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Choosing a Middle School? The scoop on Paulo Freire Freedom School (charter)

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2011-12-21 : "I wish we didn't have weekends".  How often do you hear that in the back of the car on the way to school with a middle schooler?  My daughters love their school so much that they count down the days of vacations - to when they can go back to school.

Disclaimer: my first cousin is one of the directors.  However, that wasn't enough to make me decide to send my older girls there.  We looked at test scores - Paulo Freire beat all other schools in the area, and had better ratings at the Great Schools website than all others in a 5 mile radius.  We also liked the community aspect, the small size and the social justice focus.  But we couldn't get in.  Despite family connection, we lost the lottery for a place in 7th grade, as the school generally only has many openings the 6th grade year and just one or two slots in the upper grades.  Luckily the following year, we were able to get places for both girls, now in 7th and 8th grades, and they have had an amazing experience.

While my kids love the social aspects of the school - other kids are kind and nonjudgemental, the result of a thoughtfully built up school culture - I appreciate the instructional aspects.  They use a rigorous math curriculum, the Connected Mathematics, and supplement with a lot of individualized work, including the ALEKS system for targeted instruction.  The whole philosophy of the school is to not let any kids fall through the cracks, and to find effective ways to work with each student in a way that makes sense to them.  This is a far cry from schools such as BASIS, where the philosophy seems to be that there are winners and losers, and that if you're not making it - drop out.  At least, that seems to be the story from student retention rates and individual parents whom I've talked to.  

I wanted to find out more about how they do it, what makes Paulo Freire tick.  JoAnn Groh, one of the co-directors, spent an hour with us giving out the secrets:

bTuc: what makes Paulo Freire different from other schools?

PF: The obvious thing is the size, and what that allows for is for us to really know students and families well and really think about the individual needs of kids.

Then our mission statement, we have a curricular focus on Social Justice and the environment.  I don't know any other school that explicitly states that, though it does happen.  In our case its woven through everything we do.

We see our selves as a lab school for best practices, for teaching and pedagogy.  So the teaching strategies that teachers use here are interactive, collaborative, inquiry-based, experiential

That happens inside the classroom, and we have lots of field experiences, mainly our expeditions and intersessions.  [Paulo Freire has an expedition every Friday for one of the grade levels where the students to out in the community, and two intersessions during the year for week long experiential learning]

bTuc: Tell me more about these best practices. Where do they come from?

PF: Santo [Nicotera, the other director] and I have been in education for a long time, and we've worked with national reform movements, most recently the Ohio HS Transformation Initiative (OSHTI) that we worked with for 6 years.  In all that we get professional development, and we glean from that what's considered to be best practices in teaching and we incorporate it.

bTuc: Whatever it is seems to be working - you have high test scores and happy kids (judging by anecdote and retention rates)

PF: I would argue that the test scores are a small part.  We hear from kids organically that the ones that go to Tucson High tend to test into honors/gifted/GATE; we hear from City High teachers that PF kids are well prepared.

In addition to academics, we teach life skills, being able to advocate for themselves, 21st century skills, the habits of heart and mind.

Part of best practices is that kids feel safe and kids are known, and that kids are connected to people.  If those things don't exist, learning won't happen; if they do exist learning is more likely to happen.  That is research based.

Some of our practices are things Santo or I or other faculty members have seen other places, some of them we came up with here.

(discussed the 8th grade Portfolio, and some graduation rituals)

We knew it was a new school and I believe that ritual and traditions are really valuable, so early on (when something clicked), we said 'ok, now we have a tradition' even though we had just done it once.

bTuc:Do you have pressures from state interfere with doing what you do as a school?

PF:We have to get reports in - but our relative success has enabled us to be free of a lot of pressure.  Our theory is that we're going to teach the way we think teaching should be done, and our test scores will at least be good.  As long as we're doing respectable.  About 2 weeks before the test, we do more traditional test prep, partly because some of our kids have never taken standardized tests.

