Houston Meets 21st-Century Education

Local schools break old norms to prepare the next generation of citizens

By Laura Lyles Reagan

One of the nation’s largest cities–with more than 2,300,0000 residents, nearly 30% of which are children–Houston faces the daunting task of preparing its next generation of citizens. Pedagogy and outcome measures sometimes leave parents overwhelmed because no one can say for sure what skills children will need as they delve into a century of technological advances.

“Perhaps the best thing education can do is teach children how to learn, in particular how they as individuals learn,” says Susan Valverde, a national supplemental education expert. Often U.S. Department of Education grant dollars are awarded to schools that do just that– prepare students to be 21st century learners.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (www.P21.org) outlines twenty-first century learning skills as follows:

Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes Mastery

• Global Awareness
• Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy
• Civic Literacy
• Health Literacy
• Environmental Literacy

Learning and Innovation Skills Learning

• Creativity and Innovation
• Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
• Communication and Collaboration

Information, Media and Technology Skills

Effective citizens and workers must be able to exhibit a range of functional and critical thinking skills, such as:
• Information Literacy
• Media Literacy
• ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) Literacy

Life and Career Skills

• Flexibility and Adaptability
• Initiative and Self-Direction
• Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
• Productivity and Accountability
• Leadership and Responsibility

21st Century Learning Support requires the following:

• 21st Century Standards
• Assessments of 21st Century Skills
• 21st Century Curriculum and Instruction
• 21st Century Professional Development
• 21st Century Learning Environments

Houston schools are stepping up to prepare 21st century learners with classroom innovation. While each school highlighted boasts a well-rounded education, each school is best known in the community for a specific approach. The following review emphasizes the innovative nature of the educational approach. (School innovation is listed in alphabetical order with no significance assigned to the order they are treated.)

The Branch School – Critical thinking and Problem Solving, Learning how to Learn

The Branch School is focused not only on the excitement of academic discovery but also on the development of the whole child, cherishing each student as an individual with unique talents. The net effect is students learn how to learn, a life-long skill to navigate in an ever changing global environment. The school provides students with a strong academic program, partnered with a curriculum that encourages critical thinking and the development of problem-solving skills. This thinking curriculum, based on the 21st century skills of science, technology, engineering and math, allows students to solve problems and express their ideas creatively in projects and presentations. From preschool to middle school, a low student-teacher ratio and a balanced approach ensure that lessons take root and that students learn on a much deeper level. Kids feel safe to take risks while learning in a safe, nurturing classroom. The school’s challenging academics provide the opportunities to develop the qualities of tenacity and perseverance, two key elements of present and future success.

Fusion Academy – One to One Student to Teacher Ratios

Fusion Houston Galleria located in the Galleria Financial Center is an accredited private middle and high school for grades 6 – 12 has quickly become a quality option for Houston families seeking a non-traditional academic environment. Positive one to one classroom instruction is the hallmark inside small learning communities. Classes are self-paced, course material is presented in ways that target students’ individual interests, strengths and challenges. Homework is done at school utilizing a Homework Café. The Fusion approach also supports emotional and social growth through mentoring. http://www.fusionacademy.com/fusion-careers/

Heritage Oaks School – Project Based Learning

Heritage Oaks is a private fifth and sixth grade school with an average classroom size of 15 students. School Leader, Margaret McNutt says, “Our school is well known for our project based learning approach to education.” According, to the U.S. Department of Education, project based learning (PBI) is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which students acquire deeper knowledge through active exploration of real world challenges and problems. Examples of project based learning include researching and developing solutions. Student engagement is high in such an environment because the project is student driven. http://www.greatschools.org/texas/houston/20132-Heritage-Oaks-School/

Houston Public Schools – New Collaborative Learning Environments

Houston ISD is not to be left out in the education innovation. Houston ISD boasts 6 new or renovated schools with flexible learning spaces which emphasize collaborative learning among students and team teaching among teachers. They are: Condit Elementary, Mandarin Immersion Magnet School, North Houston Early College High School, South Early College High School and Waltrip High School, Mark While Elementary French Immersion. Each classroom has become a language learning lab with technology at its fingertips. Classrooms have windows with natural light with bright and welcoming colors. There is a modern feel with large common areas where collaborative learning is facilitated.

“Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product,” states the National Institute for Science Education. Not only does this require the flexible space in the new schools but it also requires collaborative teaching and facilitation. Houston ISD will continue to encourage professional development in collaborative learning.

