The 5 Things You Need to Make Your School Great

This was the first weekend in a very long time that we’ve had sunshine and warmth. Springtime in Wisconsin (albeit very late this year) always brings about a promise of what we know will follow. The ‘greening’ of everything around us and the growth pushing through the ground are reminders that the seasons cycle, ultimately, and with the exception of taking better care of our environment, there is little we have to do with this cycle.

To me, the analogy to students receiving a public education is obvious. No matter what happens, children arrive at the threshold of our schools on or around September 1 every year and leave us again sometime in June. We have no control over the students that are sent to us. They arrive and we teach them. Like flowers in the spring, we nurture their growth and watch them go through changes throughout their years with us. It is our hope that when they leave the K-12 system, they will become productive, well-educated, happy members of society. Yet, are we really making any change to the system which they go through? Are the students of today getting a radically different education than generations gone by?

I contend that we know what is good in schools. We have the knowledge that what makes schools great is simple: (1) education built on experiential, developmentally appropriate practices; (2) deep and meaningful parental and community involvement; (3) engaged highly-trained educational professionals who are given time to meaningfully collaborate and are passionate about their roles in the school while receiving ongoing training in effective practices; (4) a strong school leader; (5) enough funding to be able to ensure the first four items listed. And yet, we continue to try to find quick fixes because we don’t implement one through five above.

My daughter, Celeste, is eight years old. Her classroom is a 2nd/3rd grade multi-age and her teacher is wonderful. Energetic, positive, and a good communicator. Celeste is the last of my four children to have gone through this school district. We have seen NCLB come and go (almost), Assertive Discipline, basal reading series, multi-age and single grade classes, PBIS including rewards and punishments, the WI Model Academic Standards and now the Common Core State Standards, and the list goes on. Just recently I found out that the district is implementing Mondo: a reading series that they hope will ‘fix’ what’s wrong with literacy instruction and Celeste’s school is doing away with multi-age classrooms because it’s “too hard to meet the CCSS if you are teaching more than one grade”. The cycle seems to never end. Does this sound like your school or district? Probably so. I see this everywhere.

While there is nothing wrong with the CCSS or Mondo, the problem is that their implementation detracts from a focus on what matters most – a deep consideration of how we teach. Experiential learning in Celeste’s school is almost nonexistent. If the students go on a field trip it must be with the entire grade and no more than once a month. The trip has to have a direct tie to the CCSS for that grade level or they can’t go. We’ve seen educational trends and approaches come and go. We all roll our eyes as a new focus or system is implemented. We know that in a few years there will be something new. The problem is that these new systems rarely are a step forward in what counts. Too often we ignore the essentials that are found in our most innovative schools and superimpose a structure that disallows what is most important.

We know what’s wrong, and I believe we know what works. It’s up to all of us who care about education to ask for, advocate for, and ultimately demand that schools move forward to the essentials: experiential education, collaborative practice, focus on individuals, and encouraging students to explore how they learn, so that they’ll keep learning long after they’ve left our schools.

We nourish these flowers, and it’s a cliche to say we’re sowing seeds of the future. But just as we know a lot about how plants grow, we know enough about how children learn to proceed with a certain confidence in our fundamental approach, and not be fooled by the topdressing of the latest educational trend.

If you are interested in really moving forward, please consider partnering with the WISN. We look forward to the seasons with you.

Heather Terrill Stotts, Executive Director
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