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Free to Learn Chapters 1-4
Kathi Sweere
Posted: Monday, October 8, 2007 8:46 PM
Joined: 10/7/2007
Posts: 4

I am the type of person that has to start at the beginning of a book, so I read the introduction to chapter four. One of the things that amazed me about the charter schools discussed in these chapters were the similarities. All of them set high expectations for their students. Leadership at each is strong. All teachers hired were quality teachers and professional development of meeting with colleagues was used. The curriculum at each was standards based. Test scores were used at each as a diagnostic tool and all tested often. All of the schools emphasized parental involvement and had an extended day policy of intervention to aide struggling students. Two of the schools, Sixth Street Prep and Montague Charter School, used direct instruction teaching methodology and curricula emphasizing practice and review. These chapters emphasized instructional strategies that are well researched to produce results. The similarities made me reflect upon the school where I work both for the strengths in our curriculum and what can be done to improve to aide our students.

Monica Kuhlman
Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2007 6:47 PM
Joined: 10/10/2007
Posts: 1

I too was struck by the similarities between the schools, especially in curriculum, the "spiral" approach to learning, and teacher involvement. I suspect it will be a common theme throughout all the schools we're going to read about. All the schools were big on data supporting their decisions and it appears that what they're doing is working, which leads me to ponder why public schools can't emulate charter schools?

I was curious if the schools had waiting lists to enroll and did they dismiss kids who weren't performing to the school's standards?  I've heard people argue that certain charter schools perform so well  because the low achievers are not invited back and the school is able to attract and retain higher achieving students. While I don't subscribe to this argument, I do wonder if it has any validity? Any opinions?

Sloan Powell
Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2007 9:18 PM
Joined: 10/16/2007
Posts: 2

I would like to echo the previous posts in noting the similarities among the schools - from the direct instruction methods with frequent review, to the data analysis driving future instruction. 

One aspect that struck me was the meaningful parental involvement and parental support at the schools. The K-3 teachers at Sixth Street Prep going from a parent compact, requiring an hour a month of service at the school, to meeting with the parents twice a month to address specifics of their child's progress was interesting.  The parents must think it's important with eighty-five percent parent participation.  I especially liked that the principal refused to join the "blame game" and not blame the parents or their students' socioeconomic situations for the students' low test scores.  Their use of Ruby Payne's work makes me want to learn more about that.

The principal of Montague also talks of the staff no longer blaming parents and details many programs in place for the parents of their students.  The chapter about Ernest C. Reems school ends talking about how they've created "a family" of the parents and the staff of the school.

One last thing each principal cited as an advantage for charter schools was the financial flexibility the system affords. 

Joyce Dunn
Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2007 7:18 PM
Joined: 10/8/2007
Posts: 3

I too read chapter one, just the right thing to do. 

The first thing I noticed was that all of the schools are in California.  I wondered why?  What is it about the demographics of California that has led them to be so far ahead of the game?

Each chapter opens with a profound statement made by the principal.  This statement assures you of their committment to the success of their school.  They are proud of their school and the accomplishments made.  All of the principals have high expectations of their students. 

The "no blame game" practiced at Sixth Street Prep gives way to accountability.  I like that.  I too do not want excuses, just positive results. I like a structured school climate.  The use of direct instructional teaching methodology leave little room for misunderstanding by students.  Repetition or ritual like excercises are good.  Practice does make perfect---it works.  Teacher read alouds, parent envolvement in their school academics not school activities play a big part in a child's academic success.  It is okay to provide children with incentives to excel.  It can be used a positive way to reach students.  Immersion when used early on will help to keep the classroom on course.  This immersion will make the transition to English fluency much smoother.  Check and adjust.  This is an ongoing process.  This is noted by the regular meetings held to discuss student progress.   

Montague Charter School practices structure too. Allowing the teachers to have a voice in the instructional method used would seem to have an advantage in a student's learning.  This inside knowloedge provides teachers with insight to developing instructional and educational policy. 

I do not like sit down teachers.  Teachers are meant to teach or why call them teachers.  Why do you need them?  If a child does not learn the teacher is not teaching.  Repetition, immersion, frequent assessments to determine if the classroom and student is on track is used here too.  Frequent assessments are good.  This prevents students from missing out on required studies as well as being overloaded to get those required subjects in.  I experienced this a lot in school.  Parents are kept informed about the school programs and decisions made.  This is   good.  Montague has bonded with the community.  You have a connection between the community, school and students.  This builds a village.  Frequent classroom visits, teacher meetings combined with professional standards help keep teachers on their toes.  

