Kind. Innovative. Fun. Challenging. Unique.
I’m sitting at a small table surrounded by a group of enthusiastic fourth grade students. Hands are raised and waving, extending from little bodies that keep bouncing up and down in small chairs. I don’t remember ever being this anxious to have my name called to answer a question.
The question I posed to this active crew was, “What is the one word that best describes your school?”
I can’t resist the boy, who almost looks like he is in pain as his entire body contorts in a bundle of thrusting arms and shaking legs. Maybe he needs a hall pass to the restroom. No, he just wants to shout out his answer: “Amazing!” And that word perfectly defines my own experience on his campus this warm spring day in March.
As 2010 California Teacher of the Year, I am part of a validation team for the California Distinguished Schools honors program. Prior to visiting two of the schools in San Diego County, I read through their applications, which highlight the signature practices they deem as “distinguished.” The applications were impressive with some common themes, but the schools seemed very different on paper. The first, an urban elementary school, located a few miles from downtown San Diego, receives Title I funding and has historically struggled with low-test scores and parents seeking to send their kids elsewhere in the district. In the last few years, however, a dedicated faculty, administration, and group of parents worked hard to transform the school. The school community chose to become part of the International Baccalaureate (“IB”) program. The school day was restructured, and consistent and meaningful professional development and collaboration were imbedded into the school calendar. Student supports and enrichment activities now play a central role in the curriculum. And parents in the area now willingly choose for their students to attend this school.
The other elementary school, located in a suburb north of San Diego, has scored consistently well on standardized tests. Parents are eager to send their children to this campus. A well thought-out technology plan has been implemented with each classroom equipped with projectors, computers, document cameras, and audio systems to magnify the teacher’s voice. There is also a comprehensive health and fitness program, culminating each year in a community-wide health week when students bring fruits and vegetables of various colors to share with classmates. It is not unusual on this campus to find students bragging about their purple radishes or green zucchini snacks, which are grown in the campus vegetable garden.
As I walk around the buildings on each of these two campuses, enter the classrooms, speak with the teachers, administrators, parents, and students, it is clear that these schools, seemingly so different on paper, share so much in common. There is an energy that permeates each campus. There is an eagerness to learn and a sense of empowerment seemingly shared by all stakeholders.
So often we find ourselves as a society focusing on the so-called “broken system” of education. However, I am reminded, as I sit with the fourth graders on tiny chairs in the back of a classroom, that there is much hope in the midst of this system. Great teaching, dynamic leadership, and working partnerships of schools, parents and the community abound out there.
I often call parents when their child does well in my class, not just when there is a problem. Likewise, we need to take time to highlight the successes in our world of education, not just the failures.