There have been numerous times in my life where I've struggled to explain the essence of the differences between charter schools and noncharter schools to people who aren't familiar with charter school dynamics. This morning I visited a charter school far beyond the average school. James Irwin Charter Elementary School (JICES) isn't a good school -- it's a great school! And it's only in its third year of operation.
The Principal, Elizabeth Berg, and the Instructional Coach, Cindee Will, gave me a tour of the school. We visited every classroom at least once, some twice. Being a parent who has heard educational professionals say, "we think" or "we're hoping" while they experiment with my children, I was especially impressed by hearing several times, "the research says..." Prior learning is reinforced before new learning is introduced. Small groups are used for Reading and Math and students have both of these subjects for 50 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon. Students plot their own progress in subjects, such as Reading, by graphing their fluency rate or other data.
JICES uses Direct Instruction. DI is popular in schools with a high number of at-risk students. Both Berg and Will were previously at Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy where DI is also used successfully. CMCA is a Title I school. DI is an auditory method of cementing learning by the students and teacher rhythmically reciting information.
JICES is great at increasing individual student academic achievement through positive reinforcement. "The research says students need to hear their name and what, specifically, they're doing right for it to positively impact their learning, " I was told. Teachers use data on how many times they are both positive or negative with students in order to increase their positives to 4-7 to one. To be clear, JICES' "negatives" are redirects, not actual negative statements. A "redirect" is saying, "I need your eyes up here." When teachers struggle with certain students, they or someone else calculates their =/- data and the teacher intentionally increases her positives with that student. Typically within a couple of days the student is performing better.
This same philosophy about the importance of authentic praise is used by administration with the staff. Staff members receive side-by-side coaching to improve (implementing DI for new teachers is really tough!) and praise is readily given.
I've been in a district-operated school where the school's leadership led a concerted effort to "raise self-esteem." It was fluff without any substance -- it wasn't real. What's happening at JICES is real. I learned of a student who soaked up the JICES environment for three years before it penetrated and impacted his learning. For other students, it happens within weeks or months. One of my pet peeves is teachers who say hurtful things to students or students who "fall through the cracks." JICES exemplifies a school where students thrive because they work hard, self-monitor and see their own progress. If the student isn't learning, it's the teacher who adjusts so that every student is successful.
I have to mention the awesome fifth grade class that recited the first 25 elements of the Periodic Chart (in order) and the four stages of photosynthesis. Last year this class learned five pages of the story of Paul Revere, which they assured us they could still recite!