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In the Service of Students: Educational Options in CO

Image courtesy of Wee Folk, Graphic editing by De La Vaca

Image courtesy of Wee Folk, Graphic editing by De La Vaca

America’s education system is mired in antiquity. What would happen to students if we stuck to one philosophy? Or, instead of the band aid approach to student struggles of more classes, more work, and more pressure, what if we advocated a slower experience in settings that foster the child? The schools in Colorado—charter and public —know what this looks like.

Thanks to Colorado’s open enrollment policy, parents have a choice. They have a choice to find the thing that will allow their child(ren) to thrive and leverage that via school pedagogy. A choice to find the school that’s best for their child(ren) to grow and succeed, but that means digging into the various pedagogies (the methods and practices of teaching) that are available to you here in Colorado, so you can make the best informed choice for educating your child, to find a teaching style that teaches as they best learn.

Every child is different, despite the US using the 1800’s Prussian “factory model”. We can all picture the model: it looks like one teacher, stressed and overloaded (not to mention underpaid), teaching upwards of 30 students to read, write, and repeat in preparation of responding to test questions and regurgitating the same exact material as their peers, with the same exact comprehension. This seemed like the fastest and most effective way for youth to adapt to the rapidly industrializing 20th century.

In 1852, Horace Mann, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Massachusetts and Massachusetts State Board of Education board member, was involved in the adoption of this model in his state. The 20th century saw progressive education evolve and protests broke out  for more individuality and creativity. These demands were balanced with the demands of the factory education system.

But if this is how our schools are operate and how our students are taught, who do we point fingers at when we’re looking for outside-of-the-box thinkers for a world grown incredibly complex? How do we find unique answers when each generation is taught to think like everyone else?

Colorado classrooms are changing. They’re innovative, progressive, and effective. One thing that makes Colorado compartively unique is that we take local control seriously. It’s written into our constitution: it’s not possible for state legislature to pass any policy that mandates school curriculum. We follow Colorado Academic Standards, adopted in 2009, which in simple terms lays out the skills and knowledge that kids should have mastered by completion of each grade level. Each school and local district creates a curriculum that will teach their students accordingly.

How Do We Actually Learn

Going to school is about learning—and let’s face it, we are born with (metaphorically) wide eyes, curious about how the world works. Kids want to learn. It’s about how they are taught to learn that determines if they are engaged or not. And if they are not engaged with the material, it probably doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with them. There is something fundamentally wrong with the one-size-fits-all, strict curriculum approach. That’s not how humans learn.

This education model seems to make sense on paper, espciallyy becuase so many of us already endured it. It’s normalized. But not all of us will succeed in this model; in fact, many actively reject it. To put that negative educational outcome into perspective, Mental Floss reports that “One-third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives. 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college. 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.” Why? We all remember the kid who seemed to hate school, but did they actually hate learning? That same kid who hated school became a badass mechanic, or opened a business, or excelled the arts, or understood computers and started Facebook. These skills are all things that are learned, many outside of the limited spectrum of traditional education. They loved learning.

“Of all the things we teach our kids, the most important is love of learning,” says Colorado Department of Education (CDE) President, Kerrie Dallman. “Students and educators have lost too much time for learning in a system that attempted to measure student and school progress almost exclusively on standardized test scores. Schools have cut into recess time and other critical pieces of a well-rounded education, such as art, PE, music and foreign language, in a misguided obsession with raising scores.”

Multiple Intelligence Theory (M.I.T.) is a real thing. You’ve  may have heard of it because it became popular in the early 90’s. Harvard University’s Howard Gardner “identified seven distinct intelligences. This theory has emerged from … cognitive research and ‘documents the extent to which students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways,’ according to Gardner”[see box].

The intersection of learning and learning styles is one that, predicated on the traditional factory education mentality, left many by the wayside. Students who often seemed incapable, who underperformed, who were constantly distracted, who couldn’t keep up, or who’s input wasn’t accepted in the rigid systems of yore were not failing; they were being failed. This distinction is crucial. While academia learned this lesson in the 90’s, education is still catching up at the human level.

M.I.T., via Gardner, et al

M.I.T., via Gardner, et al

International Ideas:


Finnish students consistently turn in some of the highest test scores in the world, without teaching to the test. Say what?

“Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competencies on every survey since 2000, neck and neck with superachievers such as South Korea and Singapore,” on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), according to findings by the Atlantic. American student performance has been middling at best. In the last PISA in 2015, Finland ranked nearly 30 schools above the U.S.

There are quite a few major pedagogical differences in Finland, with different outcomes as well [see box]. Focused on less homework and more creative play, the key in Finland is equality; an idea America claims to enshrine in every facet of civil life but which we find oddly lacking in our education systems. There are no private schools in Finland. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and they are all publicly financed. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public schoo throughout.

Also, “Finland has no standardized tests [and] what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility,” the oft cited opposite of what America offers.

Ed Compare, US v Finland, YS Magazine

Ed Compare, US v Finland, YS Magazine

Standardized Testing

America has  played along with the “more testing to make kids smarter” for far too long; a $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” and our students are still at the bottom while “No Child Left Behind” left core pieces of education, and the students themselves, behind. An overload of standardized testing only paralyzes students with unnecessary layers of stress.

Standardized testing is a strategy to measure our students, but, it’s important to ask, is it an impediment  to  implementing effective learning strategies? The data doesn’t lie: PISA is taken by over half a million 15-year-olds every three years around the country, so we can compare apples to apples. The most recent assessment in 2015 showed the U.S. lagging behind the top 10 in all three core subjects: science, math, and reading.

“Teaching basic skills will always be part of the equation, but school is a place where discovery happens, where educators inspire a student’s natural curiosity and desire to learn,” says Dallman. “Students are more than a score, yet Colorado still tests our students more than what is required by federal law. We call on state lawmakers to further reduce testing requirements and get accountability right in a way that will benefit students.”

238 Charter Schools… Up and Coming

In Colorado, many alternative charter schools are implementing the techniques that some public schools often lack: warmth, collaboration, individuality, creativity, passion and free time, and deeper immersion. We have one of the oldest charter school laws in the country, which was active in 1993 (some states don’t allow charter schools or have implemented a cap). Colorado’s charter schools serve nearly 115,000 students—13 percent of Colorado’s public school enrollment. These schools are already demonstrating what progressive education can look like, says Leslie Colwell, Vice President of Colorado Children’s Campaign.

“When it comes to public school choice as a mechanism to create high quality school options for kids, I think Colorado, nationally, is looked to as a leader. We have a lot of really strong public charter school networks that have dramatically transformed and changed outcomes for kids.”

US News & World Report recently released the top schools in the state, in terms of performance, and guess what? Seven of the top Colorado high schools were charter public schools.

Courtesy of Watershed

Courtesy of Watershed

But What Does an Education Revolution Actually Look Like?

Revolution looks like valuing the whole child. It looks like wellbeing. It looks unstructured (in the best way). It looks like a balance of control—kids having some control over how they learn and teachers having (at least some) control over curriculum. Most importantly, it looks like education. Again, thanks to local control and the general standards CDE holds, they have this freedom.

And what has Colorado come up with to address the shortfalls of traditional schools? What pedagogical orientations are employed throughout our region?

Being Outdoors

Courtesy of Wee Folk Forest Kindergarten

Courtesy of Wee Folk Forest Kindergarten

Wee Folk Forest Kindergarten in Boulder is inspired by Finland’s techniques and Germany’s outdoor forest preschools. School is held outside—rain or shine, or snow for Colorado’s sake. Elizabeth Uhrich, Director, is passionate about progressive education and about connecting kids with nature in order to learn.

Wee Folk is unstructured, but students are guaranteed to learn lessons throughout the day by letting nature take its course. Uhrich says by changing the curriculum to follow the interest of the child, opportunities arise naturally. When I visited them, students were sitting on tree stumps around a fire that they built. This activity creates a sense of self-sufficiency. Normally, this wouldn’t be done because it’s seen as too dangerous. Instead, students are trusted and given new skills.

The kind of environment Wee Folk is in has a calming effect on the nervous system. Spending time outdoors reminds students that we are connected with nature; we are not a separate entity that dominates nature. Instances of ADHD in later years are not as common in German forest schools.

“When you set up an educational model, what you should be asking is, ‘what does our world need most?’ And then building your model based on your answer. If what our world needs most is creative thinkers —people who start from their heart, people who are connected to the world so they don’t end up wanting to destroy it—those are really good places to start. Keeping the human spirit alive,” Uhrich says.

