New charter blossoms
Wildflower Open Classroom opens its doors Aug. 31
Tom Hicks is excited about his first day of school. Hicks, who moved to Chico from Michigan to serve as the director of new K-8 public charter school Wildflower Open Classroom (WOC), sat at a local café recently extolling the virtues of his new hometown. Chico’s eclectic population and abundance of fresh produce at local farmers’ markets were high on his list.
But mostly the friendly, 42-year-old Hicks—who was director for 13 years of Walden Green Montessori School in Spring Lake, Mich.—seems jazzed to have the opportunity to lead a new, innovative school into an exciting future.
WOC—which starts up on Aug. 31 and is sharing the McManus Elementary School campus on East Avenue—offers, as Hicks put it, “a constructivist education” in which students “build their knowledge through interaction with their environment.” WOC’s open-structured environment features multi-age classrooms (first- and second-graders will be in one classroom, for instance; third- and fourth-graders in another) and an “integrated thematic curriculum where things are not learned in isolation, where you attempt to integrate all the subject matters, such as history, math and science, into projects where children are working in a hands-on way,” Hicks said.
WOC’s mission, as described on the school’s website (http://wildflowerschool.com), is to provide “an integrated thematic learning environment in which our community strives to create self-motivated, competent, and lifelong learners passionately committed to the celebration of diversity, stewardship of the earth, positive interpersonal relationships, appreciation of the arts, and academic excellence.”
WOC’s four teachers are: recent Cal State Long Beach graduate Deserae Abraham, who will teach kindergarten, and was in an open-structure classroom when she was an elementary-school student; first/second-grade teacher Debbie Irick, who has taught in multi-aged classrooms and has a son who was an open-structure student; third/fourth-grade teacher Miguel Rosso, who brings skills in guitar-playing and speaking Spanish to add to WOC’s integrated-learning environment; and veteran open-structure teacher Linda Holm. Holm taught at Hooker Oak K-8 School and will oversee the upper grades at WOC.
A main goal of the school is to remain small.
“In our first year we plan on having 90 students,” said Hicks. “There’s a small-school movement in the United States that says aim for 200 to 300 students. We’re shooting for 200. Most of the research shows that if you have over 250, you start losing the community feel. And ultimately that’s the goal—to create a community.”
Part of the way WOC intends to build community is by engaging parents in the classroom and in “helping teachers develop and implement lesson plans [and] projects,” offered Chico State political-science instructor and WOC co-founder Ellie Ertle. Ertle’s name appears as lead petitioner on WOC’s charter petition submitted last August to the Chico Unified School District.
“Much of what parents do in the class is based on their expertise and interest, and is woven into the themed curriculum,” which will include gardening and fine arts, as well as a focus on math and science, which will be incorporated into all thematic units.
“Issues of social and ecological justice will be interwoven throughout the curriculum,” Ertle added.
She pointed out that current research on small learning communities shows that small-school students—especially those from low-income families—produce higher test scores, and have more participation in extracurricular activities and a reduced truancy and dropout rate compared to students at larger schools. An “increase in safety and order” and “greater satisfaction on the part of parents and the community” are other demonstrated benefits of smaller schools, she said.
“Ultimately, the best fit for a school like this is on a farm,” said Hicks, “but you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re just fortunate to have a place to start our school.
“The point about charter schools that’s really interesting to me is that they’re revolutionary. They really are. They’re not only trying to serve the children and parents, they’re also trying to revolutionize the educational system.”