Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School
Imagine a school where all students feel like they are part of the community, involved in the inner workings of the place, and important to teachers, administrators, and their fellow students.
The Francis W. Parker Charter School, in Devens, Massachusetts, makes that dream a reality on a daily basis.
In 1995, a group of parents, teachers, and education professionals banded together to write a charter for a school where the individual needs and talents of each student would be central to the curriculum and practice of the school. The group soon grew from a few like-minded people to dozens of participants from several towns northwest of Boston, including noted education experts Ted and Nancy Sizer.
"This was just a bunch of people who agreed on how a school should be," says former principal of Parker, Gregg Sinner.
That agreement produced what Sinner calls "a new, untried adventure in learning," on the site of a decommissioned military base in Devens. Students from 40 different towns eventually found their way to Parker, where the school's mission is based on the ten common principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools (http://www.essentialschools.org/). With these guiding principles and a mission statement focused on knowing each student well, Parker set out to improve education for a socioeconomically diverse group of kids.
"In a traditional high school, there are many cracks for kids to fall through," says current Parker principal, Teri Schrader. "But being real members of a community helps. Here there are few places where kids are going to get lost because they have their people and they know their people aren't going anywhere."
The students' "people" are the members of their advisory groups at Parker. Each student is placed in a 12-student advisory group with one of his or her teachers and a parent representative. In these sessions that last 30 minutes every morning, 15 minutes in the afternoon, and from an hour to a whole day on Wednesdays, students discuss community issues, work out their personal learning plans, plan and execute a community service project, and engage in recreational activities.
All segments of the advisory period are designed to open kids' eyes to the possibilities available to them. "Everyone is meticulously following up and giving feedback to help others improve, not to judge," says Schrader. "Advisory members inspire the students to do more than they thought they could when they started."
Arts and Humanities teacher Deb Merriam agrees: "Our kids connect with us personally, and that often inspires them to do their best work. And, because we know them so well, we are able to tailor what we do to their needs."
Parker serves the academic needs of its students through three divisions, which are successively more challenging but are only loosely based on grade levels. Students move through the divisions based on public exhibitions and portfolios of work and research, but these promotions are not connected to a strict timeline. Student work is judged using school-wide rubrics that indicate if the work is just beginning to meet standards (JB), approaches standards (A), or meets standards completely (M). This way, students can move at their own pace and revise and improve their work. This also gives teachers the flexibility to offer extra support to those who need it.
This flexibility is a hallmark of the Parker School and a major reason for its success. Administrators, faculty, and staff focus more time on student needs and interests than on management issues not directly related to academic achievement.
"Usually, in a school, what is valued is order," says Sinner. "This often comes at the expense of growth and students finding their own voices."
Students at Parker are allowed to explore their own interests and weave them into their personal learning plan. They can also choose their own probing question for their senior exhibition, a graduation requirement that is juried by outside experts as well as faculty. Sinner calls it "very sophisticated, almost like a graduate school qualifying exam." In the past, students have explored such topics as "How do I set up an exhibit in a historical museum?" "How does religion play a part in people's lives?" and "How do violent images affect aggression in adolescents?"
The administrators at Parker and the Parker Board of Trustees have built into the school's organization several other ways of honoring the student voice. Students sit on the board as well as the school's Community Congress and Justice Committee. But one of the most important ways in which Parker engages the community and students in the learning process is the annual choosing of a school-wide "essential question," around which the entire curriculum will revolve for the next year.
Students, teachers, and community members voice their opinions on topics for the question through something called "Chalk Talk," a board where anyone can write their thoughts on the subject. The faculty members then discuss the ideas and try to extract the main themes winding through the responses. They whittle the feedback down to a few essential questions and then put it to the community for a vote.
"This has to be a question that isn't easily answered," says Schrader. "It must have bearing on all areas of development in the school community."
Former questions have included "What's the limit?" "Where's the truth?" and "What is change?" Faculty members then work together to design a curriculum that derives from this question or builds on it. Again, the flexibility of changing the curriculum from year to year allows teachers to reassess not only their students but their own practice as well.
"What we teach and how we teach and how kids demonstrate what they learn are thoroughly integrated with each other and inform and respond to each other," says Merriam. "Because teachers design the curriculum each year, it stays alive and current while responding to what kids need, what teachers are passionate about, and what is important for kids to know and be able to do."
Parker ensures that teachers have all the support they need in this process. Each faculty member participates in a Critical Friends group. These groups range across the three interdisciplinary domains of Arts and Humanities, Math, Science, and Technology, and Wellness. Within these groups, teachers study student work, discuss the standards, and talk about their own practice.
"This fundamental driver gives faculty the chance to come together, build relationships, and share successes and failures without being attacked," says Sinner. "It's about getting feedback."
Teachers routinely meet by division or by domain for common planning time and to share discoveries or concerns about the students they share. About eight hours a week are devoted to these meetings. Faculty members also form committees to investigate issues important to their growth and development.
"Faculty learn the skill of collaboration," says Schrader. "You can have a fabulous teaching body, but dead leadership. So, the key is constant conversations among every constituency. One strong constituency isn't enough to get a school where it needs to be."
The success that Parker has had due to its flexibility and strong relationships shows through in a high number of college acceptances and strong test scores. Every member of the classes of 2003 and 2004 has already passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, a state requirement to graduate.
"We rely on our academic program, which teaches kids the mechanics,' says Schrader. "They learn how to read and write critically, so the MCAS is just asking them to do stuff they do all the time."
Parker received a renewal of their charter for another five years in 2000 and was granted accreditation in 2002 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). Schrader attributes the success of the school to keeping open lines of communication, and Merriam cites the strong relationships among teachers and students. But Sinner points out the issue of paramount importance to students: acceptance.
"Everyone sees everyone else for who they are," he says. "Seniors feel obliged to help the others along, and the idiosyncrasies of youth are accepted. It's the ideal environment to learn about yourself, your world, and your relationships with others."