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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Restructuring Schools for Student Success

When inclusion started to gain popularity many years ago, I embraced it whole-heartedly. I was so happy to see every student have access to all the services a school had to offer. I remembered well the days before inclusion when children with substantial needs were separated and made to feel different from others. I also remembered the sadness children with unmet special needs experienced in schools. Inclusion has been a positive step forward in education.

I'm still a proponent of inclusion, but I recognize that the world of education has changed. We know a lot more about the ways that specific students learn. There are many more services available to children. We realize that no two children learn exactly alike or have exactly the same interests and passions. Families also bring to school a myriad of parenting styles, philosophies, and abilities to support children. There are many avenues to success and it's possible that restructuring schools can better lead all students down those avenues.

Currently, most students belong to a grade-level, classroom community. The classroom teacher manages the schedule for the students in his or her classroom. With inclusion, the classroom teacher needs to coordinate his/her schedule with many professionals and others including nurses, grade-level colleagues, parent volunteers, lunch room staff, social workers, guidance counselors, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, assistant teachers, special educators, ELL teachers, hearing specialists, brain injury experts, and/or after-school teachers (and more). This coordination is integral to a child's success, but it is also a time consuming task which becomes exponential when a classroom has many children with extensive services. Also, the classroom teacher's day is primarily spent with large numbers of children, leaving little professional time for planning, preparation and collaboration. Therefore, most communication, collaboration, preparation, and professional development efforts happen during a teacher's afterwork hours.

I don't think the classroom teacher has to be at the helm of all this communication and coordination. I believe that teachers' roles, whether they are in the classroom or have a specialist role, should be re-looked at with respect to time on task, responsibility, goals, and most of all their impact on children. Restructuring roles, responsibilities, and the school day could lead schools to more effective delivery of services for all children.

One idea I'm interested in exploring is breaking the day into six main sections for each child. Those sections would include Community, Essential Skills, Project Based Learning, Physical Education, The Arts, and Clubs. Of course, there will be overlap between sections, but each section would have a few main objectives as noted below.

1. Community: Age-level teams which build social competency and community skills led by a mentor. Every professional in the building would be a mentor. They would follow their students from through multiple years, perhaps grades K-2 and then 3-5. Mentors would lead social competency groups, portfolio creation, student advocacy and communication. (similar to private school advisory groups) As I estimate it, that would mean about 13 students per mentor. Mentors would also lead read aloud, independent reading, and independent daily writing--skills that profit from small group and individual, daily attention, coaching and mentoring.

2. Essential Skills: A time of day that includes skill-centered, special services in multi-age, needs-related groups to develop students' ability to access communication, reading, writing, and math skills -- the core skills of learning.

3. Project Based/Service Learning: Collaborative groups of similar age students that take on meaningful project work that integrates essential skills, students' needs, interests, and content learning. It could be that students move through a number of project types throughout their tenure in a school in order to reach content/knowledge goals. Some project based groups would be considered project-skills groups. In those groups students would get more skill learning within the project goal and process. When possible, project base learning and service learning would be combined in order to give the learning a meaningful purpose, a way to build citizenship, empathy, care-for-others, and community contribution.

4. Physical Education/Team Building and Healthy Foods and Habits: A time of day when children are involved in physical education activities that boost health, physical fitness and team skills. Groups would be based on choice and needs. Services such as PT and Adaptive PT would fit into this time of the day. Also, this team would work with lunchroom staff and others to make sure that students have healthy food and clean water available for snacks and school meals. This team would also take care of school gardens, composting, and other natural sites that contribute to healthy activity and choices.

5. Arts: This is the time of day that students are integrated in passion-building arts activities such as music, visual arts, dance, theater, public speaking, movie making and more. Groups would be based on choice and need. It could be that OT services, and possibly some speech services (theater) occur during this time of day.

6. Clubs: Students choose their club of choice. They "grow" their passion with other like minded students.

The Media Center and Library would serve as a resource and intellectual hub in the school--a place that students and teachers could go to to access information, research, create, and meet to learn. All integral school resources would be housed in this area.

STEAM Labs: Labs would exist to support project base learning and clubs. The labs would be open spaces with lots of room and needed supplies for creation, invention, and experimentation.

Cafe: The lunchroom would be a friendly, open space with happy signage, an open kitchen, healthy food, and a friendly, positive atmosphere.

Special services would be integrated into the time of day that best match the service goals. Grouping would mainly be created based on student needs. One teacher would not be responsible for a child's overall day, instead children would be matched with mentors, or leaders that coordinate their personalized learning plan.

Streamlining the school day so that most of the time is spent in thoughtful, planned, responsive learning for each student is essential. In what direction do you think schools should move? What's essential? What's working now and what's not working?

I believe that schools need to continue to grow and change, keeping students' optimal social, emotional, physical and academic growth at the center. We need to move away from "one size fits all" to a "size" for everyone. Inclusion has been a step in the right direction; now what's the next step?

I proposed this idea at an informal round table discussion about restructuring schools at the MassCUE conference. That's where I heard the idea of advisory groups. I also heard the idea about every school having a social service component -- a part of the school devoted to students' physical and emotional health. At times, a child's or family's physical or emotional health impacts a child's ability to access learning greatly. When that happens, there is often the need for social services, medical services, or psychological services. Children who cannot access those services have a difficult time learning, and sometimes hinder the learning of others too.

Can we expect schools to be all things to all children? How do we prioritize the efforts of schools? Am I trading in a good, traditional system for one that is untested. I hope not, but I can't get the idea out of my head that schools can be structured differently for greater academic, social and emotional gains for each student. What do you think? What component would you start with? Thanks for listening.

Related Post: Results-Oriented Education: Teaching the Whole Child