A member of the class struggles to stay in his small chair at a small table. He fits right in with all the wiggling first graders. But actually, Marvin Liddell is a parent.
His daughter's school asked him to stop by, and he's here, even though he had errands to run before reporting to work on the afternoon shift. In visiting the school, Marvin has passed a test of the Flint, Michigan Community School's two-way street approach to learning. Using parent involvement, schools with Learning Communities are remaking public school policy.
A Learning Community is nothing like a traditional classroom. It tolerates more noise, combines different grades in elementary, and is staffed with a lot more adults, and a lot more teachers. A Learning Community could have as many as 85 elementary school students and many adults, including three teachers.
Marvin likes that.
"With more teachers, you have a better chance for learning," Marvin Liddell said. "A group of teachers working together gives kids a chance to get a different aspect on a lesson."
Like residential communities, Flint Public Schools' Learning Communities put different people together. A Learning Community might include first, second and third graders who are anywhere from six to eight years old. Staggering grades and ages in one group can help a child who is behind or ahead.
The child can learn all day, every day because all the teachers they need are right there in the community. In a traditional classroom, a child who reads at a lower grade level would have to leave his or her class to be with similar readers. The Learning Community does not single out students who need extra help.
Parents play an important role in the learning community. They are part of the Learner Support Group, which steadies the roller coaster of K-12 learning. This group has three members: teacher, community member and parent. The three work as a team providing students with learning opportunities and celebrating results. Parents like Marvin like the support the Learning Community gives his daughter and him.
"With more than one teacher, they can put their heads together to help a parent," Marvin said. "There might be a communication problem with one teacher. It's nice to have another one to talk to."
What parent doesn't need that?
In the Learning Community, teaching is supported by many other adults. As many as five adults may be assigned to a Learning Community. These adults include paraprofessionals, student teachers, social services field workers and clerical help. At one Flint school, the custodian helped with science lessons by having the students help her plan flower beds, then plant the flowers.
Paraprofessionals help students who need a little extra attention. About eight students sit around Title I paraprofessional Sandra Philpot's desk. They read and she listens. When one stumbles on a word, Ms. Philpot says it clearly, and has the student repeat after her.
"When they are in a small group with me, they know everyone sitting around my desk is having the same problem and they are comfortable," she said.
Teachers in a learning community work together. Good ideas that one teacher has for teaching can help all students. For example, one smart teacher learned to quiet noise with four little words: "drop everything and read." Students then race for their favorite book or to a computer reading program. First grader Jasmin Liddell has a pet dog at home, but at school she dives into The Cat in the Hat.
The Learning Community frees everyone to learn. Students learn from teachers. Teachers learn from other teachers. People with college degrees learn from people who have never been to college. Teachers even learn from students.
"Most of our children work computers better than adults do," a school principal said. "It makes sense that a teacher ask a student for help."
In a Learning Community, teachers and parents also share information and learn from one another. Like Marvin Liddell, many parents respond when their children's schools show that they value their time, their contribution and their responsibility. In a Learning Community, everyone can learn something.
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