerhill) which are really making this model of education fabulous (music rooms, games rooms, reading nooks and many wonderful spaces. Unfortunately this one was dirty and all the supplies seemed broken, scattered, filthy or otherwise uninspiring. The outdoor space where most of the children spend most of their time was dark and dingy with dirt yards and dark walls. The teachers and staff all looked super tired and burnt out. The entire place lacked energy and vibrancy. We were hoping it would be a place that one would feel really inspired to learn, with lots of interesting materials and people around, but neither of us got that vibe at all. So disappointing.
School 3 (The ‘close but not quite’ school). I had felt really hopeful for this school as well. It is free and it looked so good on the website that we were willing to move to a different city a few miles away to have the opportunity to attend this school. (We would have 0% chance of enrolling unless we were living within the designated school district.) My dear husband crunched the numbers and even if we move to a new house, our chances of getting in are only 15%. I didn’t mind the school too much in the older ages, but the younger ages, not so much. The teacher to student ratio is 1:25 even for the 5 year olds. In a classroom for 5/6/7 year olds, it was like crowd control and trying to get kids to be quiet and moving them around so they are in a circle etc. They looked so darn bored and the teacher seemed overwhelmed. In a class for 8/9 year olds, we observed a drawing class in which the kids had a set amount of time to draw (whether they like drawing or not), then when the timer went off (an annoying alarm), they all had to bring their drawing to the carpeted area to discuss it (whether it was finished or not). This is just too restrictive for what we are looking for. We feel that a drawing, or a story or anything else that a child is truly interested in working on, should get as much time and focus as the individual desires. The 1:25 ratio seemed to work better in the older grades and I really liked how the desks were set up so the students could collaborate on their work in small groups (without being blamed of cheat*ng). However, my dear husband didn’t like that the older students were being forced to learn geometry and algebra (‘wasting their time’ he says and he’s an engineer!) We liked the multi-aged classrooms, the sense of community, the respect for the children (they call the teachers by their first name for example), the price and the location. They do assign homework, but there are no punitive consequences if it is not completed. Exams are optional! Attendance requirements are doable – you can take up to one month off at a time which can be done numerous times and you are assigned independent study (fantastic!)
School 4 (The ‘awesome but expensive’ school). When I imagine what constructivist learning looks like – this is it! I loved this place although there were some down sides. My dear husband got the overall feeling that the parents within might be a little too ‘competitive’ about their kids, which we loath, although I didn’t necessarily get that feeling. I didn’t love the amount of homework they have (10 minutes X grade #, so figure a 5th grader has 50 minutes). And according to me, it’s a really long day for kindergarten – 8:45-3:00; whatever happened to half day kindergarten?! Oh, and did I mention the outrageous tuition? Otherwise, this school seriously rocks and it’s only 10 minutes from our house.
School 5 (The ‘pretty good but obviously free’ school). They have a great constructivist model and absolutely wonderful diversity. The chain link fences and bars on the windows made it feel too much like a prison. The yard doesn’t have enough green spaces – too much blacktop, although it does have a garden which the students are involved with. The class sizes are enormous – 48 to 60 children in each class with 2 teachers and an aide. Also, they use some rewards and consequences which doesn’t really gel with what we are doing at home. I could nitpick about other things, too, such as some of the teachers not allowing students to use their first names (too much hierarchy and authority, whereas we are looking for more of a learning partnership).
School 6 (The ‘pretty great but not perfect’ school) This is another private school which we both like and it’s super close to home. We’re not thrilled about: the tuition, the fact that they use ‘time-outs’, and they students don’t call the teachers and principal by their first name.
School 7 (The school that seriously rocks but is outrageously expensive) I guess we have expensive taste, because we both loved most everything about this school. No punishments/rewards (only the second school we have come across so far), students are encouraged to be who they are rather than conform, it has a pool (Ali loves to swim). However, we don’t love the homework and price tag. But wow, this place really is progressive. They are introducing a new part of the curriculum in the 4th grade which is not decided on by the teachers but by the students. (Emergent curriculum) Yes. Yes. Yes. The downside from what we are hearing, is that it’s somewhat of a ‘celebrity school’ and you need to have a Prada bag and whatever else in the upper grades. Gag.
School 8 (The decent constructivist charter) Maybe we should have never gone to the expensive private schools, because now the free charter schools are all looking a bit shabby since they are on public school campuses. This one is probably a fine school, but it’s hard to see past all the broken crayons and construction paper which we find so limiting for self expression. In our preschool they are using oil pastels and handmade papers and many of the schools we are looking at have wonderful art and music spaces which really inspire. This is probably a very shallow critique…this school has fantastic diversity, wonderful parent involvement and it’s Free.
