Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wickliffe Progressive Elementary School - Upper Arlington, Ohio

One of the few unabashedly progressive public schools, Wickliffe Progressive Elementary School wears the label on its sleeve. Located outside of Columbus, Ohio, in Upper Arlington, this K-5 school serving 450 students is situated in a beautiful part of the town within a stone's throw of the Scioto River. I met the Principal, Chris Collaros on a snowy, icy, blustery morning at 7:30. I could tell Chris had been there for some time.

Wickliffe rose out of the informal/open classroom movement of the 1960's and early '70's. The original teacher of the school, Carol Kane was a student of this methodology and risked much as she withstood criticism from the community (including being labeled a communist) to implement a program that she saw as more responsive to the needs of individual students. Fred Burton, one of the school's progenitors who served as the principal for many years, describes Wickliffe as a place where "children learn to imagine and to contribute to something larger than themselves." He asked parents to never underestimate the roles of passion, imagination, and joyfulness.

Chris Collaros
The current Principal, Chris Collaros is an ardent and unabashed believer in progressive education and dreamed of being the school's principal for many years. He is a devotee of Grant Wiggins, whose groundbreaking book Understanding by Design (2005, ASCD) resonates deeply with progressive educators. The school teams with supporters of progressive education who lament the current state of public education in America with its overemphasis on normative standards. When I asked Chris (as I ask all of the school leaders I meet) if the Wickliffe teachers have a strong working understanding of the principles of progressive education, he answered immediately and unequivocally: "Absolutely!" In my later meanderings around the school, and in my lunchtime meeting with the teachers, I found Chris's claim to be, well, absolutely true.

His article, Co-Creating a Progressive School: The Power of the Group appears in the latest issue of the International Journal of Progressive Education, where he chronicles the history of Wickliffe and the story of its "Ten Principles of Progressive Education." Chris was the latest in a series of conversations I have had with school leaders who define progressive education first and foremost as preparing students to be active citizens in a democracy. Many leaders focus on this concept and believe it brings purpose and meaning to teaching. For Chris, Wickliffe is characterized by interdisciplinary teaching, authentic assessment, and where curriculum springs from the teacher and students. Teachers in progressive schools have a deep understanding of how children learn and how to create the conditions that cultivate learning.

As a public school, Wickliffe is responsible to the school district, which has just developed an intervention model and principals are required to form data teams. Rather than perform the work in a more traditional way, Chris is working to see that the required documentation works to support the teaching practices at Wickliffe. The staff is evolving a protocol in "MUD (Making Use of Documentation) groups. As challenging as it sometimes becomes, the staff is determined to maintain the philosophy of the school alongside mandates and initiatives that come from the state or district.

Julie Eirich

I also was able to spend time with Dr. Julie Eirich, the Wickliffe Director of Instructional Programs (Julie co-authored the IJPE article with Chris). As part of her dissertation work, Julie spent an entire year transcribing class meetings and listening deeply to children. Through these studies, she deepened her understanding of how classroom culture emerges and how teachers can cultivate a sense of community in the classroom. At Wickliffe, routines, rituals, and traditions have grown from the classrooms being powerful contributors to the life of the school. Julie is another proponent of multi-age classroom configurations and describes the pivotal impact this structure has on student learning and development.

When hiring teachers at the school, Julie and Chris include faculty on the hiring team and the first questions always probe if candidates have a working understanding of progressive education. They are looking for teachers who are committed to the values of the school and willing to work hard sustaining its mission. The strength of the school is in its legacy of teachers who believe in the principles and are willing to take risks, much as Carol Kane did in the early 70's, to do what is right for the children in their charge.

After touring the school and visiting classrooms, I met with the faculty who graciously gave over their lunchtime to talk with me. I was struck by how firmly the teachers adhere to the ten founding principles of the school, and how committed they are to co-creating the curriculum with the students. Notwithstanding the pressures they face preparing for standardized tests, the teachers nurture student voice and make learning meaningful and relevant. With a supportive school leadership team, they are able to meet district requirements, while also bringing creativity and depth to the curriculum.

Wickliffe Foundational Principle number ten is a perfect reflection of the spirit of the school: We view our school as a center for teaching and learning of all ages. Indeed, as I met students, teacher and staff throughout my visit, it was clear to me that Wickliffe is a principled place of integrity, deeply rooted to its progressive values.

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