Character changes were much needed at Reems Charter School.  The neighborhood itself needed a character change.  The behavior problems had to be addressed before learning could start.  I have experienced this myself when trying to teach students. Having a security guard on site leaves me to imagine the different types of behavior problems they had.  Harm reduction is being practiced here.  Harm reduction is taught today in prevention classes.  This is a good thing.  The reinforcement, repetition, or practice if you will of their guiding principles develops unity amongst the school staff, and students.   It sets the day.  It says we are all starting out on the same page, on one accord.  I like the raise the bar learning tool.  Expect a little, you get a little.  Expect a lot, you get a lot.  Students will give you only what you ask of them.  It is good that the teachers here also have a voice in their students' curricula.  Again, student assessments are performed.  Here they are done at the beginning of the school year to determine proper grade placement.  Each child learns different.  Reems considers this as they use flexible teaching methods in order to meet the learning needs of students.  The school uses standards and secondary standards.  The use of secondary standards has worked at Reems since teachers do not have to re-teach as much.  Reems hires teachers that really care about the child which is a very valuable component in the academic success of students. 


Posted: Monday, October 29, 2007 6:32 PM
Joined: 10/11/2007
Posts: 2

I found the leadership styles of the principals mentioned in the Free to Learn chapters most interesting. It was apparent that they had high expectations for their students and staff members. Linda Mikel, the principal of Sixth Street Prep, was very deliberate and pragmatic in her approach to raising test scores. She developed a single focus on math to encourage student success in one content area initially. She also placed great emphasis on repeated and consistent practice to foster skill mastery. I was struck by what some might view as an over reliance on textbooks in the charter schools described in the initial chapters of the book.  

Lisa Blair, the principal at Reems Charter School, followed the non-traditional route to the principalship. Her background in business and activism for social justice seemed to have prepared her well for her role at Reems Charter School. I read with great interest how she had to start from ground zero to begin the process of constructing a school-community in an environment with little sense of hope or possible success.  


James Jennings
Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 11:15 PM
Joined: 10/5/2011
Posts: 49


Please raise these points in Saturday's session.  I would like to respond to them (dismissal of low achievers and why public schools cannot do the same).  Thanks.

James Jennings
Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 11:20 PM
Joined: 10/5/2011
Posts: 49



I think that most Charters start off by having freedom and flexibility to foster new and innovative cultures. I want to say first that Arkansas Charter laws are way way behind other states. It seems that every time the legislature changes school laws they take away more of the Charter School waivers and freedom. We must get the legislature to clarify in the laws which are for all public schools and which applies to charter schools. Because the ADE sees all public schools as including Charters as well, this then cancels our waivers.



I noticed that the Charters all have a regular if not a daily staff meeting.. I have put in place a bi- monthly staff meeting and bi-monthly Department meeting for all staff. For example, The Math chair calls a meeting for all teachers that teach math k-12. This helps get all math teachers on the same page and helps align our curriculum.


I do disagree with the parent checklist on page 10. Parents should avoid charter schools that promote weak curricula, with no textbooks provided to students. Our Charter is a Core Knowledge school and text books are used a supplements to the teachers teaching. We do provide class sets for 3-6 and 5K we use Calvert curriculum.  So I think each charter is it’s own and can not be judge to any other 100%.

(Page 45 talks a little about Core Knowledge for more information visit



I do agree that I like to hire instructors with no education background to bring in a different approach and life experiences to teaching. There is no standard learned teaching method. This really allows the teachers to be in control of their teaching methods and allows them to teach each student. It brings differential teaching to really life. It allows us to meet each student where they are and allows us to teach to understanding.


I love on page 55… excite the class…..that’s he best discipline… Love it ….



The most important tool… parent communication. If you call them with the good they will be more likely to work with you on the ugly news. Pg 61




James Jennings
Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 11:21 PM
Joined: 10/5/2011
Posts: 49



I was intrigued by the chapter entitled, “No Blame Game”.  I do think that we have a tendency to want to place blame for the inadequate preparation we see in students today.  It is as though we think that by assigning blame, the problem is solved.  When in truth where the blame lies is secondary at best. 


I do believe that poor parenting or lack of parenting altogether is a big part of the societal problem that has put education into a crisis situation.  However, knowing that does not change the situation.  We have to play the hand we are dealt.  We have to teach them where they are.  I liked Linda Mikels  “no excuses” policy.