School 9 (The Wald*rf School) We only knew the very basics of Wald*rf / Stein*r and we’d heard excellent things about this particular school and knew several children attending who were wonderful. The families seem really interesting and into organic/local, peaceful parenting, ecologically minded, open-minded, etc. We love that the philosophy incorporates a lot of nature and imagination in the younger years, but the overall long term curriculum was not in line with our philosophies as a family, so we decided against applying.
School 10 (The Progressive Yet New and Far School) This one is a fair distance from our house but we decided to check it out because their educational philosophies are very closely aligned with ours and also because they will be introducing an independent study + part time school option which is very progressive and exciting. We found the school to be obviously new and the tour to not be particularly informative. We can see past all that but they have not yet hired a teacher for the part time program we are interested in and it’s too far for us to be driving there and back 10 times per week. Otherwise, it matches up well with most of our checklist outlined above, except for diversity.
School 11 (The Traditional Montess*ri Elementary School) It’s a small school with about 75 students aged 3-12. The classrooms leave a bit to be desired. The teachers seem good. A couple of the children seemed a bit bored, but most were engaged. The natural surroundings were refreshing. The location is about 15+ minutes away which is good. They offer part time kinder (yeah!) The price is right. We like that it’s not proclaiming to be ‘academically rigorous’ and is not all that interested in a ton of homework So now would need to decide if Montess*ri is the right method for us. I’ve read a bit of Maria Montess*ri’s writings, which I often agree with, but sometimes I don’t understand how the actual classrooms are related to her original teachings. I like that everything is ‘hands on’ learning. I don’t like that the teachers and administrator insist on being referred to by last name. Many pros and cons. The biggest con I believe is that the materials have an end goal in mind and don’t seem to allow for a whole lot of free thinking / inventing (if that makes sense). ’Limitation of materials’ is the norm.
School 12 (The ‘Brand New Charter’ School) This is a constructivist charter with a big commitment to diversity. It has 2 other previously established locations although it will be a brand new campus in our area for the 2013/2014 school year, so there is nothing to tour really. We made an appointment to see one of their other schools, but the freeway was like a parking lot, so we turned back and took that as a ‘sign’. I have volunteered to help this school get off the ground and it seems wonderful in general, although my intuition tells me it’s not the right place for Ali for this coming year. Their test scores are top of the top if you’re into that sort of thing (which we are not). Although we haven’t actually seen it, this school doesn’t feel like the right place at this particular time.
School 13 (The ‘Very Progressive’ School) EUREKA! We finally found a school as progressive as we hoped existed! This is it. We love this place. However, the diversity isn’t great and it’s farther from home than what we had hoped for. But the pros blow every other school we have seen away. No punishments/rewards. Reasonable hours for the younger kids. Multi-aged classes. Teachers/principal go by their first names. Great child:teacher ratio. And a true emergent curriculum! Hallelujah. However, we are talking about 2+ hours in the car every day and we have no intention of moving to a different neighborhood any time soon.
School 14 (The ‘That’s More Like It!’ Montessori School) I haven’t actually seen this one yet, but my dear husband says it scores a 7 out of 10. He says it’s a ‘bit too tidy’ (and he’s the tidiest person I know). We like it better than School 11, the other Montessori school we visited, because the students at this one call the teachers by their first name. But again, we are not sold on Montessori philosophy due to the limitation of materials and the specific end goal to the assignments and tasks (we are hoping for more freedom for innovation).
School 15 (The ‘Independent Learning AND Constructivist’ School) Any long time reader of this blog knows that we have had one foot in the life learning door and one foot in the alternative education door, just waiting to figure out which learning style will best fit our children. We still are not 100% sure, so we were thrilled to have come across this school which offers part time alternative education (constructivism) and independent study the remainder of the time. And It’s free! The principal and assistant principal and vast majority of teachers go by their first name. School day doesn’t start until after 9 am (big grin). No homework. No letter grades. No rewards/punishments. Diverse community. Non-violent communication. Now, every school has it’s drawbacks, so here they are. From the very little we have seen, it’s a bit shabby (I can hardly believe they expect you to sign up before you have even seen the classrooms). It’s 30 minutes away so we are hoping to find another family to carpool with (but then again, we’re talking 2-3 days per week, not 5). And there is no guarantee we will get in (although I believe we will). This is now #1 on our list.
Stay tuned for a future post to see what the verdict is…you might be surprised!