Innovative Schools Shift Seat-Centered Academics

Innovative Schools Shift Seat-Centered Academics
September 13, 2011

Emily Johnston

Emily Johnston (ej.emily.johnston@gmail.com) writes from Hillsdale, Michigan. (read full bio)

While some education reformers are focusing on performance-based incentives and curriculum changes, others are trying to shift the very structure of schooling.

Students traditionally attend school from September to June, five days a week, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., with occasional holidays and shortened days. New “time-oriented” education takes many alternate forms, including homeschool co-ops, online learning, hybrids of different instruction types, and boarding schools. Some reduce lesson time, while some expand it.

University-Model K-12 Schools
University-Model Schools (UMS) combine elements of homeschooling with traditional classroom teaching, reducing traditional classroom time.

Elementary students receive professional, classroom-based instruction two days a week and are homeschooled for the remaining three days. In junior high, students take three days of classroom study and two days of home study. High schoolers enjoy a university-style schedule with some Monday/Wednesday/Friday classes and some Tuesday/Thursday classes.

The National Association of University-Model Schools, Inc. has currently certified 30 schools. Fourteen others are transitioning into this model, and four are candidates for certification. The largest number of these schools is in Texas, with others across the country from California and Arizona to Florida, Georgia, Illinois, and other states.

‘Created to Be With Family’
Other hybrid programs have developed recently. In San Luis Obispo, California, the San Luis Obispo Classical Academy has adopted an education structure similar to that of UMS.

Susie Theule said she started this private, hybrid classical school because she was dissatisfied with the large class sizes and extensive downtime in some public school classrooms.

“My degree [in psychology] affected my conviction that we were created to be with family, which is why the homeschool days are so valuable,” Theule said. “[The school] has allowed [my family] time together [for] talking, laughing, and arguing. It has also allowed me to model dedication, perseverance, and what you do in [times of] weakness.”

At the Classical Academy, students spend two days a week in classrooms, studying at home the other three weekdays. Living history days, held at the end of every semester, bring classroom learning to life. These elements help place each subject in its cultural context and allow students time to complete long-term, personalized projects.

“The school [serves] a great blend of all aspects of the child—educational and social. I was attracted by Susie’s, and the staff’s, enthusiasm,” said Martin Indvik, a member of the Academy’s Board of Directors and long-time educator at two local junior high schools.

Extended Teaching Programs
Other schooling options increase students’ classroom time. For example, KIPP schools, SEED Foundation schools, Rocketship Academy, and MATCH charter school in Boston keep students on campus longer than traditional public schools. Many bring children to school on Saturday, start the school year early and end it late, and almost all keep students past 3 p.m.

These schools have shown impressive academic results, but it’s hard to tell whether their success is due to the extra teaching time, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the free-market American Enterprise Institute.

“Extended time is a good thing if the students are at a good, safe school engaged in learning, especially if they are going home to a bad situation,” Hess said.

KIPP’s (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school network focuses on maintaining high expectations and teaching choice, commitment, and leadership skills using longer classroom hours. There are currently 109 KIPP schools in 20 states and DC, serving 32,000 students.

The SEED Foundation offers a boarding school for urban children to encourage 24/7 teaching time in a safe environment for at-risk youngsters.

The Guild Method
Kimberly Bredberg has developed a new approach to education she calls “the Guild Method.” It combines parental involvement with classroom workshops, which usually last three hours.

“This structure takes the weight off [teachers and students having] to perform within 50 minutes. Children need to be allowed to practice the right elements over time to discover the intrinsic value of the work at hand,” said Bredberg, a founding member of Blackbird & Company Educational Press and a teacher at homeschool co-ops and private schools for 15 years.

People naturally invest years in their interests, Bredberg said, and this is how the Guild approaches teaching. Bredberg’s book Habits of Being: Artifacts from the Classroom Guild, published in July, explains the benefits of teaching a subject for longer periods to cultivate creative critical thinking.

“The focus is on the individuality of every child and putting those talents forward,” said Sara Evans, the book’s editor. “We really try to understand each subject. It’s never about the time; it’s about creating passion.”

In the Guild’s observation workshops, students observe an object—perhaps a snake, pomegranate, or starfish—paint it, then write an essay. Evans said this structure is especially valuable for children gifted in music, art, or dance because it allows longer practice times to foster growth and deeper passion.

Once, Evans said, she took a whole year to teach Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Students built a tepee and toured part of the explorers’ trail.

Last January, a tenth-grade girl enrolled in Bredberg’s school after leaving public school with a 1.8 grade point average. Bredberg let her unwind for three months by doing what she loved—art. After one semester, the girl writes and reads constantly and has even developed a summer science program to teach her younger sister.

“My heart is that [children] would know that their ideas matter,” Bredberg said. “Every child has been endowed with genius.”

Image by Mollyollyoxenfree.

Emily Johnston

Emily Johnston (ej.emily.johnston@gmail.com) writes from Hillsdale, Michigan. (read full bio)