I also liked the fact that she wanted to see concrete results.  She went back to the basics in math and concentrated on practice and “over-learning” facts so that they would become second nature.  I believe that for children who have very little structure in their environment, structure at school is imperative.  “Over-learning” can produce confidence that will promote future learning.  This proved to be successful so that she was able to move on to a concentration in literacy using direct instruction, which is also very structured.


Ms.Mikels liked to get “green” teachers because they are ready for training.  She stated that they didn’t have the bad habits and baggage of seasoned teachers.  I am one of those “seasoned “ teachers, but I really don’t take exception to what she said.  I consider myself to be a “life-long” learner and I can and do accept change.  However, I recognize that this is not always the case.


I noticed some commonalities with the schools in the chapters assigned.  They all had a strong leader, a sense of common purpose, and a definite structure.  I also felt that their leader and staff had respect for each other and the job they were doing.  If not, they were weeded out.  At Reems, in particular, the parents became an integral part of the team.  Lisa Blair knew that to be successful, she had to have the parents as her working partners and she accomplished that.  Blair also seemed to let her teachers have more say in the curriculum and was willing to let them experiment.  This is in contrast to Linda Mikels, who liked an almost “scripted” approach across the board.


I found that each leader was successful because she believed in herself, in her staff and in the students.  None of them saw any deficiency as insurmountable.


Hallie Leicht
Posted: Thursday, November 1, 2007 12:13 PM
Joined: 10/17/2007
Posts: 3

I found several similarities among these first four schools, down to sharing a couple of specific curricula.  All schools were standards-based and set high expectations for faculty as well as students.  Teachers at one school volunteer 10,000 hours in a year.  Frequent assessment is used to guide instruction; the schools know where each student is functioning in relation to the standards and addresses specific skills and goals.  A couple of schools used a visual coding system so that awareness of student performance is constantly maintained.  Direct instruction is a favored approach.  I like the addition of differentiated instruction and the Socratic method. 

Communication--between principal and faculty and between school and parents--is important in each case.  Teachers visit homes, offer training in school programs, etc.  I admire the principal who had the patience and made the time to make some wary parents at-ease.

I found an interesting contrast between Mikels, who prefers to hire newer teachers, and Pritchard, who looks for a lot of background knowledge; the characteristic they share is that they expect their teachers to adhere to the same philosophy and instructional approach.  This creates unity and consistency for faculty as well as students and parents.

Principal Mikels caught my interest on a couple of points.  My training in the ESL Graduate Academy introduced my to Ruby Payne.  Because her work was used in this context, I assumed that she was an accepted authority on poverty; later research revealed some controversy about her work.  Her work is not published in peer-reviewed journals on Cabell's List, and she is accused of spreading a simplistic and sometimes negative view of people who live in poverty.  I wonder if anyone else in the Charter School Institute has some input on these issues.

Second, Mikels asserts that, if children do not learn English (as a second language) by the age of seven, they have effectively missed the "window" for language acquisition.  This is her justification for rejecting bilingual education in favor of immersion.  While few would argue that the "window" for language acquisition is indeed greatest before age seven, I believe that Mikels is off in her interpretation. Children who have a good understanding of their first language have language structures in place; these existing structures provide a context and comparison point for the acquistion of new languages.  Bilingual instruction can help students maintain their first langugage while acquiring the second language.  Academic concepts and higher order thinking are more accessible in the first language; therefore, there is support among teachers of English as a second language for encouraging the exploration of academic concepts in the first language, even while the second language is being learned. 

Obviously, there is room for debate on these issues, and Mikels is clearly doing something right.  I wonder what would happen if she decided to take another look at bilingual education.  I would bet that her students would be successful in two languages!

Ivory Daniels
Posted: Thursday, November 1, 2007 12:56 PM
Joined: 10/23/2007
Posts: 3

I also began with Chapter 1.  While Ben Chavis strategies to an effective Charter schools was a “little” different, I discovered that each Charters leader used many innovative methods to establish an effective Charter program.  I was intrigued by Mikel’s concept of, “No-excuse” environment.  The staff bought in to this concept and accepted the responsibility and accountability of their charter program.  I was further interested in Mikel’s philosophy that emphasized that, “a concept is never fully learned without many, many repeated opportunities for practice.”  Both, Mikel and Diane Pritchard used the Direct-instruction teaching methodology and curricula emphasizing practice and review.    I believe one of the most significant barriers (although there are many) to learning is retention.  In theory,  you might have taught it, one must keep reemphasizing that which has been learned in order to introduce new knowledge.  Therefore, retention of previously learned information is critical in comprehension and problem solving.  I’ve found that Rosenshine and Stevens theory that, “New learning is easier when prior learning is readily accessible or automatic,” to be most interesting. 


