| | By Jakki Spicer
Not so many years ago, the Alameda elementary school at the corner of Eighth Street and Santa Clara Avenue, then called Washington Elementary, was in a tough spot. Its Academic Performance Index scores were in the low 700s; it was in "Program Improvement" under the No Child Left Behind Act; it had gone through four principals in five years; and it had ended up on a list of the 1,000 worst schools in California.
Lorrie Murray remembers how people reacted when her daughter was getting ready to go to kindergarten there.
"You would always get this look," she said, "like, 'oh, I'm so sorry. You must be trying to get her into a different school.' "
She shook her head, adding, "It's easy to look at the scores and the PI status and think it's a failing school—that the teachers aren't doing their jobs, or the parents aren't involved, or what have you. What you didn't see was how much the teachers cared. But they taught to the child, not the test."
That meant test scores weren't as high. And when many kids are from lower socio-economic backgrounds or are entering school while they're learning English (at one time, there were 50 different home languages and dialects among the families, Murray estimated), the result can show up as low test scores.
Murray—who was PTA president at the time—said the parents were worried that the school was going to close. When Judy Goodwin came on as principal in 2010, some families were concerned her arrival was specifically to shutter the school. She had just come from Chipman Middle School, shepherding its closing and rebirth as the Academy of Alameda. And in 2011, when Alameda's parcel tax was up for a vote, Washington was slated for closure on four out of five of the contingency plans if the measure didn't pass.
Washington supporters realized they had to do something big if they wanted to keep their school open, so the PTA and the teachers started thinking seriously about a new vision: Perhaps they could save the school by making it a different school. What would the school be if they—the teachers and families—got to decide, not the district or another outside entity?
Eventually, the idea of a school centered around arts integration and inquiry-based learning arose. Inquiry-based learning and instruction differs from straightforward fact presentation in that it often involves small-scale investigations and projects where learners use questioning to develop solutions and answers.
Art and an inquiry-based approached seemed a great fit, the teachers and families agreed, because art is universal and especially important when so many students come in as English language learners. "Art is the path that lets all students feel confident," Murray said, adding that artistic expression can manifest through song, story, acting, or painting. Art provides multiple points of entry for students of diverse backgrounds.
Furthermore, the process and the kinds of skills artists need—observation, development of craft, persistence, among other so-called studio habits of mind—translate well into academics. The Alameda Unified School District had just announced a request for proposals for reimagined schools, and Washington School parents and staff, armed with their new vision, decided to apply.
The committee working on the proposal included five teachers, two parents, and Goodwin. They drew heavily from the Teaching for Understanding research of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Its main insight is to conceptualize understanding as something that is "a matter of being able to think and act flexibly with what you know . . . not just passively 'having' an understanding."
The school staff couldn't work on the proposal unless the parcel tax measure passed in early November 2011. That meant those working on the proposal had about a month to write it, because it was due at the beginning of December. The results were announced February 2012, with the proposal for Washington accepted. The new school founders had until September to put the pieces in place, close Washington, and open the new school, which was to be called Maya Lin.
While Maya Lin is an arts-integration, inquiry-based school that offers new approaches to teaching and learning, it values process over results. But it exists in the same educational context as Washington did—a high-stakes testing culture that primarily judges the quality of a school according to the results of standardized exams.
"Negotiating test-taking culture is always a tightrope juggling act in teaching, especially when innovative process-focused teaching and learning is the priority," said Dana Adams, Maya Lin's teacher librarian.
To walk this tightrope, staff at Maya Lin created assessment rubrics that coordinate well with the mission of the school and state standards. Adhering to a process-based philosophy is hard work and is not always well aligned with results-based assessments. "There is not just one curriculum to follow for the next 10 years," Adams said. "Each day, month, and year of teaching is based on the students we have, the teachers we are collaborating with, and what is happening in the world around us." Goodwin noted that standard assessments are difficult, because "the teacher is always the best assessor of students," not standardized tests. And this is shown in the art the students at Maya Lin engage in as part of all of their lessons—the work shows the processes they partake in as they learn, not just whether they had the right answer on a test. "Our halls are adorned with examples of students asking questions, reflecting, and giving feedback and is beautiful on multiple levels," Adams said.
The vision of the school and the passion of its staff seem to make sense to parents and the community, with the waiting lists for new students continuing to grow. And the school is expanding its curriculum to encompass a science makerspace in the 2015-2016 school year. "The kids are happy," Goodwin said. One student expressed his experience at Maya Lin as one that connects learning to art, deepening understanding and providing "dignity for yourself. … You're making your mind set you free." Another student observed, "Creating the questions is like an art in itself."
"Creativity is going to be a requirement of the world they're going into," Goodwin said. And Maya Lin is doing its part.
"We're in a good place," Murray said.
Alameda-based freelancer Jakki Spicer is development director for the Maker Education Initiative, a nonprofit that supports educators and communities in bringing making and learning experiences to youth. She has fourth-grader at Maya Lin.