Since this article was written in 2000, founding principal Peggy Bryan and teacher Sandra Villarreal have moved on from Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, but current principal Irene Preciado carries on the school's original vision.
The start of a new school year is one of the most anxious and exciting times. Children wonder what their teachers will be like and who their classmates will be. Parents hope their children will have a positive experience and be treated well. Teachers look forward to the promise of fresh faces but know it will take a lot of time and effort to get to know the students, their individual personalities, their problems, and their strengths and dreams.
Teachers and administrators spend an enormous amount of time at the beginning of the year simply establishing the basic relations and ground rules that need to be in place for classes to function smoothly and to begin focusing on learning. But if the teachers and students already know each other, the beginning of the year is a much smoother prospect.
Principal Peggy Bryan and second-grade teacher Sandra Villarreal confer during the school day, a regular occurrence between Bryan and all the teachers.
Credit: Peter DaSilva
Looping at Sherman Oaks
At Sherman Oaks Community Charter School, in San Jose, California, the practice of looping -- teachers keeping the same students for two or more years -- helps not only to smooth the bumps of each new year, it is one of many ways that the school builds positive relationships between teachers and students throughout the year. The practice is commonly called looping because after two or three years with the same group of students, the teacher loops back down to start the process again.
At her previous school, Principal Peggy Bryan tracked the progress of classes with and without looping and found that student gains were greater in looped classes. So when Bryan and several teachers from the other school came to Sherman Oaks, they brought looping with them. They feel more than vindicated in their decision. Because teachers and students don't lose six to eight weeks at the start of school getting to know each other, "students know what your procedures are and you know what their learning styles are, so day one and you're off and running," says teacher Sandra Villarreal.
Being with students for two years creates strong bonds both between student and teacher and parents and teacher, says teacher Osvaldo Rubio. "Those are really strong relationships with not only the kids but their families, which is very important . It makes the relationship between the student and the teacher more intimate. It's more of a friendship, not just my teacher, but this is a family friend now." With additional years to know each other, conversations between parents and teachers become easier. Parents become more open to teacher suggestions and to sharing their own frustrations or problems.
Over two years of working with the same class, teacher Osvaldo Rubio develops strong relationships with his students and their families.
Credit: Peter DaSilva
Successes and Challenges
At Sherman Oaks, teachers have stayed with the same students from kindergarten through second grade and third through fourth grades. But partly because the school might be adding a fifth grade, they are considering other arrangements, perhaps grouping kindergarten through first grade, second through third, and fourth through fifth grades. Bryan also says that experience has taught the staff that while one year is not enough to stay with a group of students, three may be too many in part because teachers think they know the students so well that they don't always notice subtle but important changes that could signal the need for a new teaching strategy or direction.
Implementing looping is not entirely straightforward. Bryan points out a few of the logistical and resources challenges: Teachers who go from first or second grade one year to kindergarten the next have to switch rooms because the kindergarten level is taught in another building; teachers have to change materials each year they change grade levels; and they have to keep track of the different grade-level standards as they move up or down each year.
Bryan believes that addressing some of these challenges is simply a matter of getting used to moving among the different grade levels. And one of the ways the school tries to ensure that looping will work, explains Bryan, is by "making sure that when we hire teachers they know the expectation that no grade-level specialists exist at Sherman Oaks." Interviewers ask teacher candidates about their willingness to work with the whole faculty, and candidates must work on collaborative tasks as part of their evaluation. "You can be a wonderful teacher and not fit in at Sherman Oaks," says Bryan. "Teachers who work successfully in isolation will not fit in."
Bryan leads a midday block meeting that provides opportunities for collaboration and coordination.
Credit: Brant Ward
A Group Effort
Establishing a close relationship with the students is at the top of Bryan's list of practices that make a difference for students. "The kids have to know you care about them," she says. One way she expresses care is by making an effort to visit every classroom in the school at least once every day. "It gives me a connection with the kids," she says. And although other needs sometimes intervene, she does manage to accomplish this goal on most days.
Team teaching as well as time set aside for teacher-to-teacher consultation and other collaboration also helps teachers get to know and understand their students. "It's not team teaching in the classic sense," says Bryan. "At our school it's more the entire faculty is your team. . . . The philosophy is collectively we're much stronger than any one individual."
"We are all brothers and sisters," is the way Thom Antang, another of the school's teachers, puts it. He notes that teachers are always sharing materials and ideas with each other.
Teacher Sandra Villarreal talks with a parent during Exhibition Night. Looping, in which students stay with the same teacher for two years, also gives teachers and parents a chance to get to know each other better.
Credit: Peter DaSilva
Strength in Numbers
The more typical teaming is most prevalent in the school's dual language program, in which one teacher works with the Spanish-speaking students learning English and the other works with the English-speaking students learning Spanish. According to Bryan, "These two teachers team up and consider the students in both classes as their equal responsibility.
Elsewhere, team teaching exists in a less formal sense, with a considerable amount of fluidity in how students are grouped during each day, so that all of the teachers get to know many more of the students than just those in their own class. "Resiliency research says that kids who feel more connected to one or more adult in their lives perform better in school," says Bryan. "We like the idea of our kids knowing that all of us are available for them.
During the first couple of weeks in the year, teachers eat lunch with their students. Later, they participate in many informal activities and games in which they get to know other students. "Kids in general know who the other teachers are," says Bryan. "Teachers know who they're inheriting in a class."
Other conditions that help teachers work together to develop caring relationships with students include a daily 90-minute planning block, during which teachers often share information about their students, and annual home visits, in which teachers and administrators go to students' homes and ask their families about what they would like out of the school.
At the school, teachers meet with parents three times per year - more often than other schools in the district - to go over the information in Sherman Oaks' unique report form, which tracks a student's progress in oral language, reading, writing, math, projects, and citizenship without using grades.
Technology plays a role in making these practices work and helping teachers know their students well. Networked computers in each classroom allow teachers to take care of administrative minutiae quickly via e-mail, freeing up time for more substantive conversations about students.
The effort to develop close relationships pays off. Bryan says she and her staff "hear over and over from parents that they want to keep their kids at Sherman Oaks" even when it's time to move on to middle school.
Noel White formerly served as a research associate at GLEF and is now a communications associate at WestEd in San Francisco.