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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Transforming public education in Rockford

I had the pleasure of visiting the two new charter public schools in Rockford recently, along with several of my colleagues from INCS and the Rockford Charter School Initiative (RCSI).

Three themes stood out to me at both schools, as we visited classrooms, saw students in action and talked with teachers: high expectations, engagement and support.

At Legacy Academy of Excellence, these themes came across in the consistent, active involvement of students in classrooms throughout the school. Students enthusiastically participated in the call and response of the Direct Instruction approach. The hallways resonated with the sound of student voices. In one of classroom, several students proudly showed me the fiction writing they were working on. Two boys were writing stories about each other and sports – topics that clearly appealed to them both.

A parent and board member shared with us that the school has truly transformed his son’s educational experience. In a sharp departure from the past, he said, his son is now coming home excited about school, eager to talk about what he’s learning and to do his homework.

At Galapagos Rockford, a new charter school replicating the original Galapagos Charter School in Chicago, we were greeted by bright, large classrooms set up for stations and small group instruction using the “CAFÉ” model to teach reading (Comprehension, Accuracy, Fluency, Expanding Vocabulary). College pendants and other reminders that the elementary school “scholars” (as they refer to their students) are on the path to higher education were displayed throughout the school. We learned about the monthly parades to celebrate students who have consistently completed homework and behaved in a scholarly fashion.

A third grade teacher (a Rockford native who returned to her community with the opening of the charter school) showed us two samples of a student’s writing – one from the first week of school and one from several months later. The difference was remarkable: the first was a sloppy, poorly-written half-page; the second, a neatly written, multi-page story incorporating quotations. The teacher attributed this change to the high expectations of the students in her classroom and across the school.

In both schools, students and teachers are learning for more hours than in the traditional school system – with longer school days for students and significant time devoted to professional development for teachers. A gallery walk in the professional development room at Legacy showed that students weren’t the only ones engaged and supported in their learning. Flip chart posters circled the large room, displaying the work on strategies such as Activating Prior Knowledge that teachers had completed in playfully named teams.

-Anne Levy-Brown

Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School visit

The faculty and staff at Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School were very pleasant and accommodating. I was escorted by the family coordinator for BLCS, Mrs. Michelle Clayborn. Upon my arrival, the students were on their last lunch session as other students were already back in class. As I toured the school, we had some dialogue about the school’s structure. BLCS has over 450 students enrolled. The school accommodates grades kindergarten through eighth grade. There are two classrooms for each grade with a maximum of 25 students. The school hours are from 8AM-4PM. The “K-4th” grade students are located on the first floor and the 5th-8th grade students are located on the second floor. There is a Director of Instruction on each floor whose primary responsibility is teacher support.

The school serves both breakfast and lunch for 30 minutes and 20 minutes respectively. The lunchroom is also used for their after-school program and parent sessions. The parents are required to attend at least two sessions. In addition to their major subjects taught, BLCS also offer Music, Spanish, Technology, Art, and Library classes. During my visit, there were students practicing on the drums in preparation for their Christmas program through a community partnership. BLCS integrates art programs to support their mission. This allows their students to be creative through learning. The school has an art studio which displays many works by the students.

I had the opportunity to sit in on a third grade class. The teacher was covering an English exercise where students identified topic sentences and details within a paragraph. The students were very attentive. The asked relevant questions and seem to understand the lesson. The teacher did a good job with her delivery of the lesson. I also observed an eighth grade class where the teacher was covering a book reading assignment. The students are to read 10 books of their choice. Upon reading the books, the students are required to complete a book review, engage in book talk and online discussion. She also covered a lesson on writing an autobiography. She passed out index cards that had questions on them. The students asked the teacher questions from the cards. She provided answers as a way to stimulate their thoughts for writing an autobiography. Once the students complete the autobiography, they have to create a PowerPoint presentation or poster display. I also visited the computer lab. The computer teacher is relatively new to BLCS and will be taking on a technical support role for the school. She also mentioned that their administration currently serves as their technical support.

-Jerald Blackwell
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