Monday, February 18, 2013

Sequoyah School - Pasadena CA.

I have known about Sequoyah School since the mid 1990's when they co-hosted a gathering of progressive educators for a national conference. The school has grown since my earlier visit, but the feeling of joyful learning remains the same. The Head of School Josh Brody is a kind and thoughtful man who reflects deeply about education and teaching practices. One will never hear cliches from Josh as his creative and original way of describing the Sequoyah program is truly refreshing.

Next stop - Sequoyah School, located in Pasadena, CA, to visit with Josh Brody, Head of School, and Marc Alongi, Director of Professional Growth. Josh describes Sequoyah as deeply committed to progressive practices. Regarding the use of the term “progressive,” Josh wants to ensure that Sequoyah is welcoming and appealing to the broadest range of parents and the term has proven to be alienating to some prospective families. Consequently he thinks carefully about the way he represents the school and helps parents understand why the kind of education offered by Sequoyah is beneficial to a wide range of children. That said, Josh is proud that the school is part of the long tradition of progressive education.
                                       Josh Brody                           Marc Alongi

His definition centers on an education that brings meaning to a child inside and outside of the school environment. The school prepares students to be a part of a democracy and thus the emphasis is on creating meaningful relationships where teachers understand students deeply, and help them recognize their role in the school community and beyond. Educators start with the experience of the child and co-create a learning community that motivates and engages students. The school tries to balance the need for helping children grow cognitively and academically, with the aim to help them develop resilience, self-regulation, and a positive self-concept.

Josh emphasized the need for progressive schools to be very clear and intentional about their mission. He stressed the importance of providing evidence whenever possible that the kind of learning that children experience is measurable. Students maintain a portfolio of their work to demonstrate their authentic growth from year to year, or showcase their learning in culminating presentations at the end of a unit of study. The only way to overcome the stereotype that progressive schools are not adequately rigorous, is to bring into relief the evidence of student growth and accomplishment.

At Sequoyah, students spend two years in a group, with the same teachers. I have found this to be a common practice in progressive schools. Josh describes the second year as transformative when children blossom with self-confidence and leadership. The academic experience is engaging and challenging, but Josh characterizes the two-year cycle as allowing students to “grow their roots.” A major emphasis is on helping (and expecting) students to be responsible for their learning, their peers, and their community. In the classroom, I saw many examples of collaboration and cooperative learning, and I learned that students, with increasing levels of responsibilities, participate in their parent-teacher conferences. When issues arise at the school, Josh or the staff will take them to the student government, or sometimes to the entire student body, to allow for students to participate in institutional decision-making. In these respects, students are given the agency to be stewards of the school, the campus, and their learning.

On our tour of the classrooms, Marc and Josh showed me many examples of the school mission at play. In the combined third and fourth grade, the essential question is “How do our food choices affect us, our families, our community, and the world.” Especially to children living in California, this through-line allows students to focus on topics from food production to the conditions faced by migrant farm workers. Each year, the students study campus water use and issue a set of recommendations for conservation. It is wonderful to see place-based learning in action, and Sequoyah is a fine example of a wonderful school with its shoulder to the wheel of progressive practice. Lucky kids!

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