Change Agents: Education

By Katherine Pioli

Education and the act of educating, it’s all so complicated. Is the most important moment in a child’s successful development when they sound out their first words? After all, research from the Foundation for Child Development suggests that “the foundations of brain architecture, and subsequent lifelong development potential, are laid down in a child’s early years.” Or, can a child truly be reached later in life at a point where the ever-growing achievement gap—over the last 50 years studies show little progress in our nation’s struggle to help black and minority students reach the academic achievement levels of their white peers—seems to be at its widest?

And, when you take an even closer look at education, what is it that we should really be teaching our next generation? Should they learn how to make positive social and emotional connections? Does it all rest on knowing the A, B, Cs and 1, 2, 3s or is it encouraging a child’s inherent curiosity?

This month, CATALYST returns to the series Change Agents with a look at alternative ideas, programs and practices in education found right here in Utah. We profile programs like the Advancement Via Individual Determination program now finding its way into high school classrooms. We look at preschools that are reaching and opening the minds of our youngest with very different tools, from computer games to climbing trees. And we recognize educators who are helping Utah create a new story and new pathways in education. Take a look.

Katherine Pioli

Associate Editor, CATALYST

The Preschool Effect
Studying birds and bees: Honeybee Nature School

When students at Honeybee Nature School get dropped off in the morning, they come dressed for the weather—rain, shine or snow. For the first hour, sometimes two, these little kids won’t have a roof over their heads. Instead they’ll be jumping into free play and where that takes them is always a little different, says teacher and founder Julie deWolfe.

For instance, when a dead bird was discovered, one recent morning, deWolfe grabbed a shovel and brought the animal to the middle of the yard. “We shared everything we knew about birds,” says deWolfe. “We talked about the life cycle of birds, what would happen to it after we buried it, how we treat animals. And we decided to make it a special day for the bird. All the kids gave nature gifts to it and decorated the area around it, that took an hour; they were interested and curious.”


In a time when parents worry about everything from their child’s grit to the effects of nature deficit disorder, the students at Honeybee Nature School are getting lessons in risk assessment and body awareness by climbing trees (under supervision) and in communication and social skills by spending most of their day learning through playing and active engagement with the natural world and each other.

Julie deWolfe, who was homeschooled while growing up in rural Maine, always knew she wanted to work with kids, but her experience teaching at a private East Coast school, where every second of the day was planned and controlled, left her frustrated by the lack of creativity and freedom allowed her young students. During a yoga retreat in India, deWolfe had an epiphany and returned to the United States to enter a teacher training program at Cedarsong, a nature school in Washington, and, in 2014, she started Honeybee Nature School in Ogden.

Preschool is not inexpensive ($370-$1,000/month), and the Honeybee Nature School is mid to that range ($120-300/month for one or three days/week). The school , which employs three teachers, has a waiting list.

By noon, the 21 Honeybees (ages 2-6) have played, eaten a snack, practiced yoga, stopped for lunch and are ready for story time. Then, it’s back to nature immersion and closing the day with circle time. Circle is deWolfe’s favorite moment in the day. It’s when she gets to hear about all the fun things her students learned and discovered.  — KP

Where creativity reigns: Children’s SLC (Synergistic Learning Collaborative)

Libbi Malmborg and Markell McCubbin are well aware of the current buzz words in education: social emotional learning (a focus on classroom cooperation and empathy), inclusive environment (mixing children with various “abilities” and ages), project-based learning (using in-depth, creative exploration of a single theme, like hurricanes, to approach reading, science, art). While these concepts are often in practice at Children’s Synergistic Learning Collaborative, the two women who founded this educational experiment are reluctant to use the terms. Because, like so many buzz words, their overuse has made them virtually meaningless and, when it comes down to it, there’s one thing that Children’s SLC really wants to cultivate and that is a child’s natural curiosity.

Malmborg recounts the story of her own child, who excelled in her regular public school and got perfect grades, but was almost petrified by the fear of failure. “She didn’t want to take any risks,” says Malmborg. Learning, it seemed, was no longer fun and rewarding.

