Sunday, March 31, 2013

Capitol Hill Day School - Washington, DC

With a view of the United States Capitol Building from its classrooms, Capitol Hill Day School is situated in the heart of Washington, DC. The school was founded by parents in 1968, who were seeking an alternative to the educational choices available at the time in the city. Ironically, given its commitment to diversity and inclusion, the former public school was the Dent School, a segregated school for all white students, closed in the 1940's, then occupied as a maintenance facility until leased by CHDS in 1980. Finally, in 1997, the community acquired it from the school district and worked tirelessly on a major renovation and upgrade project to deliver the beautiful building now serving 210 PK-8 students. Head of School Jason Gray hosted my visit and guided me on a tour of the campus.
Lisa Sommers
Director of
Field Education

With its prime location in the heart of the nation's capitol, one would assume that Capitol Hill Day School would take full advantage of the opportunities its location affords the school. Indeed, with over 300 field trips annually, the school is noted for it Field Education Program, which connects the classroom to the real world, one of the foundational practices of progressive education. The commitment of the school to this program is realized through the Director of Field Education Lisa Sommers, who organizes and monitors trips almost on a daily basis. Each class takes weekly field trips, and all grades participate in at least 20 trips per year. One would be hard pressed to find another school getting kids out into the world as much as CHDS.

Jason Gray
Head of School
Head of School Jason Gray, in only his third year as Head of CHDS, has a wise intuition about avoiding strict pedagogical beliefs in his definition of progressive education. Understanding children and discovering how they learn best takes a practical, on-going effort requiring discipline and collaboration. When Jason is asked to identify the "best" part of the school, he points to the relationships that exist between the teachers and their students, and between the parents and the school. He illustrates this point with a venn diagram whose intersecting circles - the student, the parents and teachers, and the community beyond the border of the school - must be synchronized in order for the interests of the children to be served. Jason believes that careful attention should be paid to balancing social, emotional and academic growth and ensuring that "learning be joyful, challenging, engaging, and authentic." For him, "knowing and liking the children is as important as the content we teach."

Math projects help students
stay engaged - this graph from a 2nd
grade class shows the longevity
of teachers at CHDS
On our tour of the school, Jason and I stopped off in Upper School Math Teacher Tom Sellevaag's classroom. Tom had a prep period and had time to talk about his middle school math program. Math education poses its own special conundrum for progressive secondary schools, and I have discovered in my travels, that it is very easy to default to a more traditional methodology at the middle school level when teaching math. Tom and other 7th & 8th grade teachers grapple with this phenomenon in light of the pressures they have to prepare students for high school, which almost invariably means a more traditional educational system for the alum of progressive schools. How can we sustain our progressive philosophy of experiential, hands-on, project based teaching, and ensure that the students are "exposed" to the canon of the conventional math sequence? Tom's intriguing approach is to have a variety of resources available to be sure the materials and methods are a suitable match for individuals students. He uses TERC, Key Curriculum, EMPOWER, and several other curricula, while equipping his classroom with lots of math manipulatives and resource materials for the kids to apply what they are learning to real problem solving. I've seen other teachers incorporating the Khan Academy and other on-line resources to be sure that alternative resources are available for the range of students we inevitably find in the typical middle school math classroom. Perhaps the key is versatility - and ensuring that the needs of individual students are met. Kids reaching seventh grade will often possess a low math self-esteem even in the most progressive schools. Tom and others are trying to create a program that is differentiated enough to accommodate the various levels they encounter among their students. It is not easy work. We'll discuss this topic more in-depth in future blogs, after I chronicle my tour of schools.

A view of the capitol from the
classroom
I admire Jason and the staff at CHDS for adhering to their progressive roots at a time when the pressure is fierce to shade toward more traditional practices, especially in urban areas like DC. It all comes down to doing what they believe is best for kids - providing them the programs that will engage their interests - in an era where schools are driven by performance on standardized tests, this is a noble commitment.


2 comments:

  1. I have discovered in my travels, that it is very easy to default to a more traditional methodology at the middle school level when teaching math.
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