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September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

A GEM of a Choice

At a four-theme magnet school in Florida, an innovative design has enriched learning for students and won the enthusiastic commitment of teachers and parents.

Just eight miles from the Kennedy Space Center, where rocket and shuttle launches are both routine and fascinating to area students, is one of Florida's most uniquely designed magnet schools. Gardendale Elementary Magnet School is Brevard County's only single track, year-round elementary magnet school. Our calendar consists of four nine-week sessions, with three-week intersession breaks and four weeks off in the summer.
Gardendale operates a four-theme magnet program or, more appropriately, four magnet schools under one roof. Each of the four schools is led by a coordinating teacher, who, along with the principal, comprise the leadership team for administering the day-to-day operations. This arrangement has eliminated the need for an assistant principal and provides a direct link with the classroom structural program. The four themes are Performing Arts, Math and Science, Arts and Cultures, and Microsociety.
Our school's unusual design and commitment to reforming every aspect of learning has quickly earned GEMS, as our 520 students and the community call Gardendale Elementary, a reputation as a “break the mold” school. Since its inception, two years ago, our school has more than doubled its enrollment. In fact, we are expanding the program for the 1994–95 school year to meet increasing demands for enrollment.

Four Schools Within a School

GEMS students attend the school by choice, but we reserve seats for neighborhood children. We have converted 12 classroom spaces throughout the building into learning laboratories associated with the four themes. Teachers may schedule as much lab time as they deem necessary to reinforce the instructional program of their classrooms.
Primary students (K–3) remain with the same teacher and home-base classroom for the year, but rotate among the lab schools for a series of four nine-week sessions, which supplement classroom content. Intermediate students (4–6) initially spend nine weeks in each lab school and then select two areas of focus based on their aptitudes, talents, and interests. Eventually, under our long-range plan, future groups of intermediate students will spend three years immersed in a particular school, with access to enrichment laboratories in the other three areas.
  1. In the School of Performing Arts, the theme and topics selected for study are seen through the lens of the performing arts. Students may choose to develop music skills and talents by utilizing the Yamaha music education keyboard laboratory or participating in a fledgling string orchestra, a performing chorus, or a show choir. Plays—many written by individuals or groups of students—are performed regularly in our Black Box Theater, complete with stage, wardrobe rooms, and student-operated lighting and sound systems. Plans for a TV production studio are under way.
  2. In the School of Math and Science, learning takes place in the world beyond the doors of the school, as well as in fully equipped hands-on science and math laboratories. Daily experiences range from growing tobacco worms and observing metamorphosis to solving algebraic equations using an assortment of manipulative materials. The two labs extend classroom learning and give students space to conduct special projects.
  3. The School of Arts and Cultures offers students a unique look at several world cultures. In a well-stocked laboratory, students create the art relevant to the culture being studied. Our foreign language laboratory, which houses one of GEMS' three computer labs, contains 20 networked MAC LCII's, with CD-ROM and software for basic study of Japanese, French, and Spanish. In addition, native speakers combine traditional and modern approaches to foreign language instruction, often tying lessons to a native art experience in the adjacent art lab.
  4. In the School of Microsociety, students engage in activities that simulate the real world. In adjoining labs, students operate an in-school postal system, manage the GEMS Bank with its unique currency, and rent storefronts to sell products they have made, such as necklaces, hats, and picture frames. After paying for operating costs, the student entrepreneurs divide the profits, which they, in turn, use to purchase products and services from other businesses located within the school.
Students in our publications center—equipped with six desktop computers, several laser printers, a copy machine, and a book binder—put out our weekly newsletter, among other activities. At the GEMS Judicial Court, students trained in conflict resolution help their peers solve problems.

Effective Communication with Parents

GEMS' success has far exceeded our expectations. Part of our achievements can be attributed to communicating closely with parents, offering everyone clear choices, providing comprehensive information to all participants, and setting high standards for all aspects of the programs.
The message is clear: “An informed choice is the best choice.” Parents learn about their role at the school through orientation sessions, tours, and consultations with teachers. To demonstrate their commitment, they sign education program agreements. Offering an alternative to the traditional elementary school program has spurred an unprecedented involvement by parents. During the magnet school's first year of operation, 89 percent of the parents gave nine or more hours of volunteer time. By exercising choice, parents appear more willing to become active participants in their children's school.

Staff Development Is Key

In the early planning stages of GEMS, we realized that a firm financial commitment to staff development would be crucial. Support from the district administration and school board has made possible the time for quality training and planning that teachers need to realize their mission.
Our teachers work an extended school day and have the flexibility to arrange blocks of time for training or team planning. In addition, the intersessions in our year-round calendar provide an ideal opportunity for curriculum development, school visitations, and attendance at conferences and workshops. About 10 additional work days a year now seems to minimally meet this project's needs.
  • integrating curriculum around major conceptual themes;
  • infusing a formal thinking skills program—CoRT (Cognitive Research Trust); and
  • integrating technology into all aspects of learning.
Change from their traditional teaching role has become a way of life for our 40-member faculty, who jokingly cringe if a faculty meeting begins with, “I've had another dream.” However, it is this spirit of commitment to a vision and hard work that has transformed our school into a model for change.
As exploration and planning move forward, future needs reveal themselves, often creating a sense of more frustration at what seems to be an endless endeavor. However, a strong sense of mutual support has emerged from team efforts, which soothes the occasional tired spirits.

Keys to Success

  • A leadership team concept. Four classroom teachers manage curriculum and program responsibilities for each of the four schools. They work directly with the other teachers in planning learning activities in the various laboratories and share in the administrative duties necessary to administer a school.
  • A strategic plan. Prior to launching this ambitious project, teachers, administration, support staff, and parents, worked with a consultant to develop a five-year strategic plan. Each year the plan is evaluated and updated to reflect progress and emerging needs.
  • An active governance process. A School Improvement Committee—composed of teachers elected by teachers, parents elected by parents, and five corporate business partners—provides invaluable direction to our project. At monthly meetings, committee members address policy issues, strategic planning, program evaluation, funding, facilities, marketing, and public relations. One example of the committee's proactiveness was a coordinated effort with Edgewood Junior High School, the neighboring feeder school, to allow students from GEMS to choose a parallel program for 7th and 8th grade.
Teachers and parents realize that choosing to “break the mold” often places them in positions ranging from being pioneers in educational reform to interlopers who are rocking the boat. However, choosing to attend or teach at a school with a clear understanding of its mission, beliefs, and alternative programs creates an invigorating sense of commitment.
Even at times of great frustration, every day at our school anyone can observe: teachers enjoying teaching, children enjoying learning, and parents actively involved with their child's school. This spirit of enthusiasm, the dramatic improvements in test scores, and a student body that thrives on the daily excitement provide the energy needed to move forward.

Albert Narvaez Jr. has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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