“A love of the Earth, love of nature, and a strong sense of oneself” are top skills learned in this kind of environment, according to Uhrich, as well as critical thinking skills such as cooperative play, learning, and being curious.

“Before the age of seven, everything that’s done with the child should be to emphasize goodness, so they feel the world is good, they are good, other people are good. That’s really the template you want for the rest of life. Then, later on, you’ll know.”

Boulder Sudbury is another great school for this model. At Sudbury, “freedom is not only supported, it is nourished in a safe environment where all are treated as equals, where children and teens are treated as people.” This is the idea of a democratic school that fosters independence, self reliance, and coordination with peers and adults. “

“Children and teens observed in an environment where they are democratically free are seen to embody human nature without overt conditioning, engaging curiosity without unsubstantiated judgment, and a social relatedness unaffected by age-based segregation,” the Boulder Sudbury web page points out. This is a project of harmonizing education with the whole child.

Deeper Immersion

Watershed, a charter school in Boulder, is proud that their students will never sit in class and wonder, “When will I use this in real life?” They connect their education with real-world problems. For instance, they have expedition classes where English, history, and science are taught in a connective way that begins with a real question such as, “how does water shape the world?” They take this education model seriously: in the heat of debate over President Trump’s immigration ban, they took a field trip to the U.S.-Mexico Border for eight days.

“A deeper learning strategy is really promising,” says School Head, Greg Bamford. “That longer block of time makes it easier for students to go off campus and do hands on work. It allows you to find connection between different disciplines which fosters higher level critical thinking skills. It allows students to be the center of their learning.”

Watershed doesn’t rely on standardized testing and they also trust their teachers to create the curriculum.

“Often what can happen in school is that students can feel really crammed to cover material rather than go deep,” says Bamford. “But the other thing that can happen is that students can be disconnected from any larger purpose or meaning. Young people crave and need purpose and meaning. When we can give them the opportunity to go really deep into a subject and to really pursue questions that they’re interested in, that fosters [the whole person].”

Student Involvement

Courtesy of Boulder Prep High School

Courtesy of Boulder Prep High School

Ideally, every high school is preparing students for the world, but Boulder Prep High School makes it a point to focus on the bigger picture—not founded on the memorization or regurgitation of information, they want their students to focus on deeper meaning and nuanced connections.

Boulder Prep, a micro-school (less than 100 students), is one that stands out. First of all, with an average 12:1 student-teacher ratio, students here have the privilege of more close discussion, analysis, and project-based learning. They operate with 8-week blocks and 3-week breaks, so students are never more than two months from vacation.

Each day begins with “Stories,” a 20-minute block where a staff member, student, or guest shares a story that is motivational or thought provoking to get students’ brains warmed up for the day.

On Fridays, they have a comprehensive life skills program where students choose from a variety of workshops: Gender Pay Inequalities, Finding Your Passion, the Power of Positive Thinking, Ornament Making, Choir, and Hiking, to name a few. A few sound weird and you’re wondering what the point is, but learning is a complicated thing; tactile learning and design (i.e. ornament making) is as important as math or sports. Fridays end with a “put-up” circle where someone is recognized by the school for something positive.

As a charter school, they are also free to design their own classes. They base their classes on topics the students expressed interest in, like History of Hip Hop, Social Movements, Bioethics, US History Hamilton Era, Gothic Literature, Climate Fiction, Video Game Design, Philosophy of Star Trek, Trapeze, West African Drumming, and Film Making. Their students are included in major decisions at the school (calendar, schedule, curriculum). Student opinions are not ignored. Any sense of hierarchy is stripped—all students and staff go by first names.

Something radically different from their regular schedule is their Intensive Program. Students get a new class each week for eight weeks. They take one class for four days—meeting a little over five hours each day—and then it’s over. This has provided exceptional immersion in each class. Students performed 20 percent better in intensive classes as compared to their 90-minute block classes.

Boulder Prep recognizes that many students struggle with anxiety and stress, especially in school settings. Their learning environment reflects what they believe students need: warmth, feeling welcomed, and non-judgment. Failure is encouraged as part of the learning process, as failure is no stranger in life after school.

