Monday, July 25, 2011

Visiting an elementary school

[First, an apology.   I recently had an cancer operation and it laid me low for a few days but I am in recovery mode.  I'm sorry for the delay of the blog.]

I came across some interesting news this week that I had not known.  The University of Chicago has a laboratory school that was started by John Dewey.  What i didn't know was that it was still operating and teaching children.  My oh my! And it is considered one of the premiere educational schools in the United States.  

So I did a little more research about it and found that it costs $21,600 for one child to go to the elementary school and $25,000 for a student to go to the secondary school.  Anyway you look at it you will be paying out in the neighborhood of $50,000 dollars A year for tuition for two children.  That's a pretty decent neighborhood.  EACH year!

Apparently Rahm Emanuel, the new mayor of Chicago will be sending his three children there as did the Obama's before he was elected president.  I wonder what the cost per child is when going to the Friends School in Washington, D.C..  

Rich people want the best for their children and they are willing to pay for it.  And it appears they don't want to fuss over the curriculum but they do want a broad curriculum that includes physical education, music, art, drama, small classes but hold the national testing, thank you.

My concern is that what John Dewey envisioned for good schooling was not just a lab school run by a university but by schools all over this country helping the young gain a satisfactory position in our society.  If I interpret what professor Dewey wrote in his book, the better our schools are, the better our society will be.  Somehow I don't think the American politicians have accepted this position.

But Finland and South Korea have done just that.  They have made teachers a highly respected profession with excellent pay and have made entry into the teacher profession difficult--you gotta be top flight to get into their university to be a teacher.  My university has done that--it is difficult to get into the Woodring College of Education.  And once there, you have to work at it.  Lots of time spent in the schools BEFORE you attain student teaching status.  

I like spending times in the schools.  I once heard about a school in the Olympic peninsula that was getting good reviews by other teachers.  When teachers say something is good, I pay attention.  So one early morning I left my campus, traveled to Seattle, took the ferry across Puget Sound and located this new elementary school located in a new growth middle class housing.  Nice neighborhoods.  

I got to the school about eleven in the morning--my due date and time.  Parked the car and as I walked toward the front door, a young boy met me and asked, "Are you Mr. Blackwell?"  When I agreed that it might be me, he said, "Please come with me."  I felt as if I were in a time warp, he was very polite--probably about a third grader.  And he led me straight to the office of the principal who was ready to meet me.  Some schools I'm left sitting in the office waiting for the principal but not this time.

We chatted.  It was a new school opened only a year previous and had three open wings in a circular style with a first, second, third, fourth and fifth grade in each wing.  Kindergarten was in a separate building.  It was interesting that the three fifth grades were not together but the reason will become apparent.  All classrooms had only three walls with what might be called the back wall opened to a long section between the classrooms.  This area held two large rows of computers.  The fact that there each classroom was open to all the other classroom impressed me that the noise level was at a minimal.  I've heard noisier schools.

But back to the principal....she told me that the teachers had worked for a year after school to design this building and the curriculum.  Parents were involved with the process as well.  One of the themes was this would be a "helping" school, hence, the reason for the first through fifth grade in a wing.  The "rule" was that a younger student having problems could ask an older student how to do something, how to read a paragraph, do an arithmetic problem and so on.  The older student had to help. If asked you had to help.  If he/she couldn't answer or solve the problem they HAD to get some other student who could.

One of the rules of learning (not teaching) is that redundancy is a key to knowing.  You learn something but then do it several times and it becomes engrained in long term memory. That was happening at this school.  Kids were learning things and then having to help younger kids, they employed redundancy.  By the time they got to fifth grade, the concept of helping others was imprinted in their behavior.  

When the principal answered all my questions, she buzzed the outer office and a young fifth grade girl was shown in.  "Mr. Blackwell, this is Jessica and she will be your official guide on your tour of this school."  "Jessica, this is Mr. Blackwell."  And off we went.  

There is nothing more delightful then a young student who knows that have an adult where they want them--in their control.  With great importance she took me around the school visiting wing after wing.  At some point a younger student asked Jessica a question and she excused herself for a moment telling me she had to do this task first and then with deliberation helped the younger student.  I was impressed and Jessica knew that.  She also explained to me how the computers were used.  

I asked about the noise level--did one class make more noise at times and did it bother the other classes.  "No, you get use to it."  "But sometimes when a lower grade is having music and they are singing a song, we in the upper grade will sing along under our breath."  "You won't tell our teachers, will you?"  We now had our little secret.   I said I wouldn't but I suspect the teachers sang along as well.

All the wings lead to a large center section of the school which was the library.   Very large.  But no librarian.  She was apprently out in one of the classrooms teaching library skills.  So how did books get checked out and in?  Jessica with her hands on her hips said, "we do it ourselves."  "Okay, show me."

Apparently, each child in the school had a bar code that was distinctly theirs.  And these bar codes were in loose leaf notebooks by grade.  A child would find a book that they wanted, zap the bar code in the back of the book, then find their class note book and zap their name in the check out list.  Done deal.  When they returned the book, it was again zapped and the name under check in was also zapped and the book was place so that it could be re-shelved.  I spoke with the librarian and she mentioned that they had about the same amount of loss as when she did all the work, but in this case, she could go out into the classrooms and teach!  The kids could do the office work.  What a concept.

I am sorry that i didn't ask about bullying but I doubt if much of that happened at this school.  The older kids seem to sense that they had a responsibility for the younger kids.  Part of the "help system" I suppose.

I talked to the teachers and they all seem quite happy with the arrangement of the school and the policies that they had implemented. According to the principal the school had the lowest change of faculty in the district.  She agreed that that could be a problem down the road but she would deal with that when the time came.

I suspect that the cost of putting a child through that public school, not counting the cost of building the building, would be in the neighborhood of $13,000 a year.   I didn't ask but did a rough estimate at that time.  That is a far cry from the $25,000 that the University of Chicago's lab school costs.  

And I suspect if I had to pick a school for my kids, I might have chosen this unique school across the sound from Seattle.  I wouldn't want my kids to become elitist.

"There is no nobility being superior to anyone else.  The only true nobility is in being superior to the person you were yesterday."

Thanks, Jessica.  You were a great tour guide.  Pretty smart, too.  I like your style. And thanks to all the teachers who designed a unique school for learning in the public educational system.  Nicely done.

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