Here are statements from two excellent but very different L.A. private elementary schools,Westlandin Los Angeles and Carlthorp in Santa Monica. It can be helpful to read a school’s mission statements, code-of-conduct and other self-descriptions to learn more about its approach to education. Then, comparing and contracting traditional and progressive schools highlights the differences in educational philosophies, how students acquire knowledge, core values and mission of the school. Many schools are a hybrid of several philosophies, while others like those below are examples of schools which stick close to their guiding educational philosophies and are able to clear articulate this fact.
Westland School’s Philosophy
“Among elementary schools in Los Angeles, Westland is widely known and respected as a pioneer in the teaching philosophy known as progressive education. This philosophy evolved in recognition of the limitations of traditional education and its emphasis on training children to memorize and recite large amounts of information. As we enter the 21st-century, information storage has clearly become the domain of technology, but our most human traits—the ability to wonder, to think critically, to question, to share, to create, and to care about each other—are timeless and uniquely valuable. These are the qualities that Westland has sought to develop in our students since our founding more than 60 years ago.”
Carlthorp’s Mission Statement
“Dedicated to the academic, social, and emotional growth of children, our highly qualified faculty and staff create a nurturing environment that inspires children to become life-long learners. Rigorous academics, including foreign language, are balanced with music, art, drama, and physical education. Accelerated classes challenge the gifted, and specialists make learning fun for everyone.
Traditionally academic in approach within a warm and secure setting, Carlthorp School’s philosophy stresses our Code of Conduct and the cohesiveness of all constituents of the School’s family. Students live by the “Code,” which becomes a permanent part of their being. All children strive to do their personal best, inside school and out.
Carlthorp School graduates are prepared to face the rigors of private independent secondary school and the challenges of life. Not only are they talented critical thinkers and speakers, they are also good citizens who are responsible, respectful, and kind.”
When I asked Scott Moran, Westland’s head of school, if he would describe Westland as a progressive school, he told me emphatically, “Yes!” Marcia Capparela, Westland’s assistant head of school, echoed his sentiment, adding, “Proudly.”
Proudly Progressive. That’s exactly what Westland School is. An excellent progressive K-6th grade located on a scenic, two acre campus along Mulholland in the Santa Monica Mountains. It is an exquisite gem of a school, idyllic and inspiring, with one story buildings which center around a courtyard, omitting the need for indoor hallways. The indoor-outdoor quality gives a spacious, open feeling to the small school.
Scott relocated from NYC to become head of Westland last July. He is the dad of a Westland daughter and a two-year old. He’s super-smart, very nice, high energy and down-to-earth. His energy and enthusiasm for the job make you want to join in whatever he’s doing. Marcia is an incredibly friendly and soft-spoken educator whose friendship with my step-mom and co-author, Anne Simon, dates back to their days at Wildwood School. Scott and Marcia’s combined experience brings with it a discerning eye for both the big picture and minute detail. A dynanic duo, these two top administrators share a love of progressive education, years of combined experience and a strong commitment to the school’s 1949 founding principles.
Together with the Westland faculty and staff, Scott and Marcia have set their collective minds on answering the question, What does progressive education look like in the 21st century? Scott articulates some of the central ideas, including collaboration, risk taking and how to pick the best educational concepts and tools that are available now– and in the future. For example, he says, teaching sharing through the use of wooden blocks rather than putting two students on an Ipad and telling them to “share” is just one way to balance progressive concepts with the newest tools. Of course, Westland believes there is a time and place for technology, but it isn’t the best way to teach a 5 year-old the concept of collaboration, Scott points out.
A Progressive State Of Mind
Westland defines its educational philosophy as one where teachers are involved in developing and implementing an integrated, hands on social-studies based curriculum. It is a child-centered, non-competitive learning environment that uses experiential learning to develop problem solving and critical thinking skills (Source: Westland literature). One of my favorite aspects of this philosophy is the integrated curriculum, where what is being taught in one class relates to the subject being taught in another class. The non-competitive aspect of the school is perhaps most noticeable in the lack of school sports teams. However, students play sports in local recreation leagues and club teams.
Scott is refreshingly candid, opening up about many aspects of Westland School. A thought leader who understands the why and how of progressive education, we spent time in his office talking about how Westland strives to stay true to its roots while incorporating 21st century ideas. The small size of the school (about 131 students total) offers a place where parents are very involved in virtually every part of the school (volunteering is required!) and kids help make things happen too.
Westland uses a unique system to place students in classes. There are six class groups for the seven grade levels K-6. This gives flexibility and a multi-age environment. At one point during their elementary years, students are re-grouped which means that they spend a second year in one group that has been carefully re-configured based on each’s child’s academics, skills, friendships, and other factors. Rather than remain with one group from K-6, re-grouping offers new opportunities for a child’s social and educational growth.
The Westland Studio
Woodworking is a signature program at Westland. Learning by doing is a central theme that flows throughout the school and woodworking is a hands-on activity where all students create projects linked to their social studies themes. A full-time teacher/woodworker oversees the projects and through building, designing, sawing, sanding and seeing the final projects come to life, students develop a wide range of skills including math, measuring and design. The finished projects are visible around the school and a lot of them are used for student activities. Kids build houses, neighborhoods, cities and more!
A melding of progressive ideas, interpreted for the modern classroom is what sets Westland apart. There is nothing outdated about this school. It is present, ready to leap and bound into the future. A spirited, expansive view of education by its administrators and faculty make the notion of sitting in a classroom exciting by knowing how to tap into the joys of being a kid.
Music is an important program at Westland, where the program includes an array of instruments and voice. Community Sings is a tradition where the entire school comes together for schoolwide sings that showcase school projects and experiences. A Civil Rights sing coincides with the MLK Jr. Holiday. Parents, siblings and friends are welcome to attend these popular gatherings.
Lauri Kranz, a Westland mom of two and my lovely friend, is the designer/manager of Westland’s gorgeous garden. Lauri is a landscape gardener extraordinaire and one of the coolest people I know. Loyal devotees in the form of parents help Lauri work with students to create “harvest and cook days,” including, Potato Pancake Day, Radish Day and Stir Fry Day. Getting kids to eat vegetables isn’t difficult when they’ve planted, grown and harvested these delightful goodies! She often posts recipes for parents to make at home with their kids.
Westland uses technology not for the ‘bells and whistles’ effect, but rather as one tool among numerous tools that is introduced gradually into the curriculum. In the early grades, technology is not present in the classroom. However, by ages 8-9, the school uses technology to help kids learn. The school believes kids should be “savvy users of technology not just consumers.” (Source: Westland School).
Scott pointed out that because Westland’s tuition is in the lowest quarter for L.A. private elementary schools (about $19K per year), it attracts middle-income families. For 2013-14, the amount of financial aid will double. Parents should note that Westland admissions are competitive. The school receives far more applicants than available spaces. This is partly due to the small size of the school and partly due to its enormous popularity.
Westland is a school where a kid centered sensibility defines its core. Westland is both offbeat and charming. Splashes of green, one-story buildings and a collection of wooden blocks reveal function and fun. Westland sparkles with imagination. Versatility and confidence, experimentation and creativity are hallmarks of this stellar school. It takes parents and kids on a journey that is a composite of ideas, old and new, bold and understated. It is the ultimate progressive school.