Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Francine Delaney Charter School: Asheville, NC

Francine Delaney is a unique model for a public school: the teachers run the school (literally). There is no administration apart from the teachers themselves: they make all of the budget decisions, set the curriculum and the calendars, and make all decisions about their individual classrooms. As such, they have attracted and maintained a core group of highly committed, energetic and idealistic teacher-leaders who guide the school on both a macro and micro scale.

The school's round, modular-type buildings were built by a local green building company, Deltec. Pieces are shipped and seamed together on site. They use green building techniques and have a zero waste policy. The buildings are rounded and fit two large, airy-but-cozy classrooms to a floor. The space allows for nooks and crannies for a diversity of work spaces, with an open lay-out where the teachers can easily keep an eye on all of their students.

When we walked into the 5th grade classroom, I wanted to stay. It was reading time, and children obviously had the freedom to choose the environment that worked best for their individual needs.  There was one child, sitting by himself at a small desk overlooking the sunny yard, with a cluster of wind chimes over his head and a beautiful stained glass window. All of the other children were sitting in groups of two to four at round tables. One teacher was sitting on a small couch, working one on one with a reader. Another teacher was at another small table, working with two students. The room was quiet, except for hushed conversations. The walls were curved, holding the students in a really nice way. I thought of Waldorf school where the classrooms are as absent of right angles as possible, especially in the younger grades.

Evidence of high-quality and engaging lessons were all over the school. Next to a weather observation station outside the 7th grade classroom, our tour guide related that the class had built a weather balloon that recorded video and weather information from its release all the way into the stratosphere where it finally popped. It had a GPS aboard, so the children were able to track down and recover their prodigal balloon and analyze the data it had recorded.

Inside the 7th grade classroom the students were focused on their work writing assignment, soft music playing in the background. Their teacher spoke about the extreme freedom and responsibility that comes with the job. Every day, she incorporates music and movement in scheduled study breaks. For a long time she thought it would be too disruptive, but she's realized that it helps her students really be able to "drop in" to their academic work. Each day she follows a different workout routine: the seven minute workout from the NYTimes, Beyonce's dance workout designed for  Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign. Their teacher said it totally changed her classroom dynamic.

All special education services are push-in (served within the whole class environment) except for services such as physical and occupational therapy. The school originally used the free & reduced lunch program, but the reimbursement was so low that they decided to support needy families from their budget. Now, families in need are given a $50 gift card per child per month for the local grocery store. The school works very intensively with supporting overall health & nutrition of the students and their families. One parent bought the house adjacent to the campus, tore down the fence in the backyard, and turned it into a community garden. All students have access, and teachers incorporate work in the garden into lessons.

Our guide, a former parent and teacher herself, stated that often times charter schools struggle because they are started by parents who don't really understand everything that it takes to make a school successful. Here, the teachers really understand what it means to have great teaching happen. Every week there are directorate meanings and/or staff development meetings, so the teachers are all on the same page. Because the school is located in the city, teachers have the access to bring their students on regular trips. The 6th grade class was empty because the students were volunteering at the local food bank.

Francine Delaney was founded in 1997, the first year that North Carolina allowed public charter schools. Teachers set the class size because they create the budget. This year, they lost $20,000 dollars from the state. So instead of 17 students, there were 18 students per class/grade. To fit the budget, it came to either taking away their own dental insurance or increasing the class size, and I think rightfully they decided to admit another child per class. Still, 18 students is quite small for a public school classroom (as a reference point, I had 33 7th and 8th grade students per class last year). Because the school doesn't have to budget for administrator salaries, they can afford to keep class sizes reasonable.

Toward the end of our tour, a parent assisting the art class looking up from helping a student and, mistaking us for parents, told us: "It's the best place in the world. Good luck on winning the lottery!" I'm so grateful that I'm not in that particularly heart-wrenching rat-race right now.

Thank you for your excellent hosting, Francine Delaney! 

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