Three Schools Give New, Positive Meaning to ‘School Choice’

In NEA Today’s continuing ZIP code series, we visit three public schools that give new meaning to the phrase “public school choice.” Whether it’s a traditional school, or a school that follows a magnet, vocational, or extended-calendar model, public education in America is dynamic and multi-dimensional.

The following stories show how some non-traditional schools utilize engaging and unique methods to promote academic success.

22304 – Alexandria, VA: Modified Calendar Extends Learning

By Edward Graham

It’s a Thursday morning in mid-October, and the students and teachers at Samuel Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., seem to be enjoying a typical day of classes in their two-story school building at the rear of the trendy Cameron Station housing development. But for the students, this day is anything but typical.

Samuel Tucker students follow a modified school calendar that is designed to maximize learning through formulated, extended learning opportunities during the year. Instead of a long summer break, students have two small breaks in October and April and start the school year at the beginning of August—a full month before their Alexandria counterparts who follow a traditional calendar.

But these breaks are not just strategically placed vacation days. Instead, students have the option of attending two-week extended learning intersessions—known simply at Samuel Tucker as “intersession”—where academics and artistic expression are merged to maximize student performance.

“Moving here and finding out Tucker had a modified calendar was a real plus for me,” says principal Rene Paschal, who took over at the school three years ago after serving as a principal in Mesa, Ariz. “Extended learning broadens the concepts to make sure people know that there are lots of ways to provide learning outside the regular contract day or calendar time.”

More School Days, More Confident Students

The premise behind the approach is simple: Studies show that an extended school calendar helps limit summer reading loss, allows students to perform at higher academic levels, can increase student attendance, and decrease disciplinary issues. Students who take advantage of both intersession periods at the school will also attend a total of 20 more school days than their peers in schools with traditional calendars.

Christina Bohringer, a first-grade teacher at Samuel Tucker, has spent her 10-year career teaching in the extended calendar environment. She has seen intersession’s positive effect on students.

“Those kids who have gone to intersessions and extended learning classes are more confident learners, and they’re willing to take those risks,” says Bohringer. “Whether they’re struggling or on level, they have the opportunity to go, enhance, and rein- force their skills.”

For the past three years, Bohringer has taught the “Tucker Newsies” course during intersessions. For two weeks, students become reporters and editors, researching, writing, and compiling their own school newspaper. It’s just one of many classes available to kindergarten through fifth-grade students who participate in the intersession program.

Courses are separated into three clusters: kindergarten, first through second grades, and third through fifth grades—so that the students can learn along their age level. Classes range in focus from learning to play the ukulele to theater and cooking, along with many other options.

Customized Learning

Instead of a typical school day with the same teacher, the students and their families select two classes—a morning and an afternoon session—that blend fun and learning into an enriching academic experience. Some courses are taught by retired teachers or other outside educators who bring their expertise into the classroom, but several Samuel Tucker teachers choose to teach during intersession. Sometimes, the teachers will even work to tailor classes to specific students so that they can reap the benefits of discovering a previously unknown passion.

“One of our courses is a violin class, and we handpicked that for one of our students who had some behavior issues,” says Janeene Mainor, assistant principal at Samuel Tucker. “It proved to be the magic pill for him, because he just took off in that class.”

Each of the intersession classes is longer than three hours, with students taking one session that’s primarily learning-based and another that’s focused on arts or athletics. Students who need additional academic support also participate in intersession; only their academic class is more remediation and acceleration based. That means that the students spend time catching up on what they’ve been learning and get a head start on upcoming lessons.

Teachers during intersession are encouraged to move away from worksheets, and the extended time allows students to experience more hands-on learning and creative expression than during a typical school day. It’s a successful model that has been embraced by the school community.

Popular and Successful

“Our families are huge supporters of our program,” says Pam Tiemeyer, the school’s extended learning coordinator. “Our students live for it. They love it, the teachers love it, and really it’s a win-win- win situation at our school.”

District budget constraints have forced the school to charge families a $125 fee for each two- week intersession in order to continue operating the program. Historically, 90 – 95 percent of the student body at Samuel Tucker participated in intersession. With last year’s price increase, participation only dropped to 87 percent—a testament to the program’s popularity and the school’s efforts to ensure that all children can participate.

Paschal, who calls the intersession periods “a cornerstone of our culture here,” says the school works with families who may not be able to afford the program so that their children still have the opportunity to attend. The school PTA has established a scholarship to help offset the costs for many of these families, and students who qualify for free or reduced lunch—59 percent of the students at the school in 2012—only pay $10 for each two-week intersession.

“We make sure that the students are here if they want to be here,” Paschal says.

