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The Networked School

August 29, 2011 Leave a comment

In 2002, I visited my step daughter in who was living in Calaveras County CA. Her best friend’s mother was the founder of Mountain Oaks School, a home-school hybrid that came into existence thanks to this woman’s initiative and the resourcefulness of the local Superintendent. This Education Week article describes this “networked school”. Many of the ideas that are championed in these posts emerged from that chance encounter.

The Networked School

I’ve seen the future of public education in the foothills of the Sierras. Mountain Oaks School, located in an industrial park just outside San Andreas, California, is the kind of personalized public school that will spring up from coast-to-coast as traditional public schools are forced to narrow their curriculum and eliminate programs due to mandated testing and budget constraints. Founded nine years ago, Mountain Oaks School is a flexible web-like networked school that is far more effective and much more appealing to parents and students than the rigid hierarchical factory school design that often typifies public education today.

In the early 1990s, Calaveras County Associate Superintendent Ron Lewis had concern for the home-schooling families who contributed to public schools as taxpayers but were not receiving any benefits. He commissioned two homeschool parents to research what the homeschooling families in the area would want and need from a public institution. These two parents, Linda Mariani and Nancy McKone, were certified teachers who educated their children and neighbors’ children at home because they appreciated the positive effects homeschooling had on their children and family life.  Ms. Mariani and Ms. McKone met ace-to-face with scores of homeschooling families and generated reams of information that served as the basis for the their report. The design for Mountain Oaks School emerged from their findings.

Mountain Oaks School, which now serves 379 students in grades K-12, has no classrooms, no formally scheduled classes, no formal discipline code, no classroom teachers, and no report cards. Instead of these traditional trappings of “school”, Mountain Oaks provides homeschooling parents with a network of services and homeschooled students with a network of learning opportunities

Mountain Oaks is situated in two small warehouses and every inch of space is put to use. The first floor of the two-story “lower building” includes an office that also serves as a student-mentor teacher meeting space; a 12-station computer lab in a long, narrow, corridor-like space; a conference/seminar/classroom; a mailroom; and a 400 square foot library. While the library is undersized by conventional standards, shelves full of books and resource material line every available wall space on both stories of the lower building. The second floor of the “lower building” consists of 6 faculty office spaces of varying sizes and configurations and a larger conference/seminar/classroom/kitchen room. The “upper building” houses an art studio, a lounge for secondary students, and lots of storage space for consumable learning materials that students and parents can access when they wish using an honor system.

Overcrowding isn’t an issue at Mountain Oaks despite the small physical plant because the 379 students enrolled in the school are never in attendance at one time. Instead of scheduling “classes” that meet regularly, Mountain Oaks schedules ad hoc workshops that meet as needed and where needed.  The topics of the workshops range from formal instruction in Foreign Language and preparation seminars for California’s High School exit examinations to introductory units in crafts and interdisciplinary lessons in poetry, geography and art. The workshops are often held off-campus in private homes, in nearby public parks, or in community centers. These workshops are offered for parents and students, in some cases together and in other cases separately. Most of the workshops are offered to multi-aged groups of students, recognizing that 12 and 18 years olds can learn introductory pottery skills or foreign languages together and children of all ages can sing or play instruments together. The workshops not only teach academic content, but also provide students with an opportunity to develop social skills and meet with peers.

There are no classroom teachers at Mountain Oaks. Instead, there is a faculty of mentor-teachers, each of whom is assigned up to 25 students. These mentor-teachers, who serve as a combination case manager/counselor/guide for the student and parent, are assigned to the student by an intake team based on the student’s personal and academic needs, the student’s learning style, and the kind of instructional approach desired by the parent. Mentor teachers work with students for varied time periods. Some mentor teachers have worked with the same student for the nine years the school has been in operation; others work for a semester at a time. Students have the option to change mentor-teachers at the end of a semester if the parents or student’s needs are not being met. The mentor teachers accept these reassignments, realizing that the fit between the teacher, student, and parent is crucial to the student’s success, and realizing that as a student matures and interests develop, the fit may change.

At the beginning of each semester, the mentor teacher helps the parent and student develop a personalized learning plan which defines the learning standards the student will master in the coming weeks and the means of measuring progress toward that standard. At periodic meetings throughout the semester, the mentor teacher assists the parent and student in monitoring the student’s progress toward the attainment of the standards they set for themselves and provides direct supplementary instruction or appropriate instructional materials as needed. At the end of each semester, the mentor teacher, student and parent, develop grades for the student’s performance using appropriate rubrics agreed upon at the beginning of the semester.

This holistic performance assessment takes the place of a traditional grading system. Since the students and parents are directly involved in planning the work for the semester, there are no students who fail. Modifications, adjustments, and redirection can happen at anytime during the semester to meet individual needs and interests. One by-product of the Mountain Oaks grading system is the absence of competition between students. Discussions about “Whatja get?” are non-existent. Instead, students ask, “What are you studying?” This grading system doesn’t work for every student. A few students realize they are not committed to the independent learning process and decide to go back to a model where there is more external control. The majority of students who attend Mountain Oaks, though, welcome the opportunity to learn at their own pace in their own way.

Mountain Oaks is like a traditional public school in two respects: it offers a wide array of extra-curricular activities for students and it has varied demographics. Mountain Oaks has inter-scholastic and intra-mural athletic teams, an Academic Decathlon squad, a school newspaper and yearbook, and many special interest clubs sponsored by interested parents and community members. The demographics of Mountain Oaks are similar to the nearby public schools. Roughly 1/3 of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches and many of its students were or would be identified as handicapped in a traditional school setting. Students come from single parent families and families where both parents work.

The most striking difference between Mountain Oaks School and the typical public school is the level of parent involvement.  Mountain Oak School parents want to provide an educational program that meets their children’s unique needs and they believe that the traditional public school cannot do that as well as they can. Before enrolling in Mountain Oaks, each parent commits to working four hours per month for the school. In keeping with California’s Independent Study guidelines, the parents agree to provide a minimum of four hours a day of supervised instruction for the core subjects for their child. This instruction can take place at home, on campus, or in some other venue. At first blush, this appears to be an unreasonable expectation for a parent, but since students are so engaged in their learning process and not limited to working during the normal school day, the four-hour commitment is much less onerous. The internet and the Mountain Oaks’ warehouse are full of instructional materials, and the student’s mentor-teacher, Mountain Oaks parent volunteers, and the Mountain Oaks staff have a network of resources to support the parent’s effort.

As budget crises force districts to reduce the length of the school year, to limit the number of elective courses and extra-curricular activities, and to abandon popular programs such as enrichment and elementary art and music, public schools will become less inviting and less personal. As the institution of NCLB forces all schools to narrow their curriculum focus to boost test scores, they will find it more difficult to meet the unique needs of individual students. Mountain Oaks School offers a low cost, high performing alternative to the traditional public school. It replaces the rigid factory design with a flexible network design. It replaces a one-size-fits all mentality with a customer focus. It replaces a regulatory environment with a nurturing one. It replaces an Industrial Age organizational pattern with one for the Information Age. In Calaveras County, the School Board and administration found a way to merge the homeschooling movement with public schooling and they encouraged homeschooling parents to design their own learning environment. If public schools hold fast to the factory school model, their school buildings will soon be as empty and forlorn as the steel mills in the Rust Belt. If public schools are open to new ideas, they may redefine “school” and find a powerful way to connect with students and parents. It happened in the foothills of the Sierras. It can happen in your community.

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