Grimmway: A Model School for the Twenty-First Century
By Juliet Kunkel
We walked in to the front office at Grimmway, and immediately a little third grade boy walked up to us, shook all of our hands, and introduced himself. He told us his name, asked ours, and politely told us about what he was studying in school. When asked politely to do so by the principal, he said goodbye, smiled, and went back to class.
Grimmway Academy, a small charter school in Arvin, CA, is doing everything right, and they’re doing it for a fraction of what it costs other schools. Grimmway was built in 69 days for 8 million dollars, when a similar school down the street, explained the principal José Salas, cost 24 million. Another school built in nearby Delano, a community with a similar student population, cost 32 million.
Grimmway is doing a lot of things right, from nutrition and school culture to use of technology, but I believe the most important quality to be the integration of subjects. The isolation of math, science, language arts, etc. in disconnected silos is increasingly recognized as bad pedagogy. It’s a system persisting from an outdated Prussian model of a few hundred years ago, and is largely irrelevant to the realities of the twenty-first century.
At Grimmway Academy, they get this. One of the most extraordinary things about Grimmway was the way in which subjects were integrated, and how the border blurred. Principal Salas explained to us that at Grimmway they give math the time it actually needs in the classroom, and integrate it into every aspect of the school. They really begin building algebraic thinking from first grade, and when they hit Algebra in middle school he states simply, “They’re going to pass algebra. The first time.”
Math is everywhere in the world, but too often absent from much of the school curriculum not specifically devoted to mathematics. In a perfect example of this mentality of integration, we walked into a music classroom where a poster with a vertical anagram read:
Music and math are so profoundly interconnected, yet many schools miss the opportunity to interweave the subjects (if, nowadays, they even have a music program). The kindergarteners currently in the music room were singing and marching along to a counting song. The song instructed them to march a certain number of steps, and then complete another action (clapping, etc). While singing, dancing, and moving around, the students also learn verbal recognition of commands and, as they count along to the steps, develop a deep physical connection to counting. This is a great way for very young students to build a solid number sense, shown to be crucial in their mathematical literacy later in life.
While we were visiting Ms. Gallardo’s classroom, kitchen staff came in with the students’ mid-morning snack: fresh strawberries. We live in a country where childhood obesity is a serious concern, and even the First Lady Michelle Obama has heavily focused her attention on efforts to raise a healthier generation of kids. Especially in low-income communities without the resources or access to healthy food, nutrition is increasingly seen as a social justice issue, from efforts of people like Ron Finley in South Central LA to Stephen Ritz in the Bronx. In Nashville, Tennessee, the Junior League of Nashville has also joined the Fight Against Childhood Obesity as their major volunteer focus. One of Grimmway’s most notable features is their edible schoolyard, and it’s an extraordinary thing that the students are learning how to grow, cook, and eat healthy food.
Even more extraordinary, though, was how smoothly they incorporate mathematics into the garden. The students bring rulers and measure how far apart they need to plant the seeds. They calculate the perimeter of planter beds, and gauge the seasons and how long it will be before they are able to harvest their crop. They look at the price of the seeds, the projected yield, and how much more expensive it would be to buy this quantity of vegetables from the store. They chart temperature fluctuations (see picture at right), and connect this number to how hot or cold they remember the day being (and how this is different in the morning versus the afternoon). When they planted flowers in a circle around the olive trees, the teachers let the students come to a consensus about what pattern they wanted (i.e. “tulip, tulip, daffodil” or “tulip, daffodil, tulip”). Each class got to pick a pattern, and in spring they get to see their class pattern bloom in front of their eyes.
We at Math inquiries Project spend a lot of time and energy talking about how important it is to connect mathematics learning to real life so that students can gain deep, experiential understanding of the abstract numbers or concepts. The findings from our focus groups clearly show the importance of this concrete connection in engaging students with mathematics learning (see “Math and Eighth Grade Boys & Girls: Complete Report”, October 2012). What they’re doing at Grimmway is about as concrete and real-world as you can get.
Crucially, it seems that everyone at Grimmway really believes in the mission of the school. The teachers working in the edible schoolyard are passionate about what they do and energetic about new ways to integrate academics into the garden class. The chefs working in the kitchen are top trained professionals who can’t say enough about why the model of the school is so extraordinary. The teachers are highly effective, innovative, and clearly care deeply about their students’ learning. The parents know how lucky they are, and are even requesting that Principal Salas to open a middle school.
Grimmway Academy is a special place, but it shouldn’t have to be unique. There are so many things that the school is doing that could be replicated, and so many lessons that other schools could learn. The families with students at Grimmway know that they are fortunate, but I see no reason why students at other schools should not have the same opportunities. It will take a certain openness to change, and a willingness to restructure the parts of the system that simply aren’t working. After seeing Grimmway, however, it seems more possible than ever.
The Math inquiries Project is posting this week a more in depth perspective on Grimmway Academy, as well as other articles about special programs at this remarkable school right in the middle of California’s Great Central Valley.