What Works: A Charter Teacher Shares Best Practices from Granada Hills

May 23, 2011

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On May 15, a couple dozen charter school teachers from Los Angeles participated in a Teacher Town Hall meeting broadcast live on NBC. The panelists included Meridith Dadigan, CCSA's Charter Teacher of the Year.

Janie M. Holm, a teacher at Granada Hills Charter High School, who attended the event, shares her perspective.

One of the questions posed to the panelists was whether Los Angeles Unified School District's Superintendent John Deasy's statement that "The graduation rate must rise from 55% to 70% in four years; the percentage of middle and high school students who test as 'Proficient' in math must nearly double; and the percentage of students who pass courses required to attend state four-year universities must nearly triple..." was realistic.

I was so proud when charter teacher Meredith Dadigan confidently responded, "Yes. I do believe that it is realistic."

This is the wonderfully refreshing, optimistic, can-do attitude found among charter school teachers that drew me to the charter movement in 2003.

As a child political refugee arriving in the U.S. from Viet Nam at the end of fifth grade, struggling to learn English, struggling with the culture shock, emotional turmoil, and issues of poverty that my once well-to-do family was now suddenly faced with, I owe my academic achievement and subsequent professional success to American public education.

Yes, it is possible to accomplish these challenging goals if we show respect, communicate, and are helpful to one another as educators. From grades 6 to 12, I had the good fortune to be enrolled in excellent schools with supportive administrators and collaborative teachers who reached out to my parents. Thanks to all of them, I went from English as a Second Language (ESL) level 1 to high school valedictorian, received a full scholarship in college, earned a law degree, and am now finishing up my Doctorate of Education.

I left law practice in 2000 to become a teacher because I felt that in order to give back to America what this country has given me and my family, I needed to do my part to support its system of public education. I started out as a 7th grade math teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Most of the NBC Town Hall focused on problems, rather than solutions. Charter schools have the flexibility to be especially innovative and responsive to students, and I think we have much to share in terms of what works. These are some of the practices that work, based on my first-hand experience as a teacher in a 21st century urban classroom:

  • Keep class sizes small: 20:1 for elementary and under 30:1 for secondary schools. This should be the priority in school budgeting.
  • Build school structures and culture that can flexibly and cost effectively respond to shifts in student demographics over time.
  • Use authentic student assessment and immediate performance data feedback to intrinsically motivate students, and ultimately hold them responsible and accountable for their own academic progress.
  • Less emphasis on content knowledge and more emphasis on research and critical thinking skills: This goes for all subject matters at all grade levels. We live in the Information Age; there are just too many "facts" out there. It makes more sense to give our kids the skills to locate the information they seek, and to evaluate the information that they find.
  • Build character: The more we Race to the Top and teach our kids to be competitive, the more we need to also teach them about humanity and the common good.
  • Project-based, inquiry-based learning.
  • Physically active or kinesthetic learning activities.
  • Respect the cultural background and life experience of students and their family members, and translate that into curriculum of world peace with student global competencies in mind.
  • Focus on freshmen: Solid curriculum and teaching, and an intervention safety net for 9th graders are key to their high school success.
  • Re-define school attendance: Strictly enforce whatever appropriate school attendance policies are put in place.
  • Issue school smart phones and other handheld personal data management devices to keep absentee students connected with their teachers and coursework.
  • Make time for professional development and collaboration: Good teaching incorporates science (driven by empirical data), art (creative, out of the box), and craft (attention to detail). Structure bell schedules and school hours to sustain teacher professional development and collaboration that fosters continuous improvement in teaching.
  • Increase teacher participation in joint research-based lesson-planning: Have teachers participate in continuous departmental lesson studies as a measure for teacher evaluation.
  • Treat teaching like any other profession: Give teachers respectable salaries and both support them and hold them accountable through professional ethics and standards, peer evaluation, and required continued professional development.
  • Have school administrators who still teach at least one class.

To see some of this in action, I cordially invite all public school teachers, whether from a traditional district school or from a charter school, to come visit the LAUSD conversion charter high school where I currently work as student assessment coordinator and math teacher. Granada Hills Charter High School is a California Distinguished School and home of the 2011 Academic Decathlon National Champions. We have a proudly diverse student body approaching 4,200 students, and about 180 school staff members.

I applaud NBC for successfully launching the Education Nation program and now taking it on the road. I hope more media channels will provide forums for teachers to share their thoughts and inform the public on how to not only make American public education the best in the world, but how we can change the world for the better through public education.

Jason Pine

May 23, 2011

We at Sharp As A Tack wholeheartedly agree! Our mission is to improve academic achievement by developing students' cognitive abilities, such as critical thinking, that will lead to a lifetime of successes in the classroom, in the community, and within their families. Kudos to the teachers and administrators willing to attend these meetings and share their perspectives. We would have loved to have been there!


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