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Fort Hill Collaborative Elementary School was started in 2014 by Principal Jennifer Gonzalez-Funes and her Assistant Principal, Ms. Romero. Beginning with just kindergarten and adding a grade each year, the school was designed to give young children a rich science and mathematics education. “I wanted to introduce young students, especially young girls, to a rich STEAM (science technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) education,” says Principal Gonzalez-Funes, “because there are so many career opportunities in that arena.”
Fort Hill’s leadership team believes that a great STEAM curriculum is active and hands-on. “The approach that we take is ‘inquiry first’,” says Principal Gonzalez-Funes. “We want teachers to understand what skills students already possess for tackling a particular problem or standard. Sometimes students come up with creative, logical ways of breaking down problems that the teacher may not have thought of.”
“I have always been one to struggle in a structured ‘sit down and focus’ learning environment,” said Principal Gonzalez-Funes. “I want my school to be a place of inquiry, engagement, and exploration for both students and adults.”
In an effort to increase hands-on learning opportunities and blended learning in classrooms, some of Fort Hill’s teachers are working with LINC. Following an assessment of their current blended learning implementation, ten of the school’s sixteen teachers are participating in a transformation team pilot, working together with LINCSPRING coaches and using online Cycles in a professional learning community (PLC) every Friday morning. Teachers discuss what they are doing in their classrooms and give each other feedback designed to support further development of blended learning practices.
The school leadership team has carved out a safe space for these teachers to try new things. An “Innovator in Action” sign on the door means that the teacher inside is trying new skills, new software, or new instructional strategies. Through a tacit agreement with the principals, teachers are not evaluated when they’re innovating, giving them the freedom to try new things without the pressure to be exceptional the first few times.
Fort Hill teachers also participate in the Pineapple Project. A pineapple picture, an historic sign of welcome, may be posted outside the classroom. This lets colleagues and staff know that teacher in the room welcomes colleagues, coaches, administrators, and others to drop in and observe the classroom to give feedback or observe new strategies like those being studied in their Friday PLC.
“Technology is now being used for more than babysitting,” said Principal Gonzalez-Funes. “I used to hear teachers say things like, ‘You can use the iPad for 15 minutes if you get your seat work completed.’ Technology was more of incentive for good behavior. Now, our pilot teachers are practicing station rotation and using technology meaningfully for advancing student learning. And giving students choices over stations has meant an increase in student voice in the classroom.”
Tiffany Allen, Fort Hill’s STEAM teacher, has been offering numerous enrichment opportunities in all the classrooms. Some students are learning to code. Other students participate in a grow-to-learn garden. A kitchen is available to explore the science of cooking and work with recipes and fractions. And for the first time this year, students across the school participated in the City’s soap box derby, an engineering project.
THE FUTURE OF CLASSROOM INNOVATION
Amanda Perillo, Fort Hill’s performing arts teacher, commented, “Using LINCSPRING has definitely sparked a fire under a number of our teachers in the pilot. It has encouraged them to
focus on 21st century learning, not simply the use of technology. LINCSPRING has given teachers agency to leave their textbooks, to innovate in the classroom, and to use technology to support rich instruction.”
“I’m anxious to see the impact on the New York State test data” said Principal Gonzalez-Funes. “We do lots of benchmark tests and teachers are already seeing progress in student results based on increased engagement, aligned projects, and more rigorous projects.”
Next year, all teachers will be involved in the blended learning project. Those who were involved this year will be coaches for the six teachers who weren’t involved this year, plus the new fifth grade team that starts in the fall.
Gonzalez-Funes is excited about the future for her school. “LINC is coming back to do a post-implementation observation next week. I’m excited to see what the overall change has been in our practice. My goal is to create a blueprint for what innovative, blended learning looks like at Fort Hill,” said Gonzalez-Funes.