Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Odyssey Charter School - Altadena, CA

One of the important goals for my journey is to locate and visit public and charter schools which have progressive practices. Though few and far between I have discovered that many exist. These schools may not wear the "progressive" label on their sleeves, but the values and principles bear a close resemblance to the pillars of progressive education. My first such visit was to Odyssey Charter School in Altadena, CA., and its Principal, Lauren O'Neill,

At Odyssey Charter School in Altadena, a community close to Pasadena, CA, progressive education manifests in a cohesive workshop climate set in multiage classrooms. These two components speak to the heart of the school’s mission. A K-8 school for 420 students, I saw an engaging activity-based program in one of the most diverse communities one will ever encounter. Children from a wide range of socio-economic, racial and cultural backgrounds come together each day with a passionate group of teachers on a very attractive six-acre campus.

Lauren O'Neill
I met with Lauren O’Neill, the Principal of Odyssey, who is serving on the planning committee for the 2013 PEN Conference. Lauren is a graduate of Pacific Oaks College, which emphasizes a developmental approach to teaching and the importance of early childhood education. Lauren cut her teeth as a teacher in a multi-age student environment and has never looked back from her discovery of the power of that configuration. I am discovering that the multi-age approach to grouping students is quite common among progressive schools, and wherever I go, in large schools and small, I hear ardent testimonials supporting this approach.

Though she sees her school falling within the rubric of what she understands defines a progressive school, and she herself identifies as a progressive educator, Lauren avoids using the word to describe her school. Since Odyssey is a charter school, every five years the school must petition for its re-charter, and Lauren prefers to describe the school in more specific terms, rather than categorizing it generally. Honing in on the school’s workshop approach, she can better identify the approach to teaching. Indeed, when you visit any Odyssey classroom you are likely to see students engaged in reading, writing, or math workshops. It is a vibrant learning environment.

Lauren believes there are several components to the definition of progressive education. She starts by highlighting how important it is for teachers to focus on students’ social and emotional development and create a safe place for the learning community. Teachers help students take responsibility for their own learning as early as possible because in a school where class size can expand to 25 – 28 students, self-direction is crucial in making the program work. I saw students working individually or in small groups, and each one of them could describe in detail the objective of the activity or assignment. The teachers have done a masterful job in helping the students understand how to make the classroom function without disruption.


Middle School students
care for the rolling chicken coop
Lauren also emphasizes the power of working closely with parents to help align them with the philosophy of the school. In this way, learning occurs beyond the walls of the classroom, including actively being involved in the wider community. Expecting that teachers will be reflective about their practice is also an important component in building a progressive teaching environment. Each year, the school surveys its parent community and provides feedback to teachers who incorporate the input into their professional goals. Correspondingly, for teachers to be empowered, they should be integrally involved in guiding the direction of the school. Lauren believes in building a consensus among the faculty as major curricular and school policy decisions are made.

As a charter school, Lauren’s teachers are obliged to administer the state standardized tests. Though she does not want the program to be driven by testing requirements, it is a stark reality facing all public schools today and Lauren recognizes that quantitative measurements can help construct a convincing argument for why the school is working. Although normative standards are only one component, it is another way of communicating with parents who are interested in measuring the progress of their children in a more standardized format.

I loved my visit to Odyssey. Any notion that progressive education cannot be successful in a diverse unban environment with children from disadvantaged backgrounds was roundly dispelled by Lauren and this faculty. I saw at every turn a nurturing, respectful, and supportive learning environment, where children take responsibility for their learning and teachers function as facilitators of learning. It is an evolving, purposeful, and dynamic curriculum, well established as a good example of progressive education in action.

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