I was amused by reading these chapters.  However, I wondered, why isn’t the public school system adopting some of these strategies.  The results are clearly indicating that children are achieving through the charter programs.   The Growth Comparisons data from each Charter School demonstrate that there are considerable growths from year to year. 

Kent Estes
Posted: Thursday, November 1, 2007 7:59 PM
Joined: 10/31/2007
Posts: 3

I chose to comment on the chapter entitled “Building A Structure For Success” because this chapter speaks to several of my fundamental beliefs in education: Empower teachers so that they can teach.  Direct instruction, developed by teachers, with coordination between the grade levels is important for success.  This chapter discusses the needs of the students as the primary “ director” of curriculum rather than educational ideals of an adult. By integrating knowledge between the grades at Montague, teaching is reinforced and knowledge is rewarded.   I smiled when I read the principal’s definition of teaching – “Teaching takes place when students are learning”.  In a previous chapter, “The Blame Game”, the failure to succeed is too often incorrectly placed on the student .


Although I disagree with Prichard’s (the principal) comment that all teachers should teach the same way (I don’t really think this can be true because we all teach to our strengths), that concept would make it easier of the weaker learners to learn patterns of instruction and develop their own patterns of learning. This system may, however, decrease creativity in teachers. I do agree with the concept of constant and consistent assessment (a buzz word in education these days??)  Cumulative assessment will check on the difference between learning and memorizing; the concept Prichard uses is spiraling review and assessment. Prichard comments that this has been effective for the new language-learners at Montague.


My overall feeling of this chapter is that both the curriculum and class scheduling need to be tailored to the population that the school serves.   This school certainly can serve as a model for similar populations, it will not work with my “artsy” student body that thrive on individualization and creativity of themselves and the faculty.

James Jennings
Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2007 12:11 PM
Joined: 10/5/2011
Posts: 49


I enjoyed reading the chapters.  I feel what the three schools had in common is that they are all mission minded and data driven.  I was really intrigued with the charter school in Chapter three, Montague Charter School. The curriculum was the same curriculum used at the charter school in Cinway.  It was good to read about a school model and to actually see the programs in place work.

James Jennings
Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2007 12:13 PM
Joined: 10/5/2011
Posts: 49


Years ago, I worked at a local restaurant where there were three managers:  One always had errands to run, another was always in the office counting money and talking on the phone, and the one affectionately known as the "manager from hell" had nothing better to do but bark orders and make sure we fullfilled them.  Since I wasn't interested in being buddies with either of the first two, I often got scheduled to work for the manager from hell.  On her shift the dining area was emaculate, the bathrooms were tidy, our lines were clean, and we were respectful.  If someone wasn't pulling their weight, she would tell them to clock out and go home.  If we were short a man on the line, she would be right there in the middle of us making the tightest burritos I've ever seen.  She taught me that a good work ethic speaks volumes. 
While reading about Chavis (especially) and Mikels, I though about my experiences with the manager from hell.  Like her, they have strong leadership ability, effective management skills, a working philosophy, and little tolerance for anything else.
Chavis and Mikels both emphasized a common goal to be achieved through practices backed by research and that were driven by data.  The common goal is raising student achievement.  Both expected rigor, alignment, and cohesion in  their schools. 
Chavis believed in zero tolerance from teachers and students.  If a teacher wasn't performing well, she/he were fired.  Students were expected to be well behaved and respectful.  Mikels believed in practice and teacher collaboration.  Students were given practice in basic skills creating higher retention.  Teachers worked together and studied data to align curricula and prepare for tests.
Instead of skirting the issue, both Chavis and Mikels chose to approach it head on, armed with a smart and accountable staff, prower to make decisions, and the money needed to promote the goal.
Incidently, I ran into the manager who always sat in the office.  He gave me his card and told me to call him about a business venture.  It fell out of my hand into a trash can.

James Jennings
Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2007 12:15 PM
Joined: 10/5/2011
Posts: 49


Spiral Learning, assessments (constant testing, etc) and incentives are the winning terms for me of the chapters I have read so far. I read chapter one, because I couldn't see reading the intro and then bypassing the first piece of meat and I felt connected with his passion, with chapter three coming in second. The underlying theme appears to be adaptability and remembering these children are human who want to learn and are waiting for guidance that aligns with them.