While it’s hard to quantify the exact impact of Samuel Tucker’s modified calendar on academic success, students—especially those in the remediation courses—have shown an increased aptitude on Virginia’s Standards Of Learning testing. And educators like Bohringer say that the intangible changes in students are a clear indicator of the school’s success with its modified calendar and extended learning opportunities.

“I’ve had kids who, whether it’s their attitude at school or that they’re struggling with their confidence, feel better and are more willing to try harder during class,” Bohringer says. “Whether it’s learning to play the piano in two weeks, or learning to play soccer in two weeks, they’re learning to do something they didn’t know before, and it really gives them confidence to go back and work that much harder in class.”

55123 – Eagan, MN: Magnet Schools – Quietly Successful

By Brenda Álvarez

Carol Boudinot is a music and literacy arts teacher from the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools district just south of the Minnesota’s Twin Cities. After a brief retirement, she returned to the classroom to fulfill a long-held desire: to teach at a school where the curriculum was fully integrated with all subject areas.

“[Before] it was science here, history there, math over there, and never shall they meet,” says Boudinot, who teaches third, fourth, and fifth graders. “It was frustrating for me because…the puzzle pieces didn’t fit together. They were just a bunch of pieces,” she says, referring to how the curricula of the past were isolated.

Boudinot’s longing for a fully integrated curriculum was satisfied at Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts and Science—a public school in the town of Eagan. But Glacier Hills isn’t your traditional public school. It’s a magnet school.

When it comes to reforming America’s public education system, the national conversation tends to focus on three types of schools: traditional, charter, and private. But magnets have been a quiet marvel for decades, not so much by design, but because charters have stolen their thunder.

There’s no love lost between magnet and charter schools.

Mainly because magnets have continued to soundlessly serve high-need students in a clear and focused way while promoting best practices in the field—all with much success.

“We have a proven track record,” says Scott Thomas, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, “and I think one of the reasons districts are looking back to magnet schools is because we know they work. We know they promote best practices, and students, teachers, and families enjoy them.”

What is a Magnet School?

Magnets are public schools originally created to achieve school desegregation in the 1960s. They have concentrated themes and an aligned curriculum to subjects like science, technology, engineering, and math, fine and performing arts, or world languages. They also attract families that are racially and economically diverse.

Diversity matters, especially in education. “If you don’t pay attention to how students learn in your classroom and draw from their experiences, and make learning relevant and connect to them personally, you’re missing the boat,” says Thomas, whose organization represents 4,000 magnet and theme-based schools.

Research shows that racially diverse magnet schools are linked to positive academic outcomes. A research brief, “Magnet School Outcomes: What the Research Says,” by The National Coalition on School Diversity found that “students of all races who attend diverse schools have higher levels of critical thinking, an ability to adopt multiple perspectives, diminished likelihood for acceptance of stereotypes, and more cross-racial friendships.”

Which brings us back to Glacier Hills. Its magnet program was born from being “racially isolated,” as deemed by the Minnesota Department of Education in 2005. That meant it had more students of color—20 percent or more—than other schools in the district.

After extensive research and in-depth community engagement, the school community opted to become a magnet, attracting students from outside school boundary lines.

But the school is about more than diversity. It also provides a high-quality education through a core curriculum infused with art and science, and inquiry-based academic rigor focused on creativity, curiosity, and innovation.

This is easy to see in Boudinot’s class. For example, she made a bulletin board of nature and weather. The science teacher provided posters. The art teacher gave prints. Boudinot enhanced the board by creating a word wall, too.

“I have been in so many elementary schools, but I have never seen anything like this,” she says. “The teachers work together like no other school I’ve been in. Being a music teacher you can often feel isolated, but, here, we all function as part of the machine.”

Students discussed what they saw on the board—exploring similarities and contrasts, learning, and reviewing past information about storms and fair weather.

And what about the music? Boudinot’s younger students worked with musical hand instruments to compose a thunderstorm using a simple musical form (ABA, ABB, ABACA). Students also composed the sounds forest animals would make.

Using drama, students acted out how each animal would respond to the elements of weather. So when it began to rain in Boudinot’s classroom, bears escaped from the rain by hiding in their caves—or, students hid beneath their desks.

The school also features an elaborate STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) lab, which is used to study hydrological cycles or to host a “Girls in Engineering” day on a Saturday morning. The lab houses high-end equipment, too, such as laser cutters and three-dimensional printers. The idea is based on the principal that students need to manipulate in order to learn. Glacier Hills has seen results, too. Enrollment went from a little above 300 to the 800 the school serves today. There was significant improvement in student achievement in math, science, reading, and attendance. And the number of students on free and reduced lunch dropped dramatically.

More than 3,500 magnet schools operate across the country. According to Thomas, they’re the number one choice exercised by parents. Yet, when it comes to reform strategies, magnet programs often don’t make the cut.

