Marketplace of Ideas : Education: More than 600 teachers and administrators poised for LEARN reforms gather at Palisades High to see an exhibit of the latest educational tools and techniques.
Elementary schoolteacher Toni Flood held the rapt attention of a room full of her peers, raving about how a lesson plan with the unusual title of “Scottish Storyline” has all but worked miracles on her second- and third-graders.
“I could literally see everything coming together for them,” Flood said of her students’ response to this new teaching tool. “They gained the power to research on their own. It wasn’t just me telling them what to do. It was like things were leaping out of their books.”
What Flood did to engage her students was use a hands-on teaching method she recently learned to turn her classroom into an imaginary travel agency. Planning trips requires knowledge of geography and map reading. And students must be able to write descriptive brochures and multiply big numbers to sell three $899 plane tickets.
Similar experiences were touted time and time again this week when more than 600 educators gathered in response to a rare invitation: Come see the best educational reform products in the country.
In a first-of-its-kind event, Palisades High School was transformed into an educational shopping center for the parents, principals and teachers of 54 Los Angeles public schools that have been newly inducted into the district’s LEARN reform plan.
With financial backing from AT&T; and the nonprofit Los Angeles Educational Partnership, leaders of 25 nationally recognized reform programs displayed their wares to Los Angeles school consumers in the market for ideas to help with the vexing problem of turning around troubled urban campuses.
“This is a chance for us to dream about what we could have at our school,” said Don Watson, principal of Kittridge Street Elementary School in Van Nuys. “This is opening our eyes to all the possibilities.”
Like shopping mall browsers intent on touching more than buying, the shoppers scooped up brochures and listened to promotional spiels on the latest trends in educational philosophies: from the joys of mixed-age classrooms to the importance of linking social services to schools.
After spending Wednesday sampling the merchandise, some customers concluded that they cannot simply buy a quick-fix program off the shelf to improve student achievement.
“What we have to do is come up with our own plan for improvement,” said Michael Romero of 9th Street Elementary School, near Downtown’s Skid Row. “Since no two schools are alike, no one program can work for all of us.”
Romero’s thoughts--echoed by other teachers and parents--reflect the challenge of redefining education at schools within the cultural diversity of Los Angeles. The LEARN plan gives principals wide decision-making authority in their schools, on issues from budgeting to teaching methods.
But first, the so-called “stake holders” in a school--including teachers, parents and other staff--must learn how to work together to make plans, free from the bureaucratic rules and policies that for decades have dictated most every decision.
To get ready, the 54 schools involved in the second phase of LEARN--Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--are in the midst of intensive monthlong training sessions conducted by education and business experts affiliated with UCLA. The goal is for schools to define for themselves the best educational program for students.
The workshops at Palisades reflected the changing needs of students, many of whom are poor and speak little or no English. Participants found there are programs that can remake an entire school or focus on overhauling an algebra curriculum or English department.
There is the concept of accelerated schools, a national project based on the theory that disadvantaged children need rigorous and challenging courses, not remedial education. There are also community learning centers, in which a single school can become a kindergarten through 12th grade campus so that the curriculum can be overhauled top to bottom.
Forget the old concept of afternoon field trips--students can benefit from “guided discoveries” to Catalina for several days to learn about the many uses of marine algae.
One workshop advocated multi-age classroom groupings, where students in different grades study together to develop a sense of continuity and community.
“Few if any adults spend their working day with others of the same age, so why should children?” asked Anne Browne of the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District, a leader in such innovations.
Teacher Judy Reilly of El Sereno Elementary School found the barrage of ideas a bit overwhelming. She is not sure she even understands exactly what she has gotten herself into by agreeing along with others at her school to participate in LEARN.
“I’m not really aware yet what this is all going to mean,” she said. “I know we have to change what we are doing because it’s not working. I don’t know if all this will work, but it’s a chance and we have to take it.”
Even as the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers union are wrestling over contract issues, with the threat of a strike looming next month, one teacher described the event as a badly needed “breath of fresh air” for their dispirited ranks.
“We want to be innovative, we want to be cutting-edge and to do this we need to be exposed to ideas,” said Dana Carter of Kittridge Elementary. “We still have to find ways to lift our morale. This is one way.”
The next step for the new LEARN schools is to customize a plan of attack during the coming school year, using their newfound awareness of reform options already at work in public schools.
Ruth Craft, a parent whose son attends Crenshaw High School, said she was surprised to hear so many teachers express enthusiasm for their jobs.
“This restores my confidence in education,” Craft said. “I was all geared up to go to private school. But everyone here seems to be interested in finding ways to give our kids a better chance.”