Houston ISD – Language Immersion Schools

Houston ISD offers school choice through three language immersion schools, the Dual Language French Immersion School, the Mandarin Immersion Magnet School, the Arabic Immersion Magnet School. The Arabic Immersion Magnet School is the first of its kind in the nation. Research suggests that students with bilingual acuity perform better on standardized tests. Classroom instruction are continuous learning labs. Integrated social and cultural transmission is a highlight of preparing students to take their place in the global economy. http://www.houstonisd.org

The Innovative School – Montessori Education

The Innovative School is an American Montessori Society (AMS) full member school, that is licensed for children 18 months to six years old. The Innovative School was designed to apply the tenets of the Montessori Method with purity and authenticity through the development stages of childhood. It is inherently a child centered approach to education which emphasizes discovery self-paced learning as the bedrock of school culture. Careful consideration of the needs of children, parents and staff together with the use of materials and practices which respect the environment contributed to the design of the school. Curriculum is individualized. Parents fervently report a deeper respect for their child’s innate abilities characterizes their experience with the school. http://theinnovativeschool.com

International Leadership of Texas School – Tri-Lingual Curriculum

The International Leadership of Texas School is a free, public charter school district in Katy, Texas with a middle and high school. Their mission is to prepare students for exceptional leadership roles in the international community by emphasizing servant leadership, mastering English, Spanish and Chinese languages, and strengthening the mind, body and character. Because China is the second largest economy in the world, a tri-lingual curriculum has been chosen with a global cross cultural emphasis to the educational approach. The school motto is, “Others before self.” It is a rigorous academic environment but supports real world exploration with business community support. College acceptance rates are high. http://www.iltexasdistrict.org

School of the Woods – Montessori education, pre-k to college prep

School of the Woods is a diverse learning community at all grade levels, from preschool through college preparatory. Each school day, students attend the school from more than 60 different zip codes throughout greater Houston. The school has been serving Houston since 1962 as a leading Montessori education resource. Since recent studies indicate that grades are unreliable, invalid and subjective, children at School of the Woods do not receive grades. Instead, they advance through a system known as mastery learning. This means that students must demonstrate a mastery of the lesson to be learned before they proceed to the next progressive lesson. Upper elementary students give service by aiding younger children in their lessons, sharing research results with other classes and sharing information with other schools. Middle school students Students prepare a monthly progress report for parents and plan and initiate parent-student-teacher conferences three times a year. They evaluate themselves in 3 areas: academic growth, individual “response-ability,” and group “response-ability.” Students now must demonstrate a 90% mastery of each area of study through presentations as well as test scores. The Woods High School courses of study reflect an integration of the Texas requirements of essential elements, the newest research on the developmental needs of adolescents, the Montessori philosophy, the state of the art in current learning theory and the predictions of the skills needed for a productive life in the twenty-first century. http://www.schoolofthewoods.org

Yorkshire Academy – International Appeal

Yorkshire Academy enjoys educating children from all over the world. Currently Yorkshire families list 60 different countries of origin on their registration forms. Such an eclectic group of students makes for a wonderfully accepting and inviting private school environment for young children. Throughout Yorkshire Academy’s long history, thousands of students have come through the school’s doors and gone back to their respective countries. Parents take comfort in knowing that each student has been able to seamlessly re-enter their old schools, or for those families being sent to a new country, the students easily adapt there as well. Yorkshire Academy is one of the few Houston private schools that is happy to accept students who do not speak English. Students being immersed into the English speaking environment, within a very short time, begin to understand English, and then with a little more time, begin to speak it as well. The school’s diverse group of parents are encouraged to come into their child(ren)’s classroom and share their different cultures and religions. To assist new Yorkshire families with the school transition, the Parent Volunteer Community (PVC) teams a new Yorkshire family with families who have been at Yorkshire Academy for a while. Every school has their own way to do things, and having a Yorkshire “mentor” makes it much easier for the new families to discover “the Yorkshire way.” http://www.yorkshireacademy.com/

Students must also learn the essential skills for success in today’s world, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration. With innovative approaches for 21st century learning, Houston students may be more engaged in the learning process and graduate better prepared to thrive in today’s global economy.

Laura Lyles Reagan is a sociologist, freelance writer and author of How to Raise Respectful Parents, available on Amazon. She can be reached for comment or question through her website, http://www.lauralreagan.com

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