[ The test scores are indeed respectable, ranging from 67-100% mastery: Paulo Freire 2011 scores ]

bTuc: Kids also have to do a lot of stuff they don't want to do

PF: We had a teacher once...some parents come to us from more progressive background, much more 'let kids do what they want, let kids explore'.  We have that a little, we have some choices and learning lab, but there are skills that they need to learn and things they need to know, so we have a definite belief that all kids need to work and all kids need to learn.  Its not a choice not to learn.

bTuc:What are the consequences if the kids don't do what you expect of them?

PF: If kids don't do work, they often have to do it during lunch. its not a punishment, but its just what has to happen.

Its the philosophy, that kids don't fall thru the cracks.

bTuc:You mentioned that you get some kids from very progressive backgrounds, what about the other side?  Do you get kids from BASIS?

PF:We get kids from basis who were not able to be successful there - who were overburdened, with about 3 hrs of homework a night - and if you talk to kids at basis its very traditional and rigid.  And they are successful here.  And typically those kids are academically kind of average kids, sometimes they are special ed kids - basis has less than 1% of special ed.  Their graduating class is like 22 kids - who all had to take large number of AP tests.  

bTuc:Can we talk about models - is this sustainable, and is it replicatable?

PF: There is an organization called the Coalition of Essential Schools.  That is what we originally modelled our school after.  It has 10 principles.  When I came to Tucson, I originally went to Catalina Footills because it was an Essential School (it no longer is).  Santo worked at an Essential School before he came here.  There are pockets of Essential Schools in Boston and a few other  locations.

The Turning Points is a middle school model, that when we first started, we based a lot of stuff from.  The National School Reform Faculty is another model that we have used.

We've thought about trying to become a charter-replicated model. We could do that, but it is a big endeavor.  Its not sustainable in 75 students because its not practical to think that people would do the consulting that we do; but I think we could do what we do with 150 and not lose the character of the school.

bTuc:How do you handle discipline?

PF: The biggest way to have a good class is to have a good lesson plan. If your class is interesting, and well planned out, you're going to get rid of problems.  When we have a debate about dropping the atomic bomb, kids are engaged. If you have interesting , well planned out, authentic lessons, that's 75% of it.  Kids are still going to be kids, you have to have clear expectations.  We don't have class rules...

bTuc (student interviewer): At most schools, they tell you the rules at the beginnig of the year.

PF: In the schools we consult with in Ohio and Oklahoma, all classes have rules posted, but the class culture doesn't reflect them.  Establishing a culture is important.

Here a teacher might say, "Rosie, I see you're chatting with so-and-so, I really need you to get your work done"

After that happens multiple times, the teacher might give the kid a think sheet. Usually they won't do it in class, often they'll do it in the office. It just says "What did you do?  Why was it not a good decision?  What are you going to do next time?"  Usually that's all we'll do, sometimes we'll call home or they'll have a lunch detention.

bTuc:Does that happen often?

PF:Last year, it happened pretty frequently with one particular class.  This year, 80% of the kids never have had a lunch detention, about 20% have one or two a year, and one or two kids may get one pretty often.

Then we have restorative justice too.  When there has been a breach of school norms, its about resolving and fixing the problem rather than punishing.    Its not the major way that discipline is handled in the school, but the fact that it exists helps the milieu of the school.  Its not about punishing but we want it to be a good place. if someone is hurt, the person who contributed to that needs to help fix it.

bTuc:How do you maintain the culture of the school?  Teacher training?

PF:We try to hire teachers that either already know a lot of this stuff, or are already predisposed.  We have a retreat before school starts.  But its a big learning curve for teachers, most people haven't heard of advisory, exhibitions, etc.

So on our early release day, we spend an hour talking about kids.  We do positive notes, track issues with kids. Then we talk about kids that there are special concerns about strategies.  We spend an hour on teaching and learning, either Santo and I doing training, or teachers sharing strategies.  The fact that we do that every week is like a training

There is a culture, its very collaborative, they sit together and enjoy each other.  You don't get what you get in some schools where teachers just go in the teacher's lounge and complain.

There is a sense that every kid can learn and we all work hard to get every kid working at their potential.

The other thing - our teachers really like kids.  You probably have met teachers who just don't like kids, who even will say so.  What are they doing teaching?

We have a special ed teacher with a degree in counselling - she knows just tons of strategies for redirecting kids and handling situations.  


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