Wingra teachers Lisa Kass (left) and Claire Weiss.

Wingra School: Rethinking how kids learn

Wingra School proves that progressive education works. Could it be a model for a public charter school?

Inside Wingra School, the day is just beginning, and already Lisa Kass is commandeering a discussion about violence sparked by storyboards written by her fourth- and fifth-grade students.

"Why do you play violent videogames?" she asks. "Do you think the violence affects you?" This leads to a 45-minute discussion that temporarily pushes back a math lesson.

"It's cartoon violence, it's not real violence," says one boy. "Well, really the goal is to kill people," admits another. That, says a third student, is why he plays mostly strategy videogames.

The students at Wingra are articulate, reflective and eager to share their opinions. They refine their thoughts as Kass prods them to be more specific or clearer.

Kass, a 19-year veteran Wingra teacher, says later: "I don't want to censor them, but I want them to think about what's appropriate and what effects violence might have on them and others."

Wingra School on Monroe Street was started 35 years ago by teachers interested in "progressive" teaching methods that embrace project-learning and team teaching. The K-8 school has no grades, prioritizes mixed-age groupings with small class sizes, and gives students wide freedom of choice in what they do and when they do it. Currently the school has 105 students, with space for 135 maximum. Enrollment has fluctuated over the last decade.

Patrick Sweet, the president of Wingra's board of trustees, says the school's biggest strength is its dedication to making learning fun and relevant.

"There isn't a blanket good school for everyone," says Sweet. "It's like restaurants. Some people like Lombardino's, and some like L'Etoile. Some kids need more structure, and some parents want a religious affiliation. For us, we wanted a school that looked at our child and understood his strengths and weaknesses, and worked to make his strengths better and overcome his weaknesses."

"For us, there's more to life than the right answer," says Joyce Perkins, the school's director. "Our job as a successful independent school is to be a laboratory, in a sense - to say we've done this and it works."

Interest in progressive schools has blossomed in recent years as parents look for alternatives to schools focused on standardized testing, a trend exacerbated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Last month, 16 teachers from Wingra traveled to San Francisco for a national conference of the Progressive Education Network, representing the largest non-California cohort.

"It's very exciting that there's a movement across the country for schools to refocus on how kids learn and how to teach kids how to think," Perkins says.

Last week, the Madison school board's performance and achievement committee met to discuss "school models" and explore whether to expand the district's offerings of charter, magnet or specialty schools.

Many were deeply disappointed last year when the board voted 4-3 to reject Studio School, a proposed arts and technology elementary school based on a "constructivist" teaching approach similar to Wingra's progressive model.

While embraced in many parts of the United States, the idea of public school choices has long been a sensitive subject in Madison. Superintendent Art Rainwater and the teachers union have generally opposed such experiments, saying they'll damage neighborhood schools by draining away resources and the best teachers and students. But parents, community groups and education activists say the district may be shooting itself in the foot by clinging to its "one size fits all" philosophy.

Rainwater contends that Madison has a "fairly good continuum of learning environments," citing the district's two charter schools, Nuestro Mundo and James C. Wright, its one specialty school, Spring Harbor, and its high school alternatives, including Shabazz and several programs under the Affiliated Alternatives School.

He urged the school board to thoroughly assess its motive for exploring new choices: "Why are you doing this? There needs to be a reason." He said, "just having options for the sake of options" was not justification enough.

Carol Carstensen noted that some past efforts to diversify choices have failed, including a 1994 plan to use magnet schools to combat segregation patterns. "The critical issue is, What do we need to do to engage a broader range of students in what's happening in school?" she told the board. "Alternative strands are one possible response, but that may not be the best way."

Carstensen is leaving the board next April, as is Lawrie Kobza, who's leading the review despite her "no" vote on the Studio School. The two announced replacement candidates, Marj Passman and Ed Hughes, both say they're hesitant to embrace charters and specialties. Passman opposed the Studio School plan, and Hughes says he doesn't know enough about it: "While I am open to persuasion on charters, my focus now is on strengthening our neighborhood schools."

Board member Maya Cole, meanwhile, remains the loudest voice for more options. "The current system isn't the best, the end-all, be-all, at least in my mind," she says. "I'm willing to take that risk of [engaging] students in different ways. Sometimes I do feel like we're on this island of Madison, and that the entire state is trying different things, our neighboring states are trying different things."

There are legitimate concerns that must be overcome if the district decides to offer greater public school choice. Cost is a big factor. Another is demographic balance, as any alteration to school attendance could increase racial and low-income segregation in some schools.

But the failure to experiment more aggressively has its own risks. Increasingly, observers worry that the lack of choices is sending middle- and upper-class families packing, taking with them the corresponding state aid that comes with their enrollment in Madison public schools. District enrollment has been in decline in recent years, despite a population boom.

At Wingra, it doesn't take long to find such families. One parent setting up for an organic lunch catered by the Willy Street Co-op says her child languished in a Madison elementary classroom filled with "high needs" kids who consumed the teacher's focus.

The mother says her daughter was assigned to tutor and assist a boy who came from an unstable home. The daughter wasn't learning, grew frustrated and didn't want to go to school anymore. Meetings with the teacher and principal failed to produce a good resolution, and the parents discovered Wingra. Now, the mother can't stop talking about how much her daughter loves school.

To Perkins, Wingra's director, this is a familiar story. "What she's describing is a good school and probably a good teacher," she says. "The reality is, the resources just aren't there."

Wingra doesn't face the same challenges as public schools, and its approach is not ideal for all types of learners. Its students come from a pool that can afford its $10,000 annual tuition - self-motivated students responding to high expectations and strong support from home. It has enviably small class sizes and a rich supply of parent volunteers.

But Madison schools actually spend $13,000 per student, on average. And much of what Wingra does in terms of teaching methods could be replicated in other school environments. Lincoln Elementary's open classroom approach is one example. And the support for the Studio School last year demonstrated the demand for "progressive" options in Madison's public system.

Wingra's students go on to Madison high schools and are often academic leaders. At West, five class presidents in the past decade have been Wingra grads. Perkins says there are "tons" of Wingra students with advanced degrees and successful careers - all whose love of learning started in a nontraditional classroom.

"We have never lost sight of the hope that Madison will do this in the public schools," says Perkins. "Our big question is, Why isn't this happening elsewhere in Madison?"

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