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February 6, 2016
by: Ted Hamm

Charter Contract Renewal

Dear Parents, Students, Staff, and Friends,

On Tuesday, February 4th at 7:00 p.m. the Board of Education will be taking action on the next five year contract for ESAA, The Mosaic School, and IDEAS Academy. Earlier this week, I wrote an overview blog about our upcoming contract renewal. Part of the value we offer to the Sheboygan Area School District is choice. It is part of my belief that school districts should have diverse offerings that meet the needs of the diverse communities they serve.

As a charter school, we offer unique K-12 learning opportunities with our focus on nurturing creativity through school culture and authentic projects. While there is much more to our identity as a group of schools than being a charter school, we are grateful to be part of an educational landscape that offers choices for families in Sheboygan. We support all of these choices, especially those who share our commitment to admitting all students and building a learning community as diverse as the city we serve.

We are proud of our educational program and honored to provide it to our community. Over the last year, we have been formalizing our strategic planning process. Part of that process is clearly identifying who we are and articulating our core ideology:

Empowered learning in a vibrant and participatory community that engages students to discover and develop their innate creative potential.

We believe in a school community where students:

  • Develop and utilize creative/innovative thinking through authentic, disciplinary projects.
  • Value a culture that promotes thinking.
  • Become independent, self – directed learners.
  • Build a connected, participatory community in and out of our school.
  • Actively prepare for college and career.

To winnow this down even further, I see our schools as helping students foster creative and innovative thinking, which is a process of taking knowledge and skills and applying those in a process of creating original work. Additionally, I see us as developing independent, self directed learners. These are essential for young people in our world.

I recently read a blog post by Alfie Kohn, a prolific writer and speaker on educational issues in progressive education. I had the opportunity to introduce Mr Kohn at the Innovative Schools Network a few years ago. It was a great opportunity to speak to him about the role our schools have within the larger picture of progressive education. In his blog post, Kohn clearly and eloquently captures what progressive education is. His definition helps define the value that The Étude Group of schools brings to our community.

Kohn’s core set of characteristics for progressive education are:

Attending to the whole child: Progressive educators are concerned with helping children become not only good learners but also good people. Schooling isn’t seen as being about just academics, nor is intellectual growth limited to verbal and mathematical proficiencies.

Community: Learning isn’t something that happens to individual children — separate selves at separate desks. Children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning. Interdependence counts at least as much as independence, so it follows that practices that pit students against one another in some kind of competition, thereby undermining a feeling of community, are deliberately avoided.

Collaboration: Progressive schools are characterized by what I like to call a “working with” rather than a “doing to” model. In place of rewards for complying with the adults’ expectations, or punitive consequences for failing to do so, there’s more of an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving — and, for that matter, less focus on behaviors than on underlying motives, values, and reasons.

Social Justice: A sense of community and responsibility for others isn’t confined to the classroom; indeed, students are helped to locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own ethnic group, and beyond their own country. Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others.

Intrinsic motivation: When considering (or reconsidering) educational policies and practices, the first question that progressive educators are likely to ask is, “What’s the effect on students’ interest in learning, their desire to continue reading, thinking, and questioning?” This deceptively simple test helps to determine what students will and won’t be asked to do. Thus, conventional practices, including homework, grades, and tests, prove difficult to justify for anyone who is serious about promoting long-term dispositions rather than just improving short-term skills.

Deep Understanding: As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead declared long ago, “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.” Facts and skills do matter, but only in a context and for a purpose. That’s why progressive education tends to be organized around problems, projects, and questions — rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines. The teaching is typically interdisciplinary, the assessment rarely focuses on rote memorization, and excellence isn’t confused with “rigor.” The point is not merely to challenge students — after all, harder is not necessarily better — but to invite them to think deeply about issues that matter and help them understand ideas from the inside out.

Active learning: In progressive schools, students play a vital role in helping to design the curriculum, formulate the questions, seek out (and create) answers, think through possibilities, and evaluate how successful they — and their teachers — have been. Their active participation in every stage of the process is consistent with the overwhelming consensus of experts that learning is a matter of constructing ideas rather than passively absorbing information or practicing skills.

Taking Kids Seriously: In traditional schooling, as John Dewey once remarked, “the center of gravity is outside the child”: he or she is expected to adjust to the school’s rules and curriculum. Progressive educators take their cue from the children — and are particularly attentive to differences among them. (Each student is unique, so a single set of policies, expectations, or assignments would be as counterproductive as it was disrespectful.) The curriculum isn’t just based on interest, but on these children’s interests. Naturally, teachers will have broadly conceived themes and objectives in mind, but they don’t just design a course of study for their students; they design it with them, and they welcome unexpected detours. One fourth-grade teacher’s curriculum, therefore, won’t be the same as that of the teacher next door, nor will her curriculum be the same this year as it was for the children she taught last year. It’s not enough to offer elaborate thematic units prefabricated by the adults. And progressive educators realize that the students must help to formulate not only the course of study but also the outcomes or standards that inform those lessons.

I encourage you to read the entire blog to get a good view of what progressive education is and what it is not.

As we look to our value in the community we are more than a charter school choice. Our schools provide a true progressive option to our community. This is a choice beyond kids measured as simple data points academically and behaviorally. It is a choice that looks at the whole child with a focus on developing independent, self directed learners who are able to think critically and creatively.

Sincerely,

Ted 

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