Thursday, February 11, 2010

A better place to be: Carolina School for Inquiry

Over five years ago, I became part of a group of people who wanted their children, and all children, to have a better place to learn. After some discussion and research, we decided to start a child-centered, inquiry-based, multi-age public charter school in Richland County school district one.

I almost didn’t become a part of CSI because I had misconceptions about what a charter school is.

I thought that a charter school was a sneaky way of having a private school paid for with public money. I thought charter schools were conservative, using old-fashioned methods that people think used to work to teach kids, but never really worked for most kids. I thought charter schools had uniforms, workbooks, and rote teaching.

Instead, I learned that a charter school is a laboratory to test innovative ideas to see if they will help improve education for all children.

A group with an innovative idea establishes a contract with the state of SC and with the school district, in our case Richland One, promising that our idea will work BETTER to educate the children of SC. The key is to find a new way of teaching. In our case, we took two tried and true methods, inquiry and multi-age, and combined them in a way that we believed would improve all children’s learning.

In addition, the charter group promises to teach ALL children better, not just the ones we might pick and choose. In the process, the charter organization takes on a great responsibility for both education and finances.

The contract between Carolina School for Inquiry and Richland One says that our innovative method that we believe will better educate children is a CHILD-CENTERED, MULTI-AGE, INQUIRY-BASED curriculum. This is not the only way to teach, but this is what CSI has agreed to do.

When we first established the school, some parents tried to change it to what they thought a charter school was. Some wanted more homework and less talk among student, but that is not CSI. A couple of parents thought the school would allow their children to run wild and “express themselves” in ways that society deems inappropriate. That is not CSI. Currently, a couple of teachers and a handful of parents are saying that multi-age doesn’t work for them and the charter should be changed.

I have to ask them if they have checked our test scores. I have to wonder if they have looked at the students’ success. I have to wonder if they are committed to the CSI charter.

I have been lucky to have teachers committed to the learning of each child. When Mark was in third grade, the first year of CSI, he had a wonderful teacher. Although she was a first year teacher, I think she understood and was committed to inquiry in a way that some teachers entrenched in traditional learning aren’t. She was like the Good Shepherd of the parable, who knew each child’s name. She also knew what he or she liked and didn’t like to do and how to encourage a child to push beyond the “easy” to the challenge. She steered Mark toward books that he enjoyed, and helped him get past his obsession at the time --- a fine set of books that he’d really outgrown.
I use her as an example, but as I said, all of Mark’s teachers have been wonderful. And one of his best is a teacher who succeeded in traditional schools for years but has fully embraced the multi-age, inquiry-based curriculum of CSI.
One concern I have heard about multi-age classes is that it is hard to teach children with such a broad range of development and abilities. And yet, walk into any group of six year olds and you will find a broad range of development levels and abilities. In fact, one child may be all over the chart in his physical, emotional, and intellectual development. He may be great at math but struggle with language arts. She may be able to read on a 5th grade level but have the social skills of a kindergartener.

The idea of multi-age education is to teach children where they are developmentally, without stigmatizing them by “holding them back” or pushing them ahead when they are not socially ready.

With Inquiry-based education, each child should be learning in his own way in any case. Although it might not be necessary to have formalized forms such as used in special ed, each child should, in essence, have an IEP, his or her individual education plan. If each child is being taught in the way he or she can best learn, the multi-age issue is moot. It’s hard work for the teacher, but it is a great way for the children to succeed.

Being a part of a charter school is harder for parents, teachers, and administrators, but we CHOOSE to be a part because of our commitment to excellent public education. Our goal is student achievement: every child will be the best he or she can be. It doesn’t matter where his starts, how he stacks up against others, or what we want him to be. He needs to be his best.
And CSI has done this well. Look at the children. If you can, read the narrative report card, which tells you exactly what your child can and cannot do, where he is strongest and where he needs to challenge himself. Ask Ms. Dixon-Mokeba if you can see Mark’s report card. I’m as proud of the teachers who took the time and who had the knowledge of my son to write them as I am of my son. Look at our over-all test scores: look at the levels of improvement since the child-centered multi-age inquiry based curriculum has been given a chance to take hold. Look at the success in AYP.

Does looping (having a teacher go from grade to another with the child) work? Yeah, it does. There is plenty of evidence in Richland One and Two. So much so, I’d have to suggest it’s not innovative. Does that mean other schools shouldn’t use it? Of course not. Does that mean CSI, as a charter should be allowed to use it? No. It’s not innovative.

Carolina School for Inquiry is a SUCCESSFUL CHILD-CENTERED, MULTI-AGE, INQUIRY-BASED school. Our children are excelling, and I pray they will be able to continue to grow. And to those teachers & parents who feel that child-centered, multi-age, inquiry-based education is not right for you or your child, I wish you the best and hope you find a better place for YOU to be.

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