Looking forward to project-based learning while meeting mandates
By Jeanne Tao
An ominous sky threatened a downpour on the first day of school in Garrison Wednesday morning (Sept. 5), as buses waited to drop off students, and a welcome committee, including the school’s mascot — the cougar, gathered by a blue-and-white balloon arch and welcome signs. The rain abated until, in perfect timing, the last of the busloads entered Garrison Union Free School.
School staff worked hard over the summer in preparation for this day. All classroom furniture was moved into the hallways so that the rooms could be cleaned and polished, grounds equipment and sheds moved to make more play space for kindergarteners, and floors given final coats of wax. The main office was busy registering new students and meeting families, with an increase in enrollment in the elementary school. The Philipstown Garden Club volunteered throughout the summer to maintain the school’s learning garden. Teachers came in all during August to set up classrooms, while educational teams prepared for new initiatives.
When teachers came back the day before the students for a superintendent’s conference day, they attended professional development on project-based learning, one of the new initiatives at Garrison School this academic year. The aim of the initiative, said Superintendent Gloria Colucci, is to engage students and get them actively involved while still developing their skills.
Through project-based learning, Garrison’s educators hope to fully integrate technology, the library, and art into the curriculum. Principal Stephanie Impellittiere explained that one teacher, who is not technically a librarian, will work specifically with classroom teachers on curriculum-based projects.
“The idea is to have hands-on learning and applications,” Impellittiere said. She gave the example of understanding area and perimeter: applying that skill to real life by measuring the sides of a room and figuring out how much rug is needed in order to master the concept. She also hopes that the projects will boost student test performance, especially in English language arts (ELA). “While [the scores are] good, I still think that we can do better.”
For this initiative, the school’s library was given a makeover during the summer, with the help of a task force that included a library specialist from Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES, who also conducted the professional-development session on project-based learning Tuesday. Hoping to make the library more user-friendly, the school has separated it into two sections, with tables and ample workspace for middle-school students in the front and an elementary section beyond that. The reference section that used to hold encyclopedias on the front wall now showcases high-interest books for middle-schoolers, since there is less need for a large reference section with computers and the Internet available.
Dignity for All Students Act
While the school already has anti-bullying programs, including regular guidance classes for all students, Garrison School must also make sure it complies with the state’s Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which was signed into law in 2010 and went into effect in July of this year. Guidance Counselor Michael Williams is the designated Dignity Act Coordinator, with whom members of the school community may discuss harassment or discrimination and who coordinates training of students and teaching staff on diversity and bullying.
This may comfort at least one couple, parents of a student at Garrison School who wish to remain unnamed. While they recognize the school’s hard work, mentioning in particular the good teachers their daughter has had and the support for students who need special help, they have concerns about bullying, especially on the bus. They acknowledged, however, that bullying might be a problem that all schools experience now.
Garrison Middle School continues to offer accelerated math for its eighth-grade students, giving them the opportunity to take a high-school-level algebra class, sit for the New York Regents Exam, and receive high-school credit. This year, the school will begin an accelerated science program as well, allowing students a chance to take a high-school-level science course.
Last year, the Garrison Children’s Education Fund, a nonprofit that supports initiatives at Garrison School, gave students the opportunity to take a grant-writing course. An adult in the community facilitated the after-school class, and three grants were awarded as a result, one for art and two for gardening and sustainability, including plans to build a greenhouse. These projects will begin this academic year.
Teacher and principal evaluation
One of the challenges all schools face this year is the new teacher and principal evaluation system, New York’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), mandated by a state law passed in March this year. Garrison School is no exception and is currently in the process of finalizing its APPR.
The law requires that 40 percent of a teacher or principal’s evaluation be based on student performance: 20 points based on state test scores, and 20 points on other, locally determined assessments (such as AIMSweb assessments for ELA and math, which Garrison currently uses to inform instruction). Other assessments, which comprise all 40 points for teachers of subjects for which there are no state tests, must be determined by districts and schools, often in the form of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs). Developing these SLOs means a long process that continues over several faculty meetings and conference days.
The other 60 percent of the evaluation is based upon other measures of effectiveness that show whether the teacher or principal meets state standards. For the past year, Garrison School’s Race to the Top committee, made up of four teachers along with the superintendent and principal, has been meeting to select a rubric for teacher evaluations and have chosen Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. Most of the data for this part of the evaluation will come from formal observations.
“It’s a shift for our teachers,” said Colucci, “just being evaluated in a different way, and much more frequent evaluations … so that’s probably the biggest challenge for us.”
Impellittiere concurred. “It’s a lot. It’s a challenge. But I still feel strongly about creating an atmosphere where learning is important.” The principal stresses creativity, which is why she looks forward to seeing project-based learning in effect this school year. “Learning is not all about textbooks, and learning is not all about data-driven instruction. There’s a huge piece to that that’s important, but it shouldn’t be what drives us.”
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