And despite their success, funding for magnet schools is abysmally low. In 2002, the federal government provided $110 million through the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. Today, that number stands at about $96 million; compared to the $300 million charter schools receive.

“If the public looks into this a little bit more and gets more invested in it,” says Boudinot, “there can be some incredibly awesome things happening. I’m just at the beginning stages and I can see so much more,” she adds, referring to her student’s academic and social growth.

97211 – Portland, OR: Keeping Vocational Education Strong

By Tim Walker

Joseph L. Meek ProTech High School used to sit in a major crosstown traffic route that also intersected the city’s mass transit lines. A few years ago, the district sold the building and moved Meek to an old elementary school in a different part of town that is accessible by only one bus route. Meek is not a neighborhood school. It is a small, alternative high school with a focus on career and technical (CTE), or vocational education, and draws students from across Portland. The move didn’t exactly do wonders for its enrollment, now about 150.

It’s been a challenging few years for Meek and the school’s staff. Founded in 1968, the school still stands strong but has had to adjust to the harsh realities of budget cuts and a steady devaluation over the years of career and technical education.

“We’ve seen massive reductions in the number of vocations we can offer,” says Tom Kane, a language arts teacher at Meek for 15 years. “Teachers are taking on extra responsibilities outside of their vocational classrooms because we don’t have the staffing. I don’t think the district fully appreciates vocational programs and their applications to students’ lives.”

But, as Kane points out, this is a national trend. Vocational education is disappearing from public schools across the country. CTE hasn’t been on the priority list of most school districts grappling with shrinking budgets and a perception that it is little more than an “add-on.” And then there’s the “built-in bias,” Kane says, of many educators.

“We tend to want to replicate the things we experienced as successful. We all went to college; we buy into notions of ‘professionalism.’ We focus so heavily on academic learning because that’s what we were successful at.”

Not everyone is going to become a doctor, lawyer, teacher, or engineer, so Meek’s mission since 1968 has been to provide career pathways for students that can lead toward good-paying jobs, and reach kids who thrive on hands-on learning and to provide an academic education that is meaningful and worthwhile.

The school’s intimate surroundings provide students with a community atmosphere without the noise, commotion, and pressures of other larger schools. The students here need a smaller learning community. The average student either doesn’t fit in a comprehensive high school, reads at a seventh- or eighth-grade level; or has experienced a major family crisis. Some students fit all of the above.

Amy Taramasso, who teachers arts and communication at Meek, came to the school 10 years ago after a couple of years in a large public high school in California.

“We can address in a smaller setting those issues that can get in the way of a student doing well in school. At my previous school it just wasn’t possible. We can work with these student on a one-on-one basis much more effectively.”

For students like Dara, 17, the extra attention and patience set the school apart. “The way teachers actually care about their kids’ learning and graduating, instead of giving up and letting them drop out. It’s the flexibility and care for all the students here that makes it unique.”

It’s a flexibility that also empowers the teachers at Meek to step out the box to make learning as exciting and relevant for their students as they can.

“We can turn on a dime,” says Amy Taramasso. “If opportunities present themselves, we can usually take advantage of them. If a local author has a new book out, let’s build a class around it. We are able to help students build skateboards every spring.”

“We try to hit the three Rs: rigor, relationships, and relevance,” adds counselor Luke Saporito. “There are three legs on a stool and you have to have all of them.” Whether it’s Taramasso’s graphic and web design classes or, just down the hall, Paul Reetz’s manufacturing students designing and creating their own robots that will be entered into competition against other schools, the school continues to provide a learning experience with real-life applications.

And Meek’s academic standards remain high. All students have to pass the same state test—the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills—as the students from comprehensive high schools. And even as the vocational program has been pared down over the years—the school has lost its marketing, health, and culinary vocations—its program remains challenging and vigorous. For these students especially, a career/technical component is essential. They need to see how their education connects directly to a potential career.

This is not to say that the school graduates and sends them out into the world without any direction or guidance toward some sort of post-secondary school education or training. While it may not be a standard 4-year program, the staff emphasizes that a high school diploma is insufficient in today’s economy, which is why the career tech program is connected to local community colleges, where Meek students can earn credits.

“Generally, the country needs to review how we perceive education and not through this narrow vision of college. It’s much bigger than that,” explains Saporito.

“We feel like we’re making a real impact on students’ lives. That’s what keeps us here. We feel less part of an industrial schooling system and more of a school that is trying to identify what kids need and help them get those needs met as much as possible.”

“Our budget will be put under the microscope again and that’s always a bit scary   and some in the district may question the validity of the program,” says Taramasso.

“But we’re still doing a lot of great things here. It’s actually a pretty amazing place to be.”

See Also:
What’s Her Number? Zip Codes Tell Us A Lot About Public School Quality
Schools Bring Healing to Communities Hit by Disaster