Choice brings choice schools
Gary Wockner, PhD

Here in the Poudre School District, we have choices about where to send our kids to school, and the choices my family has made have suited us wonderfully. Further, two of PSD's choice schools are leading the discussion about the future of educational reform in America.

With a new state Legislature and a new governor, Colorado is abuzz with talk about educational reform. Driving this buzz is a new report titled, "Tough Choices or Tough Times," by the National Center on Education and Economy. This report is authored by a who's-who of national educational leaders, including past governors, university presidents and educational reform foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The report offers 10 recommendations, several of which are controversial, but one of which (the seventh) is garnering strong support from all reviewers.

It says: "Too often, our testing system rewards students who will be good at routine work, while not providing opportunities for students to display creative and innovated thinking and analysis."

Lawmakers at the Colorado state Capitol are promoting the report, including Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff and other representatives who said they are "thrilled with the report's call for the U.S. education system to move away from memorization and regurgitation of facts (Denver Post, Jan. 9)."

The report goes on to say that American students need "creativity and innovation, facility with the use of ideas and abstractions, the self-discipline and organization needed to manage one's work and drive it through to successful conclusion, the ability to function well as a member of a team, and so on."

While such reform may seem a distant dream for some parents in Colorado, it's not here in PSD. We have two schools that are leading the trend toward the exact kinds of reforms these national leaders are calling for.

The first is the Lab School for Creative Learning, a free public K-6 school that has been in operation for 13 years. It is a unique and wonderful school. Much of Lab School's success comes from its curriculum, which is based on experiential learning. The school also enjoys small class sizes, a committed group of parents and teachers and a strong long-term commitment from PSD.

The second is the Pioneer School, for grades 7-12, also a free public school that is in its seventh year of operation. Pioneer uses a curriculum called "Expeditionary Learning," a national curriculum model used in 150 schools nationwide (www.ELSchools.org). Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded tens of millions of dollars to build several new Expeditionary Learning schools around the country. The EL curriculum is at the forefront of new thinking about student achievement and later-life success.

Both of these schools are good examples of the recommendations in the "Tough Choices" report: Instead of stiff lectures and factory-like bubble tests, Lab and Pioneer try to embrace child development and address the individual needs of each student. Creativity and innovation, ideas and abstractions and self-discipline are among the core principals of these schools' curriculums. Teamwork is a central principle too, as is the concept of "community."

Being a parent at these schools has been a great experience for our family - instead of grade reports, we get detailed written analyses of our student's progress, intensive conferences focused on goal- setting and goal achievement, and "learning portfolios," which are thick binders chronicling student progress.

Feb. 10 is the deadline in PSD to fill out the School of Choice form, and our family will be filling out the choice forms for Lab and Pioneer again this year. It's not a "tough choice" for us, and it may be the best choice for the future of education in America.

Gary Wockner, PhD, (www.garywockner.com) is a writer and ecologist in Fort Collins. He is on the Board of Directors at Pioneer School and is a volunteer at Lab School.