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'A thinking school'

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AT WORK: Malachi Beck works on a math lesson in Ashley Scales’ first grade class at the Dr. Robert H. Faulkner Academy on Friday.
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TEAM EFFORT: Marquita Coleman works with students in her fifth and sixth grade class at the Dr. Robert H. Faulkner Academy on Friday.

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

The Robert H. Faulkner Academy was the only school of the 27 Ball State University charter schools to receive an A rating from the Indiana Department of Education this year.

The Chronicle-Tribune sat down with some of Faulkner’s staff to get a better idea of what makes this brick and mortar charter school so successful.

When called for an interview Janice Adams, school leader, was in the middle of working with kids, even though she is the charter school equivalent of principal.

Adams insisted in including her team of teaching staff for the interview, not just her. Time and again she emphasized that everything at Faulkner Academy is a team effort. For example, the school’s food service director, Jim Henry, is also an organizing member of the school.

Henry doesn’t stay down in the basement, where the school’s cafeteria is. When he isn’t cooking breakfast or lunch for students, he’s often up in classrooms helping out with lessons and developing relationships with the students.

For the interview Adams, Henry, and three of the teaching staff sat in the cafeteria in small blue plastic chairs, the ones that seat you no more than a foot off the ground.

They described a philosophy that combines teamwork on the part of teachers with the educational philosophies of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli cognitive psychologist who is known for his central theses that intelligence is modifiable and everyone can learn.

Marquita Coleman, who teaches fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, said that part of the this educational philosophy is metacognition, or thinking about your thinking. In teaching, this means using “different instruments that address different parts of the psyche,” she said.

Kids start this process already in kindergarten, learning to connect dots on a piece of paper. It sounds simple, but kindergarten teacher Michelle Choice said the dots activity is already training children to think differently than they have had to before school.

“It forces them to slow their thinking down,” she said. And it teaches them the basic expectations of school, that they will be expected to sit down and spend time thinking and focusing when they’re in class.

By training kids at the metacognitive level to think about their own thought processes, they can develop thinking strategies for every area of school and beyond.

“It’s not just an academic thing,” Choice said. It also helps them think about their own behavioral issues, and even the cultural and political events happening around them. Students and teachers can discuss politics in the classroom without the teachers showing bias, and students learn to explain how they think through issues.

“Metacognition gives them a voice,” Choice said. Students don’t have to feel trapped if they don’t know something; they learn it’s okay to say, “Let me think about it,” instead.

“All this undergirds the whole idea that we’re a thinking school,” Adams said.

Choice of words is crucial to the program.

Adams, for example, is called the “school leader,” not the principal. She said this is common terminology among charter school administrations.

“What it means is that I’m not the typical principal who stays in their office,” Adams said. She said she would also call herself an “instructional leader,” and can often be found teaching or helping out in classrooms.

Students are called “scholars,” as well. “We call them what we want them to become,” Adams added.

Another common phrase in the halls of Faulkner is “work of excellence.”

“A student will come up to me with their work and I’ll ask, ‘Is this work of excellence?’ and they’ll say, ‘No,’ and go back and work on it some more until they can tell me yes, this is work of excellence,” Adams said.

Paul Getts, Faulkner’s third grade teacher, said this terminology is important because it sets the same high standard for all students, while allowing each student to reach his or her different potential.

When teachers progress through lessons, they are careful about calling problems “more complex” instead of “harder.” This too is part of the school’s “thinking” philosophy. A new problem is often only “harder” to a child because it requires more steps in the thought process.  

Transparency and teamwork round out the school’s approach to teaching.

First of all, Getts says, they are transparent because they want kids to be on board with what they are doing every day in class. That’s why they share data and explain the tests and tests scores to the students.

“They understand the NWEA data and the ISTEP. They can tell you if they’re above or below the benchmark,” Getts said.

If a student is reading above their grade level, teachers will have a conversation about giving them higher level work in front of the other students in the class.

Adams believes this transparency has a positive effect on students.

“I don’t know any kid that doesn’t want to be successful,” she said.

The teaching staff strives to be transparent about their own issues too, and if they encounter a problem while teaching, they’ll show the kids how they problem solve on the spot, explaining their thinking.

Adams and all the teaching staff take notes constantly while they are teaching, and don’t hesitate to show the students what they, the teachers, are learning.

“We learn as much every day as the students learn everyday,” Getts said.

“Teachers are constantly reflecting not as much on the kids as on how they are teaching,” Adams said.

Not only that, but teachers are in contact with one another throughout the school day, helping each other, swapping ideas, giving critique and ensuring every teacher keeps relationships with students across the school, not just in their grade level.

“Nothing we do here is in isolation,” Adams said.

Ten years after the founding of Faulkner Academy, some of school’s first classes of students are high school graduates now. Faulkner has alumni who are now at Howard University and University of Michigan. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made charter schools a national talking point again with her history of advocacy for charter and private schools, combined with President Donald Trump’s campaign promise of a national school voucher program. However, even those who work at a charter school haven’t necessarily signed onto DeVos’s or Trump’s plans.

Getts said of DeVos: “She’s gung-ho for charter schools, but she’s not gung-ho for accountability.”

Adams said her work doesn’t have to do with supporting charter schools as a broader movement. For her, it’s all about this particular charter school, Faulkner Academy.

“If we were not the charter school that we are, I would not be here,” she said.

When asked why she thinks her school has been so much more successful than other charter schools in the Ball State University group, Adams said she didn’t know what the other schools were doing in the classroom, so she couldn’t speak to the difference. But what she does know is Faulkner is consistent in everything they do.

That consistency begins with a teaching philosophy that spans all grade levels, but translates to how the teachers conduct relationships with students, with one another, and even how they chose to be interviewed, seated around a cafeteria table in kid’s chairs.

Faulkner has faced some challenges in the past, with a difficult first few years culminating in accusations against the school in 2013 which were eventually dismissed. Now the strongest school in Ball State’s group of charters, it seems they are doing “work of excellence” in 2018.