In a brightly lighted classroom overlooked by a treehouse-like corner loft, two dozen first-graders worked on a reading and writing project, intently and quietly.
Sitting at semi-circular tables, their attention focused by cardboard trifolds set up in front of them, the students listed similarities and differences between two characters in stories they had just heard: Shy Charles and The Critter.
“Both animals,” Callie Hill wrote under similarities; under differences, “Not both nice.”
As quiet and attentive as they were now, minutes earlier the students had filled the room with chatter, telling each other how the characters were alike and different. Teacher Sana Amash had prepped them to think about these comparisons while reading the two stories in a lively voice.
Now she roamed the room, stopping to help one boy with spelling and comparing. But for the most part the students worked on their own, studiously. When done with the exercise, some wrote, read or drew independently.
“Think about what you know about narrative stories,” Amash urged the class. “What can animals do in narrative stories?”
This is how learning works at Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, a K-5 public school just south of downtown Grand Rapids. Students learn not just from teachers but from each other, in a network of relationships aimed to enhance each child’s creative potential.
‘We don’t need to fill them, we don’t need to fix them. They come to us already whole.’ — Executive Director Lisa Heyne
Now in its 20th year, the school of about 275 students employs the Reggio Emilia approach to education, a collaborative, early-childhood model born in Italy after World War II. It is unique in Kent County – and rare in Michigan — as a charter school affiliated with a public school district, Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Related story: A rare charter partnership: Autonomous but accountable
Of the state’s nearly 300 charter schools serving 150,000 students, only 25 are authorized by local school districts. Most are authorized by colleges or universities such as Grand Valley State University, which authorizes 62.
Not in Competition with GRPS
Affiliation with GRPS doesn’t change how the school operates as a charter, state-funded schools governed by their own private boards, said Buddy Moorehouse, a spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.
“I do know it enjoys a really good reputation in Grand Rapids, and it’s definitely been around the longest of a lot of (charter) schools in Michigan,” Moorehouse added.
Founded in 2000, and chartered by GRPS, GRCDC has a relationship of “mutual support and partnership” with the district, said Lisa Heyne, the school’s executive director and superintendent. That distinguishes the nonprofit school from most charters, including for-profit ones, which compete for students with traditional public schools, Heyne said.
“We don’t see ourselves in competition with GRPS,” said Heyne, in her second year heading the school. “Our desire for us to mutually raise each other’s effectiveness makes us really different than other charter organizations.
“This truly is a single-building school district,” she added. “We’re not trying to coordinate with anything other than our philosophy and what we think is best for kids.”
Children of 100 Languages
The philosophy is inspired by the Reggio method, which prioritizes the rich variety of children’s individual gifts, the importance of relationships and the tailoring of each classroom to its students’ needs.
Take fourth-graders Emersyn Hill and Brennan Workman. One morning earlier this semester, they sprawled side-by-side on Courtney Douglas’ classroom floor, writing reflections on a book they’d read about Sojourner Truth. Brennan summed up his takeaway like so:
“Always stand up for what you believe in. If you don’t stand up for what you believe in, the thing you believe in could disappear. If you don’t speak up against slavery, then slavery will never end.”
Insightful for a fourth-grader? It’s the kind of thinking expected of students here, where children help guide the curriculum and are seen as “strong, rich in potential, and powerful,” as the school website puts it.
“We don’t need to fill them, we don’t need to fix them. They come to us already whole,” said Heyne, who previously was a St. Louis middle school principal and a national leadership consultant for Teach for America. “Our job is to understand what their unique set of languages is.”
She referred to what Reggio founder Loris Malaguzzi called “the 100 languages” – “the infinite ways that children can express, explore, and connect their thoughts, feelings and imaginings.” Said Heyne, “At this school, we try to elevate the 100 ways of knowing and being.”
Students are encouraged in their 100 ways with colorful hallway displays of their work, classroom set-ups that reflect their unique learning experiences, and yearlong class projects. This year’s fourth-graders designed a mural for a wall outside the school, working with the city and Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association on design approval and fundraising.
Relationships Come First
A GRCDC core value is the relationships among students, parents and teachers. That means lots of parent involvement along with 12 classroom teachers, six paraprofessionals, art, movement and special education teachers, and itinerant GRPS specialists including a social worker and occupational therapist. Class sizes are capped at 24 students.
Kindergarten teacher Molly Parker has taught here for 17 years. Her classroom layout includes group desks and a loft so students can lie on their tummies. No neat rows of desks filled with silent students here.
“We know kids don’t learn that way,” Parker said. “Kids need to move, they need to think, they need to talk.”
She says it’s been a challenging year, with new curricula in social studies, science and math squeezing into the Reggio model. But she hews to the philosophy with methods like the “peace path,” where students settle differences by walking toward each other, stating their feelings and fist-bumping. It’s an example of how Reggio prepares students to solve problems, speak up and navigate the world, Parker said.
“It’s in their pocket,” she said. “It’s a skill thing they taken with them everywhere they go. It’s the Reggio way.”