Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Namaste Charter School - Chicago


I had not planned to visit Namaste as I originally mapped out my itinerary, until my colleague and friend Maureen Cheever from the Winnetka, Ill. school district insisted I visit the school and meet Allison Slade the founder and Principal of Namaste. What a thrill to discover this model program and thriving school community which has just been awarded an extraordinary dissemination grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Any notion that progressive education cannot work for the widest range of students is properly dispelled at Namaste. It is a remarkable place.

Located  on Chicago's under-resourced southwest side, and founded in 2004, Namaste is is a K-8 Charter school for 460 students, most of whom are Latino and African American from low income households. The students are selected through a blind lottery system and the school is tuition-free.

I was greeted by and toured the school with the Director of Development Allison Lipsman, a former teacher who possesses a deep understanding of the educational mission and program at Namaste. Allison Slade the founder and Principal of the school carved time for me out of her very crowded schedule. Allison and many of her staff attended the PEN 2011 conference in Chicago.

                           
  Healthy living means a strong P.E. program          Allison Slade, the visionary founder

The school is centered around a health and wellness mission, recognizing in this community the disproportionately high rates of obesity and chronic desease, coupled with a lack of access to high-quality nutrition. The vision of the school is "to change the trajectory of underserved children's lives," starting with healthy life-style where the children are served up to three well balanced and nutritious meals a day.


The kitchen staff is an essential part of the Namaste team



The approach harkens back to the Gary Plan developed in Gary, Indiana during the progressive movement of the 1920's by William Wort, who believed that children required a "wholesome environment all of the day, every day." The notion of serving communities in such a way is not new to Chicago, the home of Jane Adams and the Hull Settlement Houses, developed to providing comprehensive health, educational, and social services to low income members of the community. In a way, Namaste is a modern day version and aligned with the full service school movement.
Though you'll not find the word "progressive" in their literature or website, and Allison Slade pointed out that the school does not refer to itself as a progressive school, Namaste embodies the core principles of progressive education. The school's six core pillars: Peaceful School Culture, Balanced Learning, Collaborative Practice, Movement, Language and Culture, and Nutrition, Health and Wellness constitute the "Namaste Way," and I would submit fall under the progressive rubric. Notwithstanding the many progressive teaching practices I observed during my tour, out of respect for Allison and the school community, I'll not pin the label "progressive" on them.

Namaste has a focused vision. There you'll find committed teachers and a school principal who had not taken a sick day for the first nine years of the life of the school. The school prides itself on practicing what it preaches and always modeling its expectations for children. They believe in collaborative practice and I saw teachers working together to meet the needs of individual children who have not been well supported educationally. The school implements a respectful dual immersion program, where students begin kindergarten and first grade in a Spanish immersion program where they learn to read and write in Spanish, then transition to a dual language (Spanish and English) program for the remainder of their time at the school. College banners line the walls and the faculty speak about what "normal" success looks like.

The school has high ambitions, and last June graduated its first class of 8th graders. It is a place of happy learners, where children are loved, valued, and always at the heart of the decisions made by the adults who care for them.


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