Tuesday, April 2, 2013

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.

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