Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Real Life at West Denver Prep

This is an awesome explanation of what real life is like in a college-prep charter school. Enjoy!

Good days, bad days and changing the world
[From the HeadFirst Colorado newsletter]

By Ellen J. Levy

I moved to Denver in 1995 and taught chemistry for eleven years in a university classroom. I loved teaching, but began to feel that “real” teaching was too important to be left at the college level. I found myself thinking about the far-fetched possibility of moving to the trenches at the K-12 level.

Finding the web site of West Denver Preparatory Charter School in the Spring of 2006 led to an incredible series of events. I am now completing my second year as a middle-school science teacher. I have a Ph.D. in Bioinorganic Chemistry from Columbia University. My students call me “Miss Dr. Levy”, and I have never felt more challenged or more rewarded as a scientist or a teacher.

West Denver Preparatory Charter School opened on August 14, 2006. By August 16th, I was angry. How had the education establishment arranged its collective organizational thinking so that the skill levels of our students were considered acceptable for entering sixth-graders?

My plans for textbook use were tossed. About 75% of our students did not read well enough to glean anything useful from a middle-school science textbook.

My plans for homework were tossed. Most of our students could not understand a simple science question or make the logical leap to an answer.

I began to believe that expectations for our students in the past had previously been non-existent. Had simply handing in paper marked “homework” been sufficient? The majority of our students often answered questions with any random word that vaguely related to science. Or, they guessed. Why hadn’t anybody taught them that the classroom was only Step 1? My students had been robbed of learning, and of the joys of the “A-HA” moments that make science so wonderful.

Almost two school years later, I still haven’t lowered my expectations. What I have done is make startling revisions in how I teach.

Make no mistake. Most of my students are now meeting my expectations. Some make it look easy. Others still exude hostility as they do what is required. Still others struggle with the material but are eager to learn. The number of students who are not succeeding at some level is very small.

I continue to think about new strategies. Some of these are discussed below.

Making Material Accessible

With only occasional use of textbooks, my material is delivered by packet. I write an original piece of material, usually 5-7 pages long, complete with graphics, for every class. (Next year, however, as I move to 8th grade with our original sixth graders, I will regularly use a textbook. They are ready!) Students use their packets for notes, practice, and homework. Our faculty all use packets. It doubles our workloads, but in my view is a major reason for our success. Writing original curricular material is also very creative, and it taxes your pedagogical skills to the limit.

Modeling Thought Processes

How can students think about science? I now ask a question and then break down the approach to the answer. Answering a question might first involve answering five “pre-questions” which collect important facts and make necessary leaps. I take NOTHING for granted.

Changing Student Thinking About Learning

The slogan of our school is “STRIVE for College”. If we had a secondary slogan, it would be “Look It Up!” During class, our students use their packets to look up anything they have forgotten. They are expected to do the same at home. Our students know that it is unacceptable not to think and learn. My students all know that “Look at you! You’re really thinking!” is high praise.

Support for Success

After a few weeks of disappointing homework from one of my classes, I asked to have a special homework tutorial with them. The results were stunning. Students often just needed to be told that their answers were correct and that they were doing a good job. If told that one answer was incorrect, they could often go back and get the right answer with no hints or additional help. If that did not happen, a quick and simple hint sent them back one more time, and this usually worked. We now make homework support a key part of our program.

Other Keys to Success

Our administration supports innovation. Teachers try new things and tackle challenges in ways that might actually work. This kind of leadership is critical to our success. Our administration also deals quickly and consistently with discipline issues. Teachers remove disruptive students and give consequences for inappropriate behavior. On any given day, we actually teach, and much of this results from our discipline structure.


I keep coming back for more, and this means that even the REALLY bad days can be put aside. This year, another teacher told me about students arranging game pieces (in a math class) to be white blood cells and red blood cells. I have heard a 7th grade girl get up at a school-wide gathering and explain how people get Huntington’s Disease. A student at a recent field day came up to me in a soaking wet-T shirt and told me that the heat of her body was evaporating the sweat.

This is incredibly hard work, but despite my end-of-the-year completely exhausted demeanor, I am not sure that there is anything more important I could be doing.

We admit students each year by lottery. This year, I brought my 11-year-old son to help me work at a table on lottery night. The next time he hears someone talk about students who cannot learn and parents who do not care, he will have a vision of parents bursting into tears as their children were admitted to West Denver Prep.

Dr. Ellen J. Levy is Founding Science Teacher at West Denver Prep.

Update: The Denver Post did an article on Ellen Levy.

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