Learning Environments Consortium International

Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School

John M. Jenkins


Francis W. Parker, named for the man whom John Dewey called “the father of progressive education,” opened in Devens, Massachusetts in 1995 as a charter public school. The idea for the school came from four parents of high school students who decided to “create a public school of very high quality where kids enjoy school. They were dismayed at the lack of intellectual challenge for their own children in the existing high school and wanted to do better. The task was made easier when the core group persuaded Theodore Sizer to help mold the school. He and his wife, Nancy Faust Sizer, served as acting co-principals in 1998-99.

The 10 Common Principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools guide the educational practices at the Parker School. Foremost among these are that teaching and learning should be personalized, that the governing metaphor should be the student-as-worker rather than the teacher-as-deliverer, and that credit is earned not for time spent in class but only for mastery of skills and knowledge.7

Implementing personalized instruction

The six elements of personalized instruction are all in evidence at the Parker School.

Dual teacher role as coach and advisor. All Parker teachers serve as advisors to students, nurturing their intellectual, emotional, social, and ethical development. Students meet twice each day in advisory groups for 15 minutes and for an extended advisory period (45 minutes) on Wednesday. During these times students and teacher-advisers “lie back and talk about whatever.” The teacher-advisers are there to help students work through both academic and personal problems, as well as to monitor their academic progress.

Teacher/student ratios are generous (2:25), enabling teachers to get to know their students well and to coach them through the challenging academics. Teachers lecture less and coach more at Parker. And they provide direct assistance to students as they work through problems. For example, a 12-week project in history, philosophy, and social science consisted of studying the “Melian Dialogue” in Thucydides, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Orwell’s Animal Farm, and speeches by Martin Luther King and Patrick Henry.

Teachers at Parker see themselves as friends of the 400 students in the 7-12 school and operate on a first-name basis with them. The use of first names seems in line with William Glasser’s notion that successful teaching is based on good relationships. Glasser advocates “connecting” as a replacement for discipline in a school setting.

Diagnosis of student characteristics. Diagnosis of student knowledge and skills is conducted in terms of school-wide standards and rubrics. Much is asked of Parker students academically as they advance through a six-year program of studies at the rate appropriate to their individual development. Students are expected to demonstrate mastery of school standards for Divisions 1 (7-8), 2 (9-10), and 3 (11-12). Students demonstrate mastery of curricular standards in each division through exhibitions in which they present and defend their academic portfolios.

Each student’s year-end assessment includes a brief summary of the Parker curriculum and a narrative description, written by the student’s teacher, of his or her progress in each of the school’s four integrated domains (arts and humanities, Spanish; math, science; wellness and technology. Teachers assess student work as ” beginning to meet curricular standards,” “approaches curricular standards,” or “meets curricular standards” for Division 1, 2, or 3, and these diagnostics become the launching points for student effort and progress in the coming year. Students who are not making satisfactory progress are identified and given additional assistance. Students also develop personal learning plans.

A culture of collegiality. In this area of personalization, the Parker School truly outperforms its conventional cohorts. Teachers participate in a true learning community. They collaborate with colleagues to create and evaluate the curriculum; they work with colleagues, parents, and students to define school standards and norms; they work with other professionals to provide special services to students who need them; they act with colleagues, parents, and students in making decisions about the school and solving its problems; they involve parents, students, and community members in assessing student progress; and they engage colleagues in collaborative observation, critique, and reflection. The daily schedule of two classes of two hours each provides teachers with a minimum of two hours per day of common planning time to collaborate with one another.

Students take an active role in school governance. They serve on important school committees, a schoolwide community congress, and a school justice committee. The Parker School Constitution, written and ratified by students, frames student life. Service is a key ingredient in the school philosophy. Peer tutoring and mentoring are widely practiced, as is hosting visitors to the school. Students also volunteer in the surrounding community — in hospitals, nursing homes, and community centers. Parker’s oldest students, Division 3, perform required hours of community service as evidence of personal and social responsibility.

An interactive and thoughtful learning environment. The low student/teacher ratio enables teachers to work individually with students, using interviews and timely interventions to determine student progress and understanding. As one student explained, “A lot of whys are asked and how-comes. Why is this important, so what, and who cares questions. We have our opinions and facts, but so what? Tell me why it is important.” Some coursework is focused on an essential question that cuts across traditional disciplinary lines. The essential question is addressed schoolwide at all levels and generates sub-questions that invite active learning of both thinking skills and content-area knowledge.

An early issue of “Friday Announcements,” a written communication to parents, described the Parker approach:

The first uncertain months of getting to know one another, getting used to working together, becoming acclimated to the rigors, routines, and expectations of academic life and the challenges of growing as a cohort are intended to lead to classes that are unified by common goals and understandings and distinguished by excellent work. It is not surprising to see Senior Projects that look like college work, or Division 2 students listening carefully and respectfully to each other, coaching, critiquing, collaborating on assignments or projects, or to see a group of Division 1 students dig deep in a text-based seminar so extraordinary in its depth and intensity that visitors to the school are awestruck.

