A Note from Principal Tony Byers: March 2019

Dear Families,

March is here! Spring is on the horizon, even if the ground is still covered in a foot of frozen snow. I think we’re all ready for warmer weather.

As spring approaches, and we start to think about next year, I wanted to let you know about some possible changes for the 2019-2020 school year. Graham and Parks is a great school with a long history of project-based learning and a commitment to inclusion and social justice. Much of this strength comes from the fact that we are a diverse school, both in terms of our student population and our academic programs. As you know, Graham and Parks houses four different programs: General Education, Sheltered English Immersion (SEI), Language-Based Learning Disabilities (LBLD), and one integrated preschool classroom. For several years, the staff and Steering Committee have had a number of separate conversations about how we might better integrate all these programs to provide students with one, cohesive Graham and Parks experience. While we recognize that students have different needs, they all share the need to feel connected to their peers and their school. A truly inclusive school is one where students, no matter their needs, have opportunities to learn and play together.

Over the past few months, the staff has had many conversations about how to create a more unified, equitable, and inclusive experience for all students. In these conversations, two central challenges, and possible solutions, came to the forefront. The first is that we don’t have a shared vision of curriculum and instruction across all programs. While we are a project-based learning school, and largely subscribe to an Expeditionary Learning (EL) model, there has always been some confusion about how this model fits with district curricular requirements, which can also vary across our four distinct programs. One straightforward way of addressing this issue is to explore joining the EL school network. While our school uses EL’s philosophy to inform our approach to project-based learning, joining the EL network of schools will provide us with additional resources, expertise, and access to a community of schools working towards authentic and inclusive project-based learning for all students. You can read more about the process of joining the EL network in the attached FAQ.

The second challenge to creating a more unified, equitable, and inclusive Graham and Parks is the structure of looping in our school. Currently, general education students in 1st and 2nd grade and 3rd and 4th grade spend two years with the same teacher. While a classroom culture that loops over two years creates some wonderful opportunities for building relationships amongst teachers, students, and families, looping has also presented some challenges. SEI classrooms don’t loop, for a number of reasons, which means that grade-level teacher teams change every year, making collaboration between SEI and general education teachers difficult. High levels of collaboration are critical for creating common experiences across classrooms at each grade level and planning for meaningful integration of students during social and academic times of day. Moving to a single graded model in both general education and SEI would allow more collaborative teams, which could support the integration of students across programs. In addition, single graded classrooms would assist us in training and retaining newer teachers, which can be particularly challenging at Graham and Parks, where teacher teams design and write much of their own curriculum.

Looping has been the subject of many conversations amongst our staff for a number of years. While there is a diversity of opinions on the subject, there is agreement on the challenges. There is also agreement that the looping model has been very successful for many students and that moving to a single graded model would be a loss for other students yet to experience it. However, if the goal is a more unified, equitable, and inclusive Graham and Parks for ALL students, then switching to a single graded model makes sense, especially in tandem with becoming an official EL school. More consistent teams at each grade level will allow coplanning across programs and newer teachers to develop expertise in the EL approach at a single grade level.  

What we’re proposing isn’t a radical departure from Graham and Parks tradition, but rather an acknowledgment of changes over the past decade or so, with a growing SEI population and new staff joining our school. If the priority is inclusion, and I think it should be, we need to set the conditions that will allow more inclusion to happen. However, I acknowledge that both potential changes feel big, especially if your child is a general education student currently in the middle of a loop. After all, both they and you were expecting to have the same teacher next year. This will be a shift.

The staff will be meeting this week and next to discuss whether or not to pursue becoming an official EL school. If you have questions about these possible changes for next year, I encourage you to attend this week’s Steering Committee meeting, where we’ll discuss both. The Steering Committee meeting is on Thursday, March 14th at 5:30pm. There is more to say about EL and single graded classrooms and some more thinking to do about how to make Graham and Parks a more inclusive school. I will keep you updated as we move forwards.

Best,

Tony
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