What I Learned at a Charter School

Christine Cohen, Jeanne Schultz, and Bonnie Bowes

I was invited to spend a little time at the River Valley Charter School in Newburyport, MA, thanks to Christine Cohen. We knew each other by Twitter, and she was responding to my post about how new ideas could change education. Christine wanted to show me that charter schools offer one potential solution for rethinking education. She introduced me to Jeanne Schultz, and Bonnie Bowes, who were equally passionate about the school (which has been around for 10 or 11 years).

Quick note: I have no idea what arguments exist between public school advocates and charter advocates, between Montessori learners (which the River Valley Charter School practices), and I’m not interested in that argument. What I want to talk about is what I heard from the kids.

We stopped a girl in the third grade in the hall and asked what she thought of the school. She was pleased to report that math and writing are her favorite parts. The classrooms are multi-age (after Kindergarten) and it was clear that this was a useful well to help a child go from learning to execution to mastery (and teaching).

To say that the way Montessori folks learn in ways quite different than mainstream US public school methods is like saying, “there were kids in the rooms of both places,” and that’s about it. They learn from experience sharing. They learn from tactile situations. For instance, one classroom was growing their own salmon from eggs so that they could be released into New Hampshire streams when they were ready. They’re also sharing the project with a sister school in Ireland, so that there’s a lot to share and learn from both groups. I don’t remember doing this in fourth grade (or any grade). You?

Where I really got excited was when I talked to the 8th graders. They were in the spot where they were about to transition out, to graduate, and then land in the mainstream public school system (mostly). Here’s the part to take note of, for I feel it tells the most about our business world, our higher education world, and how we have to retool:

  • In all cases, the five 8th graders in talked with were smart and VERY interested in learning from their mistakes. Getting by wasn’t their goal. They wanted to excel.
  • In all cases, the very first concern they raised about what would happen in high school was social. They wanted to feel they were around people they know.
  • In all cases, they were concerned that they’d have a less intimate relationship with their teachers. These students felt that a strong relationship with their observers (that’s how Montessori folks teach).
  • My new friends were very much interested in the classroom sizes, citing that smaller sizes really helped them feel engaged, helped them feel seen, and helped them feel like they were making a difference.

What I learned at the River Valley Charter School was that the way I was raised, in the old public school system (I can’t vouch much for today’s system, though my kids are in it), is quite different than what these kids are learning. They will have a chance to work in different ways, will have a bit (lot?) less of that “industrialist training” flavor of public school intact. It’s going to be an interesting world where kids are actually raised to handle the kinds of jobs that exist out there right now (multi-faceted, multi-team, smaller system, etc).

I’m curious to know your experience with all this. Your thoughts, your feelings. Have you sent your kids to a charter or Montessori school? What will you take from this? What do you think about education today? (From the non-US is very welcome on this, too. I just stressed repeatedly the US perspective because I know even less about other culture’s education systems.)

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