When done right, school can provide each individual child with experiences that will advance and deepen his or her problem-solving capacity, creativity, caring, and ownership of learning. Besides ensuring that all students have compassionate, effective teachers creating classroom conditions and opportunities for these things to occur, a school principal's primary responsibility is to allocate the scarce resources of time, space, and funding to maximize children's positive and productive experiences of school.
As with many other public schools in urban districts, Wildwood has been up against some tough resource challenges:
- Beyond the now-normal and deep budget cuts, we topped off at 187 percent overcrowded.
- Student-based budgeting formulas deny access to federal title funds because our poverty rate is just below the cut.
- Union contractual obligations demand teacher preparation and lunch periods while the district does not fund the staff to teach or supervise those periods.
- Unfunded mandates set minimum requirements for PE, lunch, recess, and health and sexual health education, which cut into the already compromised time for the academic core.
- Ethical and legal demands to meet the inclusion and resource service minutes of diverse learners and to ensure support to English learners further complicate how to equitably and effectively allocate resources to support the learning of every child.
Wildwood International Baccalaureate World Magnet School is a public, non-selective enrollment neighborhood magnet school in an affluent part of Chicago, offering available seats to students city-wide. We have been ADA compliant for decades, thus also receiving students with cognitive diversity and physical and medical fragilities. We have been a receiving school for refugee families. This gives Wildwood a student demographic of unusual economic, racial, cultural, physical, and intellectual diversity. We do our highly innovative and personalized work in this context.
A Range of Solutions
We provide here some of our creative solutions to Wildwood's complex challenges, and how these solutions have affected learning and school culture.
Everyone has the same 168 hours per week for everything we need to do. For students in our district, 35 of those hours are spent in school. How do we maximize that time to advance learning and grow compassionate, creative human beings?
We use a master schedule to alleviate student and teacher time conflicts, especially so that teachers won't feel as if they're losing time by adding something extra.
For example, English learners will need support outside of the classroom to learn English, but they also need to be present for core instruction, art, PE, and other elective courses, as well as the extra language support. Those elective courses may be areas where they thrive, so rather than pull them out of those classes, we utilize the master schedule to ensure that we're providing our diverse learners with a complete educational experience. If there's only one teacher supporting English learners, that teacher should be able to provide support in all the classrooms, or pull out groups of students for language support.
We also use the master schedule to ensure common preparation time for supporting teacher collaboration. I find that I get more from my teachers at times that work best for them. If we can't find a meeting time during the day, we offer teachers extended-day pay from our Next Generation Learning Challenge grant. When it's difficult to align common preparation time for grade- and content-level teams, I'm allowed one principal-directed preparation each week, which I schedule during their lunch. Their preparation time is 60 minutes, and their lunch is 45 minutes. Even though we lose 15 minutes of collaboration time, our teachers still have that opportunity for working together.
We also schedule time for personalized, student-driven learning. We create an opportunity in every teacher's day with a 45- to 60-minute block for their kids to work on projects, collaborate, or finish assignments. Teachers can observe how students choose to use their learning time, manage their workloads, and work independently, with teacher support, or across grade levels.
A large piece in leveraging the master schedule is programming flexibilities that meet your students' and teachers' needs, so I create the master schedule during the summer. (It takes about 20 hours to schedule one day.) We can't afford a programmer, and I don't want to add that workload to a teacher's summer -- although, ideally, creating a master schedule is a partnership with your teachers. Here's my process:
- I work on an Excel spreadsheet and color code teacher and student schedules, preparation times, and lunches.
- I share the color-coded PDF with all teachers before school starts, requesting feedback. This also makes it visual and transparent so that teachers start the year feeling in control of their time.
- I observe the time conflicts that arise during the first week of school, and make tweaks to the master schedule after that week.
- After the first quarter, I'll know where we need more time, especially for diverse learners, and make more tweaks.
- By December, the master schedule usually works well, and from January to June, I'll only make small edits.
Wildwood hasn't had a lunchroom, library, teachers' lounge, or principal's office for the last several years. We've had to creatively use closets, the stage, hallways, and the lunch manager's office as meeting spaces. Even one of our women's restrooms was converted to an office that became an experiential children's museum (our makerspace Tinker Tank) and then a resource room.
