My research was conducted at San Diego Cooperative Charter School (SDCCS), a K-8 public charter school in San Diego, California that first opened its doors in the fall of 2002. The concept for the school originated with a small group of teachers and parents who came together through a local cooperative preschool and wanted the opportunity for their children to continue the cooperative experience in elementary school. Originally, the school opened as a K-5 charter school, and a middle school (grades 6-8) was added a few years later. The school currently serves approximately 370 students from all over San Diego County. Enrollment is non-selective, and incoming students are enrolled using a lottery system, though priority entry is given to siblings of current students, children of staff members, and to in-district students per district requirements.
SDCCS is situated within a diverse community of San Diego called Linda Vista. For several reasons, (including location, size, educational philosophy, and duration of operation) the current student population of SDCCS does not yet reflect the diversity of the neighborhood, nor of the San Diego Unified School district as a whole.
SDCCS is still fairly new to the Linda Vista neighborhood, having been previously located in an office complex adjacent to Balboa Park until Fall 2007, and it is anticipated that over time the school population will evolve to more closely mirror the community in which it is now operating. SDCCS is also working on increasing public awareness of the school through print advertising, community outreach events, and partnerships with local organizations, which should serve to attract more Linda Vista residents and further shift the demographics of the school.
One of the cornerstones of the SDCCS educational philosophy is that parent involvement is critical to student success. To enroll, parents must attend an informational session, take a school tour led by parent volunteers, attend a summer orientation, and commit to 54 volunteer hours per school year. The volunteer commitment is fulfilled in a variety of ways, from chaperoning field trips, to attending parent-teacher conferences, to running small instructional groups, to shopping for classroom supplies. Ample opportunities to contribute to the school in a volunteer capacity are provided on both the classroom and school-wide levels, including home-based and weekend opportunities for working parents. In response to staff concerns about a lack of accountability for parent volunteers, a stipulation was recently put in place stating that families not fulfilling the 54 hours would lose priority enrollment status and be put back into the lottery pool for the following school year. The impact of this policy change has yet to be analyzed, but in general, most families at SDCCS are highly involved in their children's education and regularly communicate with teachers and staff.
At SDCCS, each grade level K-5 has two self-contained classes of up to 21 students each. The instructional programs from class to class and from grade to grade tend to vary quite a bit in both instructional approach and structure. SDCCS teachers have great freedom to establish a classroom environment and educational program as they see fit for the students in their classes, through the school is united by the principles of constructivism as the framework for teaching and learning.
Constructivism suggests that students take an active role in their own education as the constructors of their learning, learning which varies from student to student depending on prior experience, interests, learning modality, and other considerations. The teacher's role in a constructivist school environment is to be more of a facilitator rather than a "giver of knowledge." As such, classroom practices tend to feature collaborative learning, projects, student choice, and hands-on experiences, rather than direct instruction, lecture, or textbook-based activities. As a public charter school under the umbrella of the San Diego Unified School District, SDCCS is held accountable to California state standards and students in grades 2 through 8 are assessed yearly on those standards. However, the teachers at SDCCS are given permission to address the standards using any of the aforementioned methods.
With such tremendous leeway in how student learning is both addressed and assessed, it has come to the attention of the instructional staff that, as a school, there seems to be a lack of a clear, cohesive, educational mission. As a result, some teachers have expressed feelings of isolation as both teachers and adult learners. Therefore, the staff has been working together to examine some of the common practices and shared values and explore some personal wonderings about instructional practices within small professional learning groups and grade-level clusters. The goals of this work are to identify the common threads woven throughout the teachers’ practices and learn more about how to best implement those practices. Some of the intended outcomes include enriching the learning of students, further engaging parents in their child's education, and setting SDCCS apart from other public educational offerings found in San Diego.
My action research in the area of mathematics mirrored some of the goals that SDCCS has for improving math instruction. Much of the professional development work over the past few years has been focused on literacy development and recently there has been greater interest in exploring mathematics, particularly because SDCCS students have had consistently poorer results in math than in language arts on state-wide standardized tests (in fact, in the fall of 2009 SDCCS was labeled a Year 1 Federal Program Improvement School for not meeting student performance targets in math). Over the past two years, the staff has had training and conversations about mathematics assessment, investigative models, open-ended problems, teaching for conceptual understanding, authentic applications of math, and more. One topic that has consistently come up in discussion is differentiation, as SDCCS teachers often encounter a wide range of student readiness levels and dispositions toward math in their classrooms. Some teachers, including myself, have attempted to tackle differentiation in math by using learning stations, which is the method I selected as the focal point of my action research.
During my action research study, I was one of two fourth grade teachers at SDCCS. Last year my grade-level partner and I decided to team-teach in order to capitalize on our personal interests and instructional strengths. This resulted in us dividing up the multiple subjects of the elementary school curriculum into two clusters: Reading/Writing (her subjects) and Math/Science/Social Studies (my subjects). We split each school day into two instructional time blocks of approximately 2 hours each (1 hour each on minimum days) during which we taught one group of 20 fourth graders, then switched and taught the other group of 20 fourth graders. In general, I began the day with my “home team” of 20 students, and they remained together throughout the day as they moved from my classroom to my partner’s classroom to their specialty classes (Art, Music, P.E., etc.).
My classroom environment consisted primarily of items assigned to the 20 “home-team” students (desks, cubbies, classroom jobs chart, drinking cups, etc.) as well as content-related materials used to support our work in math, science, and social studies (bulletin boards, texts, posters, centers, projects, etc.). Two-person desks were arranged into three “pods” of six students, with one additional two-person desk set up near the other pods. There was also a library corner, a rug area for group meetings, a couch and coffee table, a teacher desk area, two classroom computers, and a sink area. Throughout the room there were several different “cozy items,” including bean bags, pillows, wooden stools, backrests, and more. The room was vibrant and colorful, with a variety of hues and patterns delineating particular sections of the space.
During my time blocks with each of the two fourth-grade classes, I established routines that enabled us to make the best use of our instructional time and manage our materials. We began our two-hour block each day with approximately one hour of math work, which was primarily composed of a short introduction to a task, followed by small group work, and a concluding discussion. Most of the students’ math work was recorded in personal math journals (composition books) and any handouts were kept in the students’ math folders, both of which were stored in colored tubs corresponding to the table where each student’s seat was located (e.g. students assigned to the blue table kept their materials in the blue plastic tub). The second hour of the time block was devoted to rotating investigations of science and social studies topics. On Thursday, our minimum day, I saw each class for one hour of mathematics instruction only, and these were often the days that I chose to utilize the learning stations.