By Jan Siegel
It has been more than 25 years since I had a child or grandchild in elementary school. Since the pandemic, schools have been having a hard time, and there has not been much positive information coming out about class instruction. The Capistrano Unified School District is one of the largest districts in the country, but I wondered how they were adjusting to all the political backlash that permeates the news cycle and social media.
A couple of month ago, Gila Jones, a CUSD trustee who represents most of San Juan Capistrano, made a statement at Coffee Chat that intrigued me.
She said that “the district goal, in grades K-3 students, are that they are learning to read. In grades 4-12, they are reading to learn.”
If a student is not proficient or at grade level in reading by grade 4, they are lost. What a great concept! In further research, I found that concept was a national education directive from the Center for Public Education. The key is K-3 learning.
The basis for the program is not only reading, but comprehension, by teaching students how to use pictures, syntax and meaning to solve word problems. “The draw-a-picture, problem-solving technique is one of the most effective ways children can gain comprehension of complex text,” educational resources have said.
School rooms no longer look like they did when we or our children went to school. There are no rows of desks. There is no blackboard. There is a computer screen with the teacher using a PowerPoint program. She faces the students. Now, there are clusters of two to four desks grouped together. The purpose is that the student learns best when having a partner nearby to discuss reading or math concepts. If a student can explain what they understand to another student, then they are learning. There may be different approaches to the same problem. Every child has their own computer.
Once a year, the school district has a “Principal for the Day” event. Each school in the district has a community member acting as principal for the day. It really involves going around the school with the current principal. This year, Gila Jones asked me to participate. I was assigned to Palisades Elementary School. It was an incredible experience. I visited most of the classrooms and saw firsthand how this concept of learning to read and reading to learn happens at each grade level. Palisades has many different programs going on at the same time.
One is the multi-tiered system of support. This is a tiered intervention program to support every student by name and by need. In K-3, 80% of the students do not need extra help, but 20% do, and, to facilitate them, they are grouped. For 30 minutes, three times a week, they meet with a special teacher who reinforces their needs. The other children are also grouped as to their needs, and the grade teachers work with these students in clusters. Because of the technology, it is easy to track each student’s learning challenges and improvements.
Other programs in the school are the GATE program, which is tested in third grade. There is also a structured autism program that facilitates the needs of autistic students. The ratio of teacher to student is two students for each teacher. The rooms for these students have areas for their special needs, quiet areas, a trampoline to let off excess energy, enclosed working areas, etc. The students have iPads that allow them to point to pictures for what they want or need, if they are not verbal. However, the teacher does encourage them to say the words that they are pointing to for information. These students also have a robotics room that allows them to work out in a confined, quiet atmosphere. In math, the curriculum is based on cognitive guided instruction, which encourages critical thinking. And again, the students work together. The teacher is not the one doing all the talking and the students listening. The teacher is now the facilitator, and the students are driving the instruction. Critical thinking is the key. Palisades is also a STEAM school, which includes learning in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
The students all seemed energetic, happy and eager, and no one was wearing a mask. It definitely opened my eyes to what is happening in the classroom in the Capistrano Unified School District. Innovation is taking place at every level. Spend a “Moment in Time” and visit a local school and see for yourself how teaching and learning have changed in the last generation. We hear too much negativity these days and not enough positive reinforcement for our children, for our schools or our teachers.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.