So Malmborg brought her daughter to the  one-room downtown classroom she and McCubbin had founded, where toys are scattered in every corner and a library book loan receipt taped to the top of a door reaches all the way to the carpet. Without being pushed to complete a litany of tasks, without her progress being compared to the other children around her, Malmborg’s daughter (now in the 5th grade), alongside the school’s 20 other mostly preschool and early elementary age children, once again found her stride.

Markell McCubbin earned her master’s in Special Education and taught at the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning. Libbi Malmborg has a master’s in Speech-Language Pathology and years of observation and intervention in schools and private settings. What they both saw in traditional schools and in the Special Ed classrooms were children who weren’t listened to, children pushed to reach grade-level and curriculum standards when they weren’t ready, and children who weren’t given a safe space or enough time to practice the academic concepts, social skills, even speech and communication skills being taught. Without being able to create the change they wanted to see within the system, they decided to try something of their own.

With so much focus on self-directed learning and play, indoors and out in nature, some may wonder when any “work” gets done.  “We are a very academic school,” McCubbin assures. “We make sure the important pieces fall into place, we just don’t push.”

“We are constantly aware,” adds Malmborg. “If we find a moment to insert a mini lesson we jump in and deliver a concept, but then we back away again and allow them to work with that and play with it.” — KP

Plug in, sit down, learn: UPSTART

In trying to meet the standards for No Child Left Behind, Utah lawmakers started looking for holes in the state’s education system. Where and at what point were students beginning to fall behind in core subjects like math and reading? The question took lawmakers to a surprising place, all the way back to  preschool.

It turns out that preparing a child to succeed in school starts even before first grade. Access to kindergarten and preschool programs, where the basic work of letter recognition and sounding words begins, is crucial.

Out of 41 school districts in Utah, 18 are rural, with limited access to early education programs. So the state decided to try something new. If you can’t send all children to preschool, send  preschool into families’ homes.

Plunking youngsters down in front of a computer is not every parent’s ideal start to their child’s education, but in a lot of ways UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow), an in-home school-readiness software-based program for preschool-age children, seems to be working. The Utah Legislature launched a five-year pilot program called UPSTART in 2008 through the Utah State Office of Education (administered by the non-profit Waterford Institute). The program’s target audience is families with young children in rural areas with limited or no access to education services, transportation challenged communities, families who don’t want to send children to preschool centers and children needing additional skill development such as non-native speakers. In its first year, UPSTART enrolled 1,308 students. Families without a computer receive one on loan from the program.

UPSTART has reasonable expectations. Child participants are expected to spend 15 minutes per day, five days a week, on the lessons—for a total of 75 minutes per week. The programs, like Rusty and Rosy Learn with Me and Camp Consonant, use games, songs, digital books and animation to teach and test reading, science and math.

The five-year pilot showed enough beneficial results that UPSTART was awarded a Validation Grant of $11.5 million by the U.S. De­part­ment of Education to expand into additional rural communities. The Utah Legislature also extended funding for the program in 2014, and the following year two pilot programs began in South Carolina and Idaho.


Reaching Higher

Valerie GatesGrowing up in Montreal, Canada Valerie Gates learned to speak both English and French and later in life, while traveling through South America in her late teens and early 20s, she picked up her third language, Spanish. Knowing what it’s like to express herself in three different tongues, especially in a language learned after the prime years of language acquisition have passed, gives Gates a special understanding of what it’s like for her students, many of whom are refugees, navigating their world and their educations as non-native English speakers.

“You aren’t able to ever truly express what you’re thinking,” says Gates. You may begin to feel that the level of language you can express is the level of your intellect.

Over the years, Utah, one of the most refugee-welcoming states in the Union, has resettled close to 60,000 displaced people. In addition, the latest census numbers show that more than 400,000 Latinos now live in Utah. So it’s little surprise that one in eight school-age children (ages five to 17) speaks a foreign language at home (according to a 2014 report from the Center for Immigration Studies).

With our school population changing and becoming more diverse, helping students achieve their most requires addressing not just academic achievement but, first of all, language comprehension and fluency. The work of teachers like Gates is becoming increasingly important.

