A school year that never really ends.
At Beacon Day School in Oakland, California, the school year never really ends. At this private elementary school, the school day is over ten hours long. There is no set vacation period. Parents plan vacations to fit family needs. Students work in teams by achievement level, not age. Letter grades are unknown and students spend six to eight hours a week on art, music, dance, drama, or martial arts. "There's no summer vacation, so there's extra time to learn," 10-year old Colin Gage told the Commission.
Thelma Farley and Leslie Medine founded this award-winning school over a decade ago as a fundamental alternative to traditional notions of schooling. "We knew that what was going on in most schools was absolutely wrong," says Medine. "Nothing about the way schools were run had anything to do with the ways kids learn." This philosophy explains why Beacon kids are not scolded for getting up to stretch while the teacher talks or for sitting on the floor to study. It also explains why teachers eat lunch with the students and recess is five times longer than in most public schools.
Beacon Day is based on four simple ideas:
Based on students' developmental needs, Medine told the Commission, Day School students attend school 240 days a year. The school also responds to parents' needs. Most of the parents at the school work full-time and the school is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with teachers working on flexible schedules for 210 days. Every six weeks, at least two teachers are on leave, their places taken by eight permanent, full-time, substitute teachers known as "flexes."
Beacon is thought to be one of only three schools in the United States open 240 days a year. The other two? Beacon's sister institution, Beacon High School and the Cornerstone Schools in Detroit. (By contrast, every school in Japan is open 240 days a year, a figure that includes a half-day on Saturday, or a "school day" equivalent of about 220 days. Japanese education authorities recently decided to gradually eliminate the Saturday requirement.)
"We have no first-graders," says Medine. "We have only six-year-olds. Children develop unevenly -- they develop unevenly within themselves and differently from each other. We had to rethink these little boxes called first grade, eighth grade, tenth grade and say 'these are children. What do they need?'"
Classes are organized according to the academic and social skills of individual students, rather than by age or standard grade levels. Children are encouraged to learn at their own pace, year round, and individual classes span an age range of two years with no more than 15 students in each classroom. "House heads" -- veteran teachers -- monitor students' progress in each of the three age groups and consult with individual teachers to determine when a child should progress to a more advanced group.
The curriculum is special as well. It is built on an "arts core" of music, art, dance, and theater, taught by professional artists and designed to promote critical thinking.
Medine and Farley decided to start a school that was open throughout the year for purely educational reasons. "There was no reason to have kids in school for only nine months," says Medine. But they discovered an added benefit: the longer school day and longer school year are lifesavers for modern families, many of them single-parent or two-income households. Beacon's founders believe their innovation is the wave of the future.
For additional information:
Beacon Day School
2101 Livingston Street
Oakland, CA 94606