By all accounts, she’s a top-notch science teacher. She works in a charter school. Is that a coincidence? It’s a tough question to answer, even for the teacher herself. But more and more educators are mulling similar questions. It’s inevitable as more school choice options bloom, and teachers, like parents, find themselves thinking more deeply about what works best for them and their students.
Julie Sear is the lone science teacher at The School of Arts and Sciences, a K-8 charter school in Tallahassee. It’s trim and modest, a clutch of red and yellow brick nestled among oak-draped hills. There’s no library, no gym, no lunch room, no computer lab. The school is so unassuming and half-hidden beyond all the moss, even many locals don’t know much about it.
Which is too bad for them. Last year, 95 percent of Sear’s students passed the state’s eighth-grade science exam (it’s only given in fifth- and eighth-grade). That’s double the state average. Only 29 of the state’s 600-plus middle schools managed a pass rate above 80 percent. Only 10 cleared 90 percent.
It’s true the demographics for the 270 students at SAS aren’t the most challenging. Forty-one percent are minorities, 21 percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. The state average is 59 percent for both. But it’s also true SAS leaves more affluent schools in the dust, including three in the same district where science pass rates came in at 58, 66 and 75 percent.
What makes the difference?
Sear, 42, is a 14-year teaching veteran who taught in district schools before she joined SAS, for less pay and no tenure, in 2006. She’s a Midwesterner with a biology degree, a resume that includes six years on a boat and enough proud geek in her to wear a shirt that says, in Star Wars font, “May the Mass Times Acceleration Be With You.” (Physics joke!)
Ask her the difference-maker question, and she offers a list.
For starters: independence, autonomy, flexibility. Unlike many district schools, there is no pacing guide at SAS, no rigid calendar that dictates what must be taught and when. Asked a week before a reporter’s visit what she’d be teaching that day, Sear emails back: “I can’t plan that far ahead!!” “I have total control,” she says in an interview. “I look at all the standards and I get to say where I’m going to teach things, and how I’m going to teach it.”
Then, there’s this: SAS is small and close-knit and … nimble. It was founded in 1999 by teachers and parents. It’s not bound by convention. Sear has 88 students in classes that include sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. That means a wider range of skill level. But it also means more familiarity with how students learn, where they’re coming up short and what can get them up to speed. “I got a pulse on them that is really strong,” Sear says.
SAS is also tough to get into. Not because of special admission standards (beyond living in the district, there are none), but because of demand. Every year, more than 200 students apply for 15 to 20 open slots, leaving the school with 750 to 1,000 on its waiting list. That, Sear says, leaves SAS teachers with leverage many district teachers don’t have.
A Matchbox car. A tack taped to its hood. A trio of middle school boys.
In Sear’s first period, a project: Make a Rube Goldberg contraption with at least five energy transfers. Boy one nudges the car towards a balloon, which butts up against one of those pendulums with a series of spheres on strings, which is next to another toy car, which is tracked towards a marble, which is then supposed to dribble off the edge of the counter into a cup on the floor. Car rolls. Balloon pops. Pendulum swings. The second car rolls, but stalls before it can ram the marble.
“Not enough force,” Sear says. “What can you do different?” Continue Reading →