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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

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