In September, Valerie S. Gates, who has been teaching at West High School in Salt Lake for 13 years, earned the title of 2017’s Utah ­Teacher of the Year. “Valerie Gates speaks to students as if they are all partners in learning,” wrote historian Eileen Hallet Stone in support of Gates’ nomination. “Since [Gates] respects [each student’s] ability to take on high expectations and extend their own ability to learn, they seem more willing to achieve.”

The recognition honors the way Gates has dedicated her life to helping students master English as their second language and set goals for education beyond high school.

In addition to her work with ESL (English as a second language) students, Gates incorporates into her classroom a new national program called Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), to help close the nation’s achievement gap and make college aspirations a reality. Starting in elementary school, the AVID program focuses on organization and preparedness and teaches young students how to formulate strategies for success. In later learning, the program folds into the overall culture of learning, creating a positive learning culture with high expectations that students understand they can meet through hard work and personal determination.

—Sophie Silverstone

Utah’s American Indian education plan: SB 14 needs better funding

One piece of legislation easily stood out in the long list of bills from the 2016 Utah state legislative session. At first glance it seemed rather progressive. Though only a resolution, SB 14 called for state action in “eliminating the achievement gap for American Indian and Alaskan Native students and outlines the need for a state plan.”

Upon reading the bill we concluded that SB 14 needs more work before it can be considered a true agent of change, but it’s still worth a look and maybe a nudge from the public to get some real change underway.

The bill falls short particularly in the area of funding, which is super meager. It calls for $250,000 to be spent as grants over a five-year trial period. That’s asking the state to use $50,000 a year, spread out over multiple school districts. The plan indicates that this funding will be available only to “American Indian concentrated schools” identified as schools with a number of Native students 29% or greater.

The main challenge addressed by the bill is teacher retention and it appears that the extra funds are meant to create a more competitive stipend for recruitment and retention of professionals at these “concentrated” schools. In addition to that, the money is intended to help implement a number of changes recommended by the 2015 American Indian-Alaskan Native Education Commission including: creating culturally relevant curriculum, protecting heritage languages, building administrative support for Native students, strengthening tribal support of initiatives, and building statewide collaborations to address specific student needs.

Sounds good; now, let’s fund it properly so that the SB 14 pilot succeeds.

—Emma Ryder

Karen A. Johnson: U of U professor studies successful African American women educators

Karen A. JohnsonWith a persistent national achievement gap between black and white students, questions about how to improve the quality of education for African Americans continue to pester educators like Karen A. Johnson, Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of Utah. Johnson attempted to address the achievement gap question by looking at successful African American women educators throughout our country’s history and the methods they used in the classroom and in their schools.

The resulting book, African American Women Educators: A Critical Examination of their Pedagogies, Educational Ideas, and Activism (a collaboration of essays co-edited by Johnson, Abul Pitre and Kenneth L. Johnson) tells stories about women like Lucy Craft Laney (1854-1933), founder of the Augusta, Georgia chapter of the NAACP and founder and principal of the Haines Institute, an African American women’s school. Under Laney’s guidance the school followed the philosophy “no part of the child be left untouched, mind, spirit and body.” At Laney’s school young women learned just about everything: practical domestic arts, carpentry, printing, cosmetology, bookkeeping, public speaking, math, history, religious education, rhetoric, composition, grammar, algebra, Latin, Greek, political science, philosophy, logic, debate and athletics.

Since the book’s publication, in 2014, Johnson has been pleased to note from fellow professors that African American Women Educators is indeed in use in classrooms around the country and in Europe as well as, of course, in Johnson’s own classroom at the U of U.

In an email response to CATALYST, Johnson wrote, “I felt compelled to work on the book because there was a scarcity of knowledge about these 19th century and early to mid-20th century black women educators. We must know more about who they were and what they did as well as the issues and movements that characterized the different periods of time in which they lived. We must analyze and understand their overall experiences as educators and black women in order to know more fully their impact and their distinctive contribution to American education. In the field of educational history, the stories of African American educators, in particular black women educators, are rarely included. Yet, African American women have played vital roles in American society and in the field of education their contributions have been most salient.” u

—Katherine Pioli


This article was originally published on November 1, 2016.