“The relationships are also important because our students are coming to school with a lot of baggage,” says Lili Adeli, Headmaster. “Life is complicated, so they lean on staff for social and emotional suppor. Teaching is more than just academics; it’s about nurturing the whole person. If a student is struggling emotionally, they won’t be able to focus on class content. We have to help get them stabilized and primed for learning.”

These reform efforts change the  school world for students, which is needed considering 13.36 percent of waking hours are spent in school by age 18, not counting homework.

Working With Constraints

Teachers are in a tough bind. In some schools, they are hamstringed with red tape and regulations. Pressure to meet demands of the curriculum holds many back from being able to make time to foster students’ spirits.

The grass, however, isn’t always greener on the other side. In Colorado, public schools are also making an effort to innovate new techniques in what we teach students. Since 2008, Colorado has moved forward with several reform efforts including: Colorado’s Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K), The Education Accountability Act, and The Great Teachers and Great Leaders Act.

One reform effort that benefited students is the TIME Collaborative. This means using school hours as effectively as possible. BVSD superintendent Cindy Stevenson says, “I don’t think free time is what schools should be doing. Schools need to do continuous review of their use of time and modify that use so that students have maximum learning time.”

For instance, Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer, a Boulder Valley dual-language immersion school, worked with TIME Collaborative to add 45 minutes of personal learning time for English language students. Pioneer also added an optional enrichment block at the end of the school day for Zumba, soccer, chemistry, knitting and other creative activities. Adding more hours to the day sounds like overkill, but every extra minute of these activities teaches kids how to love learning.

Colorado also has a really robust concurrent enrollment. Several districts have experimented with an apprentice model; students get credit for not only sitting in on AP class, but have the opportunity to experience internships and employment in high school. Some kids are even able to graduate high school with an associate degree.

It doesn’t stop there. Most recently, special education could take a turn for the better as well. Coloradans are rallying around U.S. Representative, 2nd District of Colorado, Jared Polis’s new legislation to fully fund special education—this is another step in the right direction that will allow teachers to teach their students with disabilities effectively, with the resources and support they need.

The Most Special Education

“Education is the single best investment we can make in our future, but for decades we have underfunded our public schools,” said Polis in a press release. “Our failure to fully fund special education has left too many students without the tools they need to succeed and dramatically impacted school budgets.  All students in the U.S., regardless of ability, have the right to a top-notch education.  Meeting the needs of all students should not be an unfunded mandate. Schools should have the resources to meet the learning needs of all students. It’s time for Congress to fulfill its commitment to all students.”

The Defending Special Education Students and Families Act (DSESF) fully funds the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). When IDEA was introduced in 1975, Congress committed to contributing 40 percent but currently covers less than 16 percent. Without proper funding, districts have had to cut or underpay teachers and saddle districts with the burden to cover 70 percent of the costs.

Special education deserves to have the same support as other education programs. Students with special needs are not always understood. If schools separate students with special needs from classmates, they can feel isolated or “othered.” Hence, there are multiple schools in the area that can really hone in on theses students’ individual needs. The Temple Grandin School is one that shines. The school is inspired by Temple Grandin herself—a doctor of animal science at CSU who is, herself, on the autism spectrum. The students at Temple Grandin, grades 6-12, are accepted, enabled to reach their full potential and share the challenge of belonging with class sizes of 4 to 8 students. Temple Grandin strives to see their students as individuals, to never limit  potential, to teach students to be proud of their strengths and gifts, and to help students find the courage to address challenges, all in a supportive academic and social environment for learning. Most critically, autism is not seen as something to be fixed, but to be nurtured and celebrated.

To The Future

As Colorado continues innovating and challenging the factory educational process with a progressive pedagogical orientation, other states will follow. Parents: you can choose from public charter schools, progressive schools within districts, and more specialized private schools. You have the power to know your child and provide them the education that will help them succeed.

Watch your child(ren). Find out how they feel through the day. Discover the aspects of learning that make their eyes go wide, that make them want to dig deeper. Then find the school that will help your child excel.

America’s educators needs to remember that a narrow definitions of success, grades and numbers don’t describe who each student is and what kind of student they are. Sstudents want to learn. We just have to teach them; really teach them.  

Courtesy of Colorado Children's Campaign

Courtesy of Colorado Children’s Campaign

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