Branch Out Alternative Breaks

Creating a community of active & educated individuals dedicated to the pursuit of social justice

Comparing Education Systems in DC

By Chantelle Tait

            This trip was eye-opening, exhilarating, and heartbreaking, all at the same time. My group of 11 stayed in a hostel in North West DC and drove another neighborhood in another part of DC every morning. The neighborhood we were in is one of the most dangerous in America, and driving through it was a sobering experience for me.

            During the first few days of the week we worked in a KIPP-style charter preschool. I worked in two classrooms: one kindergarten classroom and a prekindergarten classroom. The time I spent in both classrooms was radically different from what my elementary school days were like. Every room had a teacher to lead the class and an aide to help the teacher. All teachers shared a very specific vocabulary such as “catch a bubble” for “be quiet,” “friend” for “classmate/kid/sweetie,” “spoons in our bowls” for “hands in our laps,” “capiche” for “okay,” among others. The teachers told us that this was to foster a sense of continuity for the kids as they went through the grades. However, classes in this school were highly regimented and kids were much disciplined. Kids could be “off the team” (their names were taken off a certain display) for bad behavior and any slight disrespect or failure to obey the teacher was dealt with briskly. Teachers’ days started at 7:30am and ended at 4:30pm, which made these variables tough to deal with for such a long time.

            As you can imagine, this routine was quite new to everyone in our group. At first we questioned the developmental appropriateness of these techniques (after all, aren’t 3 to 5 year-olds too young to adhere to such a regimented system?).  However, I personally came to the conclusion that for many of these kids the extreme discipline was necessary.

            This structured system was contrasted sharply by what we found in the other school we visited: a public STEM-style school that no longer has funds for its STEM programming. Each room had two teachers, but their roles were more clearly differentiated than those in the KIPP school. In KIPP, the point had been to have both teachers be able to carry half the weight by the end of the year. By comparison, the teacher carried most of the weight in the STEM school, and in some classrooms it seemed like the aide did anything at all. In my classroom, which was a mixed preschool and prekindergarten class, the aide was not very helpful. It was frustrating to watch. The atmosphere at the second school was much less regimented. Students were still reprimanded for doing something that was blatantly wrong, but days were shorter and the rules seemed more flexible. Some teachers incorporated vocabulary such as the one we heard in the KIPP school, but it wasn’t used as universally between them. This setting seemed more relaxed and more refreshing after the KIPP school’s strict structure. But, our group wondered if this system set up these kids to fail later on, even though it seemed more appropriate.

Nevertheless, both education systems implemented in each of the schools did have similarities. Both schools tried to teach the children through play and activities. The STEM school incorporated a Tools of the Mind curriculum, which revolved around imaginative play and learning situations by recreating them. The KIPP school involved centers where children performed different activities, like writing letters or playing with Play-Doh. In this way, both systems took advantage of children’s inquisitive natures. Both schools also required students to take standardized tests starting in kindergarten. I couldn’t believe that they start that young now!

            Overall, this trip was a fantastic experience. I was able to see things in action that I had previously only read about in my Sharpe freshman seminar. I was able to gain new perspectives and ideas on education reform. I made some great friends and had a blast navigating DC with fellow college students! This trip was a highlight of my freshman year.

Author: Melody Porter

Hello blogosphere! I am a long-time fan of human connection. I used to say that my major in college (above my actual political science & religion double major) was in friendships. Conversations over long meals or late nights on dorm hallway floors have been transformative in my life, and it only makes sense to me to dip my toe into new ways of opening up conversation here. I have worked at William and Mary since August 2008, and am Associate Director in the Office of Community Engagement. I spend my time fostering student leadership through alternative breaks. Doing so lets me fulfill what I understand my calling to be about: working for social justice in the world, and equipping others to do so with skill, sensitivity and great love. I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Religion from Emory University, and then served as a long-term volunteer for three years, beginning a job development program in Philadelphia and working with preschool children in Johannesburg, South Africa. I earned a Master of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology in 2001, with a focus in religious education. I managed a nonprofit family literacy program with immigrant and refugee families, and then served as Associate Minister at First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, working in areas of social justice and community development, and directing an after school program that served more than 100 high school students. Then, I returned to Emory to serve for three years as director of Volunteer Emory, a student-led department for community service. I believe in the power of mutual connection and service to transform lives and create social change. I also love cheese fries.

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