Yes, we CAN make substantial change in even underperforming schools in underserved communities, and the answer does NOT have to lie in longer hours and drilling for tests. The answer can lie in what John Dewey and the other giants of the Progressive Era of education defined more than 100 years ago: student experience, engagement, and ownership of learning. Read on!
As I have reported in the past, my colleague Julie Wilson and I have been working this year with principal Steve Baca and a cohort of the 6th grade teachers at Ortiz Middle School in Santa Fe, NM. Ortiz has been ranked a low performing school in a state one spot removed from the bottom of the national student performance ladder. The population is largely Latino, bi-lingual, and almost all on free and reduced lunch plans. Students live in modest homes, apartments, and trailer parks; there is a significant homeless and undocumented population. In the past, success for many of these families has been graduation from high school and matriculation on to low-paying jobs in the service industry.
Baca, who grew up in the neighborhood and went to West Point and a career in the Army before turning to education and returning to his roots, set a simple, clear North Star for transforming Ortiz: students must take ownership of their learning and their futures. He decided to re-structure the school: cohorts of teachers would start with an incoming 6th grade class and wrap with those students through their three years at the school. Steve brought Julie and me in last August to work with the first 6th grade cohort and virtually nothing was off the table. Steve essentially said “Here is your wing of the school; meet the standards; everything else is up for re-imagining how to get these students fired up about their education.”
Through a process of vision and team building, the teaching cohort at Ortiz has made a dramatic, perhaps even radical, shift in just a few months. When Julie and I visited for two days in October, there had been, frankly, little movement in the pedagogy, classroom management, and teaching style in most of the classrooms. I calculated student engagement in most classrooms in the range of 10-40%. In November we started to see some cracks in the system. Despite some very rough patches on the road to acting as a team, a few teachers pointed back to the North Star vision they had built in August and essentially said “we are not close to where we need to be; let’s bust this thing open.”
I was blown away by our visit last week. In virtually every classroom we found emerging to strong evidence of:
- Student-designed and student-led project work
- Organization of content learning around big, relevant, student-owned themes
- Focus on student questioning
- Beginnings of real differentiation of learning pathways for individual students
- Revised assessment strategies based on student-created visual projects
- Collaborative work amongst subject teachers and across subject silos
- Students up and out of their desks, working on walls, in halls, and using technology in deeply engaging ways
- Students leading classroom discussion and dynamic small-group work
How do we measure progress? Here are three data points:
- A 40% uptick in year-to-year scores on progress reports on standardized math scores.
- Last year about 10% of parents came to the standard parent conferences; this year about 90% of conferences had a parent attend the student-led portfolio reviews.
- Extremely high (80-100%) student engagement in 90% of the classroom time I observed.
As they prepare for next year when they follow their students up into 7th grade, the teachers are already starting to take the next step up: imagining much longer and more flexible time blocks; interdisciplinary classes and big, all-grade themes; fluid movement of students between classes based on project development and differentiated need. I see dramatic evidence at Ortiz of almost every element of both critical planes of school innovation. As the teachers are developing a true team dynamic, they are restructuring school around learning and purpose, not around subject and time. Next steps: passing all of this along and developing the next cohort of Ortiz teachers who will receive the incoming 6th graders next year.
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