Tuning into the “individual” factor
By Keely Brown
Published in Boulder County Business Report
January 7, 2011
For many parents, private schools offer the option of a more individualized education for their children. While the common denominator for private schools may be a combination of smaller class size with broader-based curriculum, each private school has a different approach in fulfilling its educational mission statement.
Shepherd Valley Waldorf School in Niwot follows the Waldorf principles of keeping a student with the same classroom teacher from first through eighth grades.
Greer Galloway, a fourth-grade teacher at Shepherd Valley, said this not only allows the student and teacher to build a strong relationship, but also facilitates the teacher in identifying each student’s individual learning styles, strengths and weaknesses.
“It is an incredibly powerful experience for the child to have a teacher who can really grow and develop along with them for eight years,” Galloway said. “As a teacher, my heart goes out to teachers at other schools who don’t have this experience. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to get to know a new group of students every year.”
While the small class setting — only 15 students per classroom — helps facilitate this bonding process between student and teacher, the situation does present its own challenges — such as what happens if the student and teacher don’t get along and are stuck with each other for eight years?
“I’ve rarely seen this happen,” Galloway said. “As a teacher, you have to make a commitment to do your part to work through the relationship over the next eight years. The task is to serve that child before you.”
In addition to the regular curriculum, Waldorf students from first grade up are also taught two foreign languages, musical instruction and handicrafts, with specialty teachers who work in tandem with the classroom teachers.
“The subject teachers take up the academic material that the classroom teachers are working with,” Galloway said. “For example, if the students are learning fractions, they’re also learning note-reading in music.”
Perhaps the greatest proof of the success of the Waldorf system is in the relationships that continue, often for decades, between former students and their teachers.
“These teachers get an opportunity to work with a child’s whole development from infanthood,” Galloway said. “And often, they end up having lifelong relationships with the children in their class.”
For some private schools, maintaining a small student-teacher ratio is a pivotal component of individualized education. Now in its 37th year of operation, September High School in Boulder boasts an enrollment of 95 students, which allows for a ratio of only 8 to 10 students per teacher — a number that head of school Celeste Di Iorio promises isn’t going to change.
“Our school was founded on the idea that it would stay small, because you have to be small to know a kid that intimately,” she said. “The teachers get to know the students really well. This way, they can support them in the areas they’re challenged by, while also helping them to develop in the areas they’re most passionate in.”
While September High accepts a broad spectrum of students, Di Iorio said that many come to the school because traditional educational methods haven’t worked for them.
“So often, we get students who have become disenchanted about learning,” she said. “Our mission statement is how to re-engage students who have become disengaged.”
September High believes in fostering a strong sense of community. Students meet three times a week for school assemblies, where they are presented with a variety of guest speakers, as well as a chance to take the stage themselves and talk about issues concerning them.
“We have a very Socratic environment; kids have the opportunity to question and debate and express their opinions,” Di Iorio said. “We look at what they’re passionate about in learning, and how we can craft curriculum that is going to meet their graduation requirements and also meet the students’ passions.”
In addition, each student also has his or her own individual staff adviser throughout the four years of high school.
“These staff member advisers get to know the students and their families well,” Di Iorio said. “This helps the students strategize and plan their tasks to graduation and beyond.”
While focus is on the individual, September High believes in helping to achieve this through community bonding. As part of the process, the entire student body participates in three extended field trips a year. Last fall, all of the students and staff camped for several days in Genesee, learning backcountry survival techniques while also experiencing the importance of learning to depend upon each other as a team. This winter, a similar school bonding trip is planned for Estes Park.
At some private schools, a particular academic approach is combined with a cultural climate. Friends’ School in Boulder offers students in preschool and kindergarten through fifth grade a comprehensive education that engages many different facets of a child’s personality and intellect — all taught in a small classroom setting of 18 to 20 students per two-teacher class.
Mari Engle Friedman, director of admissions, said the foundation of the school is based on getting to know each child individually, meeting their intellectual as well as their emotional needs.
“Our teachers work to discover how each child’s brain works best, and how to access that and boost and challenge that child,” she said.” The key is to care deeply enough to have respect for all pieces of the child — head, hands and heart.”
The Friends’ School — an independent school with no affiliation to the Quaker Society of Friends — offers individualized instruction based on both formal and informal assessment of each child’s needs. The school particularly embraces the idea, put forth by Harvard professor and educator Howard Gardner, that there are seven distinct intelligences — intrapersonal, interpersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, body-kinesthetic and visual-spatial.
“There is a balance between traditional teaching for the whole class, and then spending time with each individual,” Friedman said. “It’s about bringing learning to a child in all these different ways, incorporating the emotional and social as well as the cognitive.”
Toward this end, the curriculum is diverse, yet connected. When the students were studying Australia, they not only did typical reading about Australia, but also studied Aboriginal painting, studied the science of the Great Barrier Reef, and then went to a sea aquarium where each student studied a sea creature and did a pastel painting of it. They wrote poetry about the continent and studied its music — thus bringing in science, music, literacy and history in both an auditory and a visual learning process.
“This approach can be very entertaining and diverse,” Friedman said. “When we studied Egypt, the students mummified a chicken — there wasn’t a single child who wasn’t on the edge of their seat when we did that,” she added.
Although Friends’ School graduates a class of fifth graders each year, according to Friedman, these students aren’t gone for long. As middle-schoolers, they often come back to Friends’ School to participate in volunteerism during their own school’s community service days, sometimes even helping the new batch of fifth graders apply for middle school and counseling them as to what to expect in their new surroundings. And at graduation each year, Friends’ alumni are always invited to speak — and there’s not a dry eye in the house, Friedman said.
“It’s a testament as to how this type of teaching goes to the heart and soul of a human being,” Friedman said. “To get to learn in an environment like this is something that stays with you forever.”