The Los Angeles Open Charter School is located near the juncture of two freeways in an urban area of Los Angeles. The physical facility is not impressive from the outside, but from the inside there is a kind of good-natured cheerfulness, with lots of student artwork and other project artifacts. The school is housed in a permanent administrative building and a series of temporary buildings squeezed onto the campus of another elementary school. The temporary buildings are long "box-car" style rectangles (double trailers), each housing a cluster of 64 students and two teachers. Although the administrative building looks its age, it houses a multimedia room and sound studio that have been renovated and contain up-to-date computer and video equipment. The floor space within a typical Open Charter School classroom is taken up by groups of desks containing built-in Macintosh computers underneath Plexiglas tops. The school's 384 students, ages 6 to 12, are assigned to multiage clusters, each encompassing an age span of 2-3 years. (A kindergarten class was added in 1993-94.) The clusters overlap each other, and some students stay in a given cluster for more than one year. In 1992-93, 23% of the school's students were eligible for free or reduced lunch; 11% were designated LEP or NEP; and 55 were eligible for special education services. Thirty-nine percent of the students are Caucasian, Non-Hispanic, 23% are African American, 20% are Hispanic, 17% are Asian/Pacific Islander, and less than 1% Native American. Approximately 32 percent of the students have computers at home. The staff consists of 12 full-time teachers, a magnet coordinator, and 4 part-time teachers.
The Los Angeles Open Charter School was started in 1977 by a group of parents and teachers who wanted an alternative to the "back-to-basics" approach that dominated the district at that time. The group wanted to start a school based on the principles of Jerome Bruner and the practices of the British infant schools. Their desire coincided with the decision of the district to set up a series of magnet schools in order to comply with court-ordered desegregation. Students are selected at random within a set of geographic and ethnic strata. From the beginning, the school stressed many of the concepts now popular in the education reform literature--active learning, thematic instruction, and multiage groupings. In addition to general and desegregation funds, the school has received major contributions of equipment and staff support from Apple Computer.
The teachers believe that technology can provide a context for constructing knowledge in two dimensions, thus serving as a bridge between the totally physical, multisensory environment of young children's learning and the textbook environment of conventional classrooms. They emphasize software applications to give students tools to create things rather than instructional software that delivers drills or facts. The serious introduction of technology began in 1986 when Alan Kay, an innovator in human-computer interface design and Apple research fellow, selected the school as the site for his research. In the first year, the school tried a computer lab, but teachers objected to it because it separated students from them. Over time, Apple placed approximately 30 computers into each cluster classroom of 64 students. Most of the computers are recessed into specially designed tables that can be used for other student work when the computer is not needed.
The Open School had a history of getting district waivers for its curriculum and methodology. Rather than continue to get waivers on a piecemeal basis, the school chose to apply to become one of California's first charter schools and received this designation in March of 1993. As a charter school, the Open Charter School has a mandate to experiment and to work with the education research community, yet will continue to have the district take responsibility for things like liability, physical plant, and supplies so that the staff can concentrate on their internal organization and teaching. The school has selected a set of student outcomes on which to be judged and will be working with UCLA's School of Education on developing performance-based assessments.
School's garden project.
The school's multidisciplinary "spiral curriculum" centers around the central theme of "man's survival in the environment." Each cluster takes a different slice within this central theme, combining different disciplines such as science and literature, in building concepts. The themes evolve but do not change drastically from year to year. In 1992-93 the cluster themes were (from youngest to oldest) "My Own World," "People Can Get Along," "The City Environment," "Oceanography," the "Civil War/Civil Rights," and "Life on Earth and Humans' Place in It."
The city building project, undertaken as part of the City Environment then, illustrates the way in which multiple subject areas are woven into the technology-supported curriculum. Students learn about social studies topics such as the structure and functions of city government both by studying and observing local government activities (attending a city council meeting, for example) and by enacting the city government process themselves within their model city. Students study the history of their city, and they research the history of their own families within the city. Science is brought in by charging each city commission with conducting a scientific study related to their specific mission. One year the building and safety commission, for instance, designed buildings to withstand earthquakes, while the transportation commission conducted experiments in energy and movement, and the environmental commission studied water and ecology. In the 1993-94 school year, SimCity was incorporated as a planning and feedback/evaluation tool for neighborhood teams. Math is integrated through activities such as using the Powers of Ten videodisk and building their structures to scale, calculating the number of housing units needed based upon population estimates, working on city budget issues, and programming animation sequences within HyperCard. Students use graphics and word processing software as they document their activities on a history wall and in commission reports. They select and create appropriate photos, three-dimensional models, illustrations, animations, and video segments for use in presentations and displays. Oral language skills are developed as students present and negotiate their viewpoints within their city building teams.
Apple provided the school with an extraordinary measure of support. In addition to the computers, CD-ROM and laser disc players, networking, and other technology, the corporation supported a full-time technical support person and a portion of the time of several other staff members who provided assistance with technology activities through the end of the 1992-93 school year. During this six-year period, Apple also paid the school's teachers as consultants over the summer and winter breaks, during which time the teachers were able to receive coaching on technology use and spend time developing materials for use in their classrooms. During the 1993-94 school year, Apple supplied $50,000 in funding and continued to support one technical support position. It also trained six teachers in computer maintenance. Apple has indicated the intention to donate $25,000 to the school for the next year but will no longer supply an on-site technical staff person. The company would like to maintain an affiliation with the school but wants to get out of the role of being a major financial support.
Historically the school has had 500-600 applicants per year for the 50-60 slots for new children at this magnet school. After getting extensive publicity for becoming one of the state's first charter schools in the spring of 1993, Open Charter received over 800 applications for the 1994-95 school year. The school has traditionally shown good test scores, especially given the economic diversity of its student population. Many teachers have mentioned the effect of technology on student self esteem and motivation. A number of the teachers believe that technology helps students from diverse backgrounds excel. Several teachers reported that technology promoted their students' willingness to edit and revise their writing. Parents are enthusiastic supporters; many volunteer time and donate money.
6085 Airdrome Street
Los Angeles, CA 90035
Contact: Dolores Patton or B. J. Allen-Conn
T: (213) 937-6249
F: (213) 937-2884
E-mail: X0763@applelink.apple.com (Teacher: Dolores Patton)
X0765@applelink.apple.com (Teacher: B.J. Allen-Conn)