The depth with which Parker students engage knowledge was captured in one student’s retelling of the story of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and the two giants who sought to rule the world and make fools of the gods. Without a script, outline, or note cards, the student captivated an audience of students and teachers for five minutes at the annual all-school gathering. She wove such a fascinating tale that the audience could see the graceful and exquisite vision of Artemis in her two forms and hear the voices of the giants as they calculated their takeover.

Flexible scheduling and pacing. Parker classes are a heterogeneous mix of from 15 to 50 students whose ages span several years and who work with one or two teachers toward mastery of common standards. Students and faculty members have sufficient space in their daily schedules to pursue work independently and collaboratively. A visitor to Parker recounted his experience while visiting a Division 1 class. He remarked, “The class was not quite a class in the ordinary sense in which the word is used. Two teachers served 25 students for a block of two hours’ time. Students moved in and out of the room easily on their way to other, seemingly more appropriate centers in the school, to do their work. Some went to a computer center, others to the library, and some to unusual places like the hallway.” The visitor actually became a subject in an experiment on skin sensitivity conducted by a female student. She instructed the adult to sit down, take off his shoe and sock, and roll up his pant leg. She then proceeded to gather data.

Authentic assessment. Criteria for excellence, school standards, and scoring rubrics have been formulated for the school’s three divisions in reading, writing, oral presentation, listening, artistic expression, research, Spanish, mathematical problem solving and communication, scientific investigation, systems thinking, technology and wellness. The criteria for excellence are the same across the three divisions, but as students advance through the levels, the tasks become more complex, and students are also expected to display more autonomy and initiative and to grow in their awareness of their own and others’ work. For example, in the technology area, one of the criteria for excellence is “You can use and create computer simulations to model the behavior of systems over time.” For Division 1, the corresponding standard is “You can use a computer simulation to model the behavior of systems over time.” For Division 2, the standard advances to “You can create a single computer simulation to model the behavior of systems over time.” The holistic rubrics for each division describe how student work looks when it approaches, meets, or exceeds Parker’s expectations for that level.

Student work is assessed using portfolios, schoolwide standards, and scoring rubrics. Students advance through the six-year program of studies at the rate appropriate for their individual development, achieving promotion via Gateway Exhibitions. Teachers provide narrative evaluations in their year-end assessments. Parker has no ranking of students, nor are there letter grades, honors, or prizes. Division 3 students have a Capstone Senior Project, a topic they choose to investigate independently with the help of a mentor. The project can take many forms, from community internships to apprenticeships to science projects to academic inquiries, all resulting in a formal product. In every case, the student is required to make a public presentation of his or her findings and conclusions. The Senior Project provides a bridge between high school and the adult world.

Evidence of Accomplishments

Parker students take the mandated Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams at grades 8 and 10. Few, if any, formal evaluations of Parker exist. It has been the school’s practice, however, to invite selected educators to spend time at the school and to record their observations, impressions, and suggestions for improvement. Among the visitors have been Joseph McDonald, senior research associate, Annenberg Institute for School Reform; Marilyn Stewart, professor of art education, Getty Center for Education in the Arts; Vito Perrone, director, teacher education programs, Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Marilyn Wentworth, coordinator, Partnership Teachers Network: Foxfire, in Maine. The reports have been decidedly positive, noting the following:

  1. Students take responsibility for their learning and membership in a community.
  2. Positive relationships exist between teachers and students, teachers and teachers, and among all students.
  3. Adults give students the time to learn, to make mistakes, without interruption — “the longest ‘wait time’ patience I have witnessed in some time.
  4. Opportunities abound for students.
  5. Constant reflection takes place on content and process.

When interviewed by a reporter from a local newspaper, Parker students made several observations about the school’s strengths. “Teachers explain why you got the grade you got. They give you feedback.” “There’s a lot of revision here. You don’t just do an assignment and turn it in.” “The school lets you operate at your own pace . . . you get a ‘gateway’ halfway through the year if you show you know the material.”

Student work is constantly open to public review. Senior projects are reported to a public audience as part of a student’s graduation exhibition. Students in all Parker divisions offer their services to the community by working in nursing homes, shelters, hospitals, and other service organizations.

The depth of inquiry in the Parker program requires that students demonstrate their understanding of ideas, skills, and concepts. In The Disciplined Mind, Howard Gardner describes the need to combat naive misconceptions through discourse with teachers, mentors, and other students. He sees schooling as an orderly process engaging students at increasing levels of difficulty. The divisions at Parker appear strikingly supportive of Gardner’s thesis. Having students gradually excise misconceptions and replace them with more robust and accurate representations seems a central function of formal education. The Parker Charter Essential School may well provide us with a high-quality exemplar for achieving this end.


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