Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sidwell Friends School - Washington, DC

The historic Zartman House
a campus feature
Known originally as Friends Select School, Sidwell Friends was founded in 1883 by Thomas Watson Sidwell as an initiative in co-ed urban day schools. Only 24 years of age at the time of its founding, Thomas Sidwell had been a teacher at the Baltimore Friends School and started his Quaker school as a proprietary venture. The school operated for over 50 years before incorporating as a non-profit organization in 1934, taking the name Sidwell Friends School. Today, the school serves over 1000 students PK-12, and occupies two campuses -  one (middle and upper school) on Wisconsin Street in the heart of DC, and the other (lower school) in neighboring Bethesda, approximately 15 minutes away by car. Both are state-of-the-art, beautifully equipped facilities, and both exemplify green building practices and environmental stewardship. Wendy Wilkinson from the Upper School Admissions Office hosted my visit to the school, and I met with several members of the staff including Head of School, Tom Farquhar.

The Quaker Meeting House
An all-green project
My visit to Sidwell Friends began with a tour, conducted by School Archivist and Administrator Loren Hardenbergh, of the green building projects, which took place between 2005 - 2010, and included a new middle school building, the renovation of the lower school and administrative building, a new athletic center, Quaker meeting house, and art center. The school has been recognized nationally as green school. It is a founding member of the Green Schools Alliance, was named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Dept. of Education, and has been selected among the top 20 schools in the EPA's Green Power Partnership program.

The grey water system
acts as campus
These green projects are perhaps the most striking example of Sidwell's commitment to environmental stewardship, an evolving contributor to the progressive education movement. As you tour the buildings, you notice that virtually every architectural and construction choice has a green component. Re-purposed wood and other building materials; the flow of light capturing heat and light at various times of the day and the year; monitoring devices in all the rooms to adjust the use of energy; a remarkable grey water wetlands system which recycles human waste products into use for the school's plumbing systems; a green rooftop garden with solar energy, wind power and extensive gardens. This list scratches the surface, and you scratch your head - they've thought of almost everything! Visitors from all over the world flock to see this extraordinary example of how a school can create a sustainable campus, and how students can be a part of the process, learning the science and art of the campus complex.

Tom Farquhar
Head of School
My visit with Head of School Tom Farquhar featured an interesting discussion of how progressive education finds its symmetry with Friends education. Sidwell's abiding commitment to deep personal reflection was evident as I witnessed the Meeting for Worship. As I have learned in my visits to other Quaker Schools, this time for reflection is in service to the set of "Testimonies" which underpin the philosophy of the school. Among those testimonies held at Sidwell are Integrity, Peace, Compassion, Simplicity, Justice, Stewardship and Service. As Tom points out, reaching far beyond the academic mission of the school, Sidwell attends to the development of these internal values and virtues in its students through its service in the community, its in-house student buddy programs, and its care for the environment. Though Tom will be the first to claim that the word "progressive" carries with it a great deal of baggage and some unfortunate stereotypes, he will also acknowledge that there is a clear intersection with the mission of Sidwell Friends.

I visited the lower school and spoke with long-time Sidwell teacher and tech coordinator, Jenni Voorhees. Jenni has seen the school evolve over the years, but definitely places it in the progressive tradition. In its most progressive incarnation, teachers have incorporated thematic, integrated, project based curriculum. Jenni feels that the current practice of teachers conducting grade level meetings is helping the school re-kindle some of its progressive practices. For Jenni, progressive education is teaching to kids' passions and strengths, and helping expand their world view through interdisciplinary curriculum. A product of Hampshire College, progressive education courses through her DNA, and Jenni emphasizes that students come to their education with a grand curiosity and love of learning, and it is the responsibility of educators to nurture those attributes and help students learn how to learn. Jenni admits that the term "progressive" is rarely used at Sidwell, but sees teaching practices that clearly fall into the tradition.

