Andrew Campanella: How does your focus on authentic learning and relevant real world problem solving play out at Coyote Springs Elementary School?
Candice Stump, principal at Coyote Springs Elementary School: That is definitely one thing that sets us apart because we really value students’ voices and choice and giving them opportunities to apply and synthesize their learning in project and problem-based opportunities. We find it is really the best way to assess them as far as their strengths and what it is that we need to do to accelerate them and enrich them. As an example, we have an outdoor habitat that has a garden in it. We’re actually a certified garden through the State. In Arizona, one of our problems is water. A few years we went through a pretty significant drought and weren’t able to sustain watering our garden because that takes a lot of money. Our kids came up with a solution to that. We posed that problem to them, and they decided that it would be a good idea if we had a way to harvest rainwater. So, they did a lot of research. They drove by places and saw some big tanks that were not being used and asked individuals if we could have them. Our students built rainwater harvesting tanks and now we have two of them in our habitat. They integrated measurements on them so they know how full the tanks are, and they’re all marked using conversions with decimals and fractions and percentages. It’s really pretty cool.
Pam Clark, Instructional Specialist: Also, we have a news station. Instead of doing announcements, we have sixth grade and fifth grade reporters that go out and video interview people for the morning school news. So, we’re always looking for real-life problems that they can tackle and figure out a way to solve. For a lot of our seating in our classrooms, the students actually decided what the best learning environment would be. How would it look? What kind of furniture would we have? We were able to create some classrooms that do look like what they imagined and what they thought would be best for their learning.
Andrew: Do you find that setting high expectations for kids and treating them with respect is important for helping them take on these really advanced roles in elementary school?
Candice: Absolutely. We listen to the kids. That gives them value and meaning. They are in elementary school, but, you know what? Elementary school kids can change the world, too. Some of the practices that they’re talking about and doing, they’re going to take on. We see this with our kids that move into middle school and high school. Our kids are the student council representatives. Our kids are the kids that go into some of the vocational trainings. Our kids are the ones that graduate top of their classes. I hear this not just in looking at data, but from the principals. They say, ‘We can tell your kid from any other kid in the district simply because of how they apply the C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and community connections.’ They’re able to synthesize their learning around those.
Andrew: What do you think are some common misconceptions about traditional public schools?
Candice: There are so many, right? I’m a huge advocate of public schools and we do have those barriers to overcome. Public education is for all kids and that goes both ways as far as parent perspective is concerned.
Some parents really want [their kids] to only be surrounded by the upper five percent of the kids. We’re about educating every kid. We’re a co-teaching school. We’re an inclusive school. All of our kids get the opportunity, third through sixth grade, to be gifted and talented or what we would refer to as enriched. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions that for a good education you have to skim the top and only have those kids attend the schools.
Pam: I can’t help but think of how in our fifth grade, every child was given the opportunity to go fly an airplane. Not because you scored a certain number on a test, but because we believe that every child should have the opportunity. We work hard at that.
Andrew: Can you tell me more about fifth-graders getting a chance to fly?
Candice: We partner with the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Universities. We’re able to take our kids to a campus and have them do flight simulations there. That changes the lives of some kids. One of our kids that is a down syndrome child and she lacks confidence. She hasn’t been in an inclusionary school her whole life, so we’re trying to make sure that we’re building her confidence and getting her out there to explore and have these learning opportunities. When she flew that airplane it changed her whole self. She used to slunch over and not make eye contact. She stands straight now. She’ll look you in the eyes now. It was just an amazing opportunity.
Andrew: Why do you participate in National School Choice Week every year?
Candice: We love National School Choice Week. It gives us an opportunity to celebrate everyone who chooses to come to Coyote Springs Elementary School. It gives us a week to celebrate all the great things that are happening at our school and it’s really a nice opportunity to do some more PR, to take those pictures and put them on social media and get some press in the local area. It’s also about listening to the kids. That’s really what it’s about. The kids’ voices and their happiness. They want to come to school. They love their teachers. They love learning . It’s just a neat place to be. [The Week] helps us to remember that it is really about choice and that we need to take the time to stop and celebrate that because we can get hunched in the grind of things. So, I appreciate that aspect and the kids always love getting the yellow scarves. It makes them super happy.
Andrew Campanella is president of National School Choice Week.
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