Andrew Campanella: Your school is a place where each student has a voice. Tell me how that plays out in your everyday school atmosphere at Plato Academy and what the results have been.
Marianthi Koritsaris: [In the classroom setting] children don’t need to raise their hand to speak; we use a Socratic method of exchanging ideas. Kids feel that they can venture a comment without the risk of being wrong. Also, kids can’t hide in the back, because everyone is part of conversations and equally involved with the teacher. Also, they’re in a mixed age group, so if you’re a sixth grader who is high achieving, you might be in the sixth, seventh, eighth grade mix. So you’re going to be pretty challenged. Each student, regardless of grade, rises to the challenges of the curriculum based on their own abilities.
Maria Bolos: And they’re in an environment that supports them as an individual learner. If a child as young as kindergarten age isn’t reading, in a traditional environment the alarm may sound. More often than not they just need time to develop, the same way that kids don’t all walk at the same age.When given time to develop at their own pace, students are honored as an individual. They’re not made to feel as though they need to be pulled out or they’re not meeting expectations. They’re celebrated for the successes they are making, and we’re keeping a close eye to make sure each kid is progressing academically and socially.
Andrew: How do you find teachers who will help you carry out your vision?
Marianthi: We have a very strong mentor program. When a teacher is hired, they’re hired more so on a philosophy that they can articulate that aligns with ours. Then we work pretty intensely: We have a teacher mentor who’s here one day a week who literally takes the new teachers under her wing, along with Maria, me, and other teachers who have been here for a while. And it is a process, you know? It is difficult to not be handed a script and to really have to delve into what the curriculum means.
Our teachers have this aha moment at some point, then things change and they see themselves as learners as well as teachers. They see themselves as mentors as opposed to the person who stands in front of the room.
Andrew: One of the misconceptions about private schools is that they exclude students. But you purposely include people. Tell me more about why that is important to you.
Marianthi: If we’re going to prepare kids for the real world, in the real world you don’t pick and choose who you’re going to work with, who is going to be in your neighborhood living with you. Kids need to form communities with a diverse group of people.
Community building really is rooted in making memories together. So the way a classroom becomes a community is not by defining who is in that community and how they’re different from each other, although we certainly appreciate and celebrate differences. It’s really about what binds us together.
Like when there was a field trip and the bus was late and the kids had to wait and everybody was getting nervous. Then they came back to school and all talked about that for the next week. All of the memories they’re making, whether intentional or impromptu, are contributing to their sense of community. When you have a sense of community, you care about the people in that community.
We’re also unique in that even though we don’t have a very vibrant scholarship fund, we find ways to make sure that any family who wants to be here, can be here. We don’t want anyone to leave because they can’t afford to be here. If they want to be here, then the board is committed to helping them be here. I think that’s pretty unique for a private school.
Andrew: Tell me more about how your homework policy came to be, and how you believe that limiting screen time and doing things with the family is more beneficial than loading kids up with hours of worksheets?
Marianthi: The homework policy actually arose from us reading a book called The Homework Myth, written by Alfie Kohn, where he cites all of the research that confirms that student achievement is not aligned with the amount of homework they get. When we read the research, we implemented the practice into our school. So, that’s where our no homework policy came about.
If they’re asked to do anything at home, it’s something that’s relevant to the next day’s activities. If little kids are going to be graphing how many pairs of shoes each family has in their closets, they’re going home and counting all the shoes, because it’s meaningful to them. It’s not just busy work, it’s not worksheets. We do believe that family time is really, really important, and that kids should be engaged in those activities as well as outdoor activities and playing after school.
Andrew: How do you celebrate School Choice Week at Plato Academy?
Maria: We start with a conversation in the classroom about what school choice means to them. All the kids save their scarves from year to year. When new scarves get distributed to our new students and staff, we practice the School Choice Week dance together in the gym and unite. Really it’s a conversation: posters get hung up around our school, facing inside and outside, so the passersby and parents can see those bright yellow signs. We also send out information to parents, so that the conversation can continue at home.
Andrew Campanella is president of National School Choice Week.
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