Loren Hardenbergh
my tour guide
Wendy Wilkinson
my host and friend
My visit to Sidwell ends the first phase of my journey to visit progressive schools in America. As I leave the school, I realize again the deeply complex situation that progressive education faces today. Ambivalent school leaders, fence straddling parents, loyal adherents, die-hard practitioners, dangerous stereotypes, deeply held values and beliefs. I am so grateful to Wendy Wilkinson who hosted my final school visit to Sidwell Friends. In this school, I found examples of almost all aspects of this complexity. It is time to go home and hunker down to pull of this research together. I am determined as ever, and my journey to over 40 schools has only validated my belief, that notwithstanding this complex set of circumstances, the progressive education movement is alive and thriving. My next set of blogs will be reflections on my school visits as I review and consolidate all that I have discovered.

I hope you'll continue to join me.

Sheridan School - Washington, DC

Sheridan School is another progressive school with a long history of change and transition. Started in the early 20th Century as the proprietary Miss Tomlin's school, it first transitioned in the 1920's as The Cook School and grew to over 100 students. In 1952, the school took it current name as it moved near Sheridan Circle, and then became a non-profit in the early '60's. Finally, in 1965, the school moved to its current location in the North Cleveland Park area of Washington, DC, where it grew to over 200 students and added 7th & 8th grades. The school also operates The Sheridan Mountain Campus, 130 acres of wilderness bordering the Shenandoah National Park near Luray, Virginia, where the students visit twice each school year. My visit was hosted by Director of Curriculum and Instruction Adele Paynter, who guided my tour and sat for an interview.

The co-teaching model
allows for improved
As you visit the classrooms at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, what immediately jumps out is the very small student-teacher ratio. The school employs a unique co-teacher model where at least two teachers collaborate as equal partners in all grades in the school. With other assistants and specialist teachers present, it is not unusual to find three or four adults in a classroom working with students. Clearly, this model allows for an optimum level of differentiated instruction, which was in full evidence when I toured the school. The co-teacher program fosters a collaborative environment, where the adults are talking about the students, planning curriculum, and communicating with one another on a regular basis. Another significant advantage afforded by this model is found in the area of student assessment. More frequent monitoring of student progress is possible with this collaborative format. Teachers are able to meet with students individually on a regular basis, providing an authentic, formative assessment of their progress.

Adele Paynter
Director of Curriculum and
This model supports the definition of progressive education posited by Adele Paynter, Sheridan's Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Adele's starting point is that in progressive schools teachers know their students deeply, and she invoked Alfie Kohn's observation that these are places where "children are taken seriously."  Progressive educators design curriculum and program to address the needs of the whole child, focusing on academic, social and emotional development. The progressive philosophy came to the school in the late 1990's, when it was fully embraced by the school, and manifests in a climate that allows students to feel safe and supported; a place where they can take risks and learn about themselves. Because Adele has observed that the definition of progressive education can be hard to pin down (the challenge I have given myself for this tour of progressive schools), she refers to the approach at Sheridan as "Coherent Progressivism," where the values, beliefs and practices of the schools are made explicit and clear, especially to parents.

The arts are vibrant
at Sheridan
Another striking aspect of Sheridan's progressive identity is the recent commitment of the school to its social justice mission, brought to life in its diversity vision, which has been imbued in every aspect of the school's programs and practices. Not seen as a separate initiative, the current work in this area involves faculty, administrative staff, parents, and students working together to ensure the school is safe and inclusive for all members of the community, and mirrored in all aspects of the curriculum. The school has been employing the services of a consultant who has been helping with strategic planning and conducting board, faculty and students workshops. It is an amazing full court press that the school has employed to fundamentally transition the culture of the school in its commitment to social justice.

