Professional Learning

Creating and Testing New Ideas: The Nontraditional Approach to Education

An established charter school engages students in innovative ways.

July 1, 1997

"We view ourselves as a school where new ideas are invented and tested," says Grace Arnold, principal of Los Angeles's Open Charter School.

Founded in 1977 by parents interested in nontraditional educational programs, the Open Charter School now serves almost 400 students in grades K-6 selected by lottery from applicants all over Los Angeles. In 1987, the school added a strong dose of technology to its program when it was picked as a site for Apple's Vivarium Project, which explored ways that computers can support learning.

"We know how to create our own programs on the computer -- animation, video games, pictures -- not just use programs someone else made," boasts a student named Danny.

Though the Vivarium Project is defunct, the school continues to work on other projects with Apple, and technology is well integrated into instructional programs. The school's courses emphasize learning through exploration, creativity, and physical expression. Basic skills are taught in small groups and reinforced with hands-on activities in a variety of meaningful contexts. The school's 2,000-square-foot garden, for example, serves as a classroom where students measure and sequence growing patterns, write poetry, make weavings, learn about nutrition, analyze soil, and track rates of decomposition.

Students use computers to chart and graph their garden data and to design animations to examine changes. Students also design and build a scale model of a city using found objects such as milk cartons and cereal boxes. The model becomes a vehicle to learn civic concepts such as urban planning and city administration.

"The school philosophy centers around the child as he or she interacts with the environment in a meaningful way," Arnold says.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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