There’s more to El Verano story than test results
El Verano (EV) School has been in program improvement (PI) for many years. This determination is made by using a multiple-choice test, administered once a year in the spring to all students in California.
The test is one, limited way of measuring student learning. But there is so much more to the EV story, than what happens during the 10 days in April when the test is administered. El Verano will not be defined by the label of “program improvement.” Instead, we consider it an opportunity to show the families and community who we really are during the other 170 days of the school year.
Our programmatic choices have supported the notion that children and adults need to have a voice in their education and daily lives. As educators, it is our responsibility to create the conditions for students to be inspired and engaged in their learning. The programs where engagement and inspiration explode for students and teachers are programs where we play a role in design and development.
Five years ago, we began working on the Exploratorium Project to create a content-based language development program, which is now a part of the curriculum at several of the district’s elementary schools. This program provides a venue for students to help influence their learning. As one observer pointed out, “This is not an abdication of the teacher’s essential role in the classroom; instead, it is a shift away from dispenser of, and keeper of, the answers toward the role of learning facilitator.” Student interest in hands-on science creates an environment that promotes language development. Students want to communicate their observations, descriptions, hypotheses, evaluations and analysis through language. This environment allows students to practice language in rich, interesting, real contexts.
The success of the Exploratorium Project would not have been
possible without our foundation in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). Before the Exploratorium project began, the EV staff had been trained in VTS. VTS uses art to promote critical thinking and language development. During VTS, the teacher is the facilitator, paraphrasing the students’ ideas and asking probing questions. VTS offers students the opportunity to use their voices by offering their observations about a work of art and providing evidence to support their ideas.
Over the years, both of these projects have created a subtle shift at EV, from finding one right answer in a textbook to creating the conditions for students to play a more active role in their education. Our school is dedicated to creating critical thinkers who have ideas about the world and work to support them or discover that there are other possibilities.
We have been open to looking at education differently because teachers at EV challenge each other to think critically by keeping students at the center of the conversation. Teachers meet voluntarily after school with Dr. Viki Montera, a Sonoma State professor, where the conversation focuses on the purpose of education. The use of an outside facilitator helps to push our thinking about curriculum and instruction and the best way to include students in their own learning.
With a program improvement label, schools often eliminate music and art from their programs. EV believes these programs inspire children, so they continue to be an integral part of our curriculum. EV offers art and music during the school day as well as after school. Our collaboration with local artists and musicians provides us with opportunities that would not be possible without the support of the community and the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.
El Verano has also had the opportunity to design and develop two other programs that support our youngest learners and parents. Four years ago, EV opened the first district preschool to provide our pre-kinder students with a year of learning prior to kindergarten. Our preschool recently opened an afternoon class, again due to the generosity of the community. The preschool not only supports our young learners, but also provides parents with leadership opportunities by attending workshops and volunteering in the classroom.
Parent leadership is a critical component of the EV philosophy. Universidad de Padres (Parent University) is a parent leadership group that meets monthly. The parents establish discussion topics, which include the value of video games, positive discipline, college admissions and university visits. This group provides parents with a venue to discuss issues that are important to them as parents and community members.
All of our programs have one central guiding principle: the voices of our students, teachers and families are what make our school a wonderful place to learn, grow, and work. We measure the success of our programs by daily observations and formative assessments that frequently evaluate the instruction and learning of our students. Teachers adjust instruction and respond to student learning daily. Our student’s voices are our greatest resource for change. There is always more to the story, than a number on one multiple-choice test.
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Maite Iturri is principal of El Verano Elementary School and is currently working on a doctorate in educational leadership at the University of California, Davis.