Regardless of whether or not a school is overcrowded, here's how we've fostered a classroom and school culture of inquiry and collaboration with learning spaces over which students have a degree of control:
- We installed flexible and/or collaborative classroom furniture (e.g. node chairs, U-shaped reading tables) that allows for individual, partner, and small-group work as well as whole-group collaboration.
- We created learning nooks and crannies in every possible space. Small tables, bookshelves, barstools, carpet squares, and yoga mats can extend learning into unexpected spaces.
- We took it outside, investing in weather-resistant seating for outdoor math and reading groups.
- We created a sense of shared ownership and responsibility for classrooms. While one class is at gym, lunch, or a field trip, another teacher can use that room. Students are aware of and honor this sense of community.
- We created inviting classroom libraries and learning stations, and teach students the procedures for using them. Our students feel in charge of their learning, know where the learning resources are, and can do what they need no matter which adult is in the room.
- We installed soft furniture, child-sized furniture for younger grades, couches, lamps, coffee tables, and yoga balls to make reading and learning comfortable. Academic discourse takes on a new dimension in classrooms where kids can sprawl and wiggle.
- We made every possible surface (tables, walls, floors) interactive through whiteboard paint. We turned our main entry wall into a "Wall of Gratitude" where students and teachers wrote thanks and celebrations during the week. It was cleared every Friday for the next week.
- It costs nothing but a little time to turn classrooms, hallways, ceilings, doors, and windows into showcases for student work and thinking. Surrounding students by evidence of their own thinking and creativity, by pictures of themselves and their families, sends the message that they matter. Having them write reflections or share feedback on their work deepens its impact. We go one step further for self- and peer-assessment with a deeper level of understanding demonstrated by the work and what it says about the learner.
- Nobody should ever buy another mass-produced bulletin board. Have the students create the posters to show concepts and skills.
There's no easy way to stretch a budget when every penny allocated to a school is used on teacher and staff salaries and benefits, but we have pushed the envelope on a few things:
- We asked the Central Office to brainstorm with us and be part of the solution. We got a year's worth of funding from the Diverse Learners Department for a "teaching assistant principal." This AP had a DL caseload but was free for part of the day to help with school administration and leadership.
- We scraped together dollars to create part-time positions, saving on benefits and paying a reasonable hourly rate for tasks like recess supervision, tutoring, copying, and website updates.
- We wrote grants, tedious and time consuming but a means of bringing needed resources to the school.
- We built community through fundraising, with clear, compelling marketing to express why the school needs this support.
- We used DonorsChoose -- every teacher needs to leverage this resource. Parents will respond to their children's teachers!
- We joined pilot programs. Hundreds of companies want real-time feedback from teachers and school administrators about their applications and programs. Try working out as many free or reduced-cost deals as possible.
Impacts on Learning
In the 2015-16 school year, Wildwood is taking student-directed inquiry to a new level. We're redefining personalized learning as "personalized International Baccalaureate," giving all students the opportunity to co-create and manage their own learning plans within the context of their current IB unit.
In the summer of 2015, Wildwood teachers are refining their IB planners, course maps, and quarterly curriculum maps to include opportunities for student voice and choice, personalized strategies and skills acquisition, daily and weekly goal setting, and ongoing reflection.
Some of the student work samples in this case study demonstrate our early efforts at this work, including:
- Students unpacking, analyzing, and restating in student-friendly language the Common Core State Standards for their grade level and determining through discussion and analysis of examples what quality work looks like.
- Student-developed rubrics to show levels of understanding and performance on the CCSS.
- Student-run mini-lessons on an aspect of a standard or on a strategy.
- Student goal-setting forms and reflections.
By NCLB standards, Wildwood went from a low- to high-performing school by developing a data-driven culture that included intensive test prep. Components of a rigorous IB program added value to these efforts, but were not implemented in a school culture of student-driven inquiry and student ownership of learning until several years into IB authorization. Building such a culture has created a school that gets the numbers as far as achievement and growth, but does so in an environment of love, creativity, collaboration, and curiosity.
Wildwood proves that it's possible to build and sustain a public school that deeply embraces the values of progressive education and still gets competitive test results. In 2014-15, we not only exceeded national performance levels on all grades for NWEA, but we were second for growth in reading and math in our network of high-performing schools.
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