Adele points to the self reflecting aspect of Sheridan's school culture as an essential part of its ethos. I have found this to be the case in many progressive schools. Teachers and administrators assume an obligation to self correct as they are constantly assessing the effectiveness of curriculum and administrative practice. At Sheridan, the buzz in the classrooms, the discussion between and among the faculty and professional staff, the frequent meetings to address curriculum and student assessment, all point to a school seriously committed to realizing its philosophy of knowing children deeply and serving their interests as well as possible. This is an admirable commitment - certainly hard work - the folks at Sheridan are fighting the good fight.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Burgundy Farm Country Day School - Alexandria, VA

Progressive roots run deep at Burgundy Farm Country Day School. Long before the Civil Rights Movement took shape, the school became the first integrated school in Virginia, actively recruiting and enrolling African American students as early as 1950. Founded by parents in 1946, the vision of the school was to serve an ethnically, racially and socio-economically diverse student body. These courageous founders believed in freedom and egalitarianism, motivated by what founding parent Eric Sevareid (and long time CBS journalist) described as "a good thing to do." The school is located in Alexandria, VA., on 25 partially wooded acres. To advance its environmental vision, the school acquired in 1967 the Burgundy Center for  Wildlife Studies center on 500 acres at Cooper's Cove in West Virginia, where students experience twice a year an immersion program in natural science studies. The school serves 278 students in grades JK - 8. Head of School Jeff Sindler (with his gracious dog, Cameron) hosted my visit.

The first integrated
school in Virginia (1950)
As soon as you enter the campus at Burgundy Farm Country Day School (BFCDS), you become aware of the school's history as so many of the original buildings are still in use today. While one "barn" houses chickens, goats, and other farm animals, the other "barn" is the home of the Junior Kindergarten, Kindergarten and First grades. The other classroom buildings are scattered around campus and divide the school by grade level clusters. As kids grow through the grades, they "graduate" to the next region of the campus (farm), and the transition represents a rite of passage. Add to the layout of the buildings the flow from indoor to ample outdoor space surrounding each part of the campus, and you have a dynamic campus design which has served the school for almost 70 years.

Jeff Sindler
Head of School
Head of School Jeff Sindler talked about the school's deeply progressive history, but noted that over the years the identification of Burgundy as a progressive school has waxed and waned. Institutional ambivalence has creeped in at various times depending on the time in history and the challenges the school has faced. In its current incarnation, BFCDS has declared itself a progressive school and is trying to help its constituent groups understand the principles and practices of progressive education to avoid the tendency to fence straddle. In framing his definition of progressive education, Jeff characterizes children as being receptive to learning when and if they feel themselves to be a valued part of the learning community. He describes this as the wellspring to success for any school, no matter the educational philosophy. The democratic principles of progressive education manifest at BFCDS through the way that students are valued and included. The students see themselves as part of a functioning community, and are preparing to function well in any educational or working environment.

 Consequently, because there is a level of comfort with the adults, the students are more self-reflective and evaluative. Ask any student on campus to describe how they learn and with few exceptions, they will give a cogent response. Jeff believes this is the key to building a students' internal motivation for learning. As they comes to know themselves better and better, as the learning environment respects their needs, they will seek knowledge and be more receptive to deep conceptual understanding. Jeff contrasts this learning climate with the "mile wide, inch deep" curriculum that is so prevalent these days in the mainstream educational system. There is a palpable excitement among the kids at BFCDS, and a level of real engagement all over campus.

A charming farm
setting sets a tone
for exploring and learning
As I have done in each of my interviews, I asked Jeff what stereotypes he has encountered about progressive education. We had a fun moment as he recounted the usual suspects: "tree-hugging, unstructured, not data driven, disorganized." Jeff knew them all. Parents are dazzled though, when they see the serious-minded approach the faculty at BFCDS takes to program development. Subject-by-subject, the teachers have illustrated how the students are developing literacy, numeracy, critical thinking and problem solving skills. This is how the stereotypes vaporize - with a real demonstration of the learning environment, and engaged students growing more and more skillful.

My swing through the east coast has revealed more and more schools sharing this philosophy and dodging the invectives of those who truly misunderstand that in these schools happy and engaged students are preparing to be leaders. I was able to witness first-hand the confidence and ownership that the students at Burgundy Farm possess; this is an impressive campus environment, pulsing with excitement and the true spirit of progressive education where "kids come first."