By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Catherine Girard, Jacoby Creek Charter School.
At Jacoby Creek Charter School, students hatch salmon eggs in an aquarium and care for the babies before releasing them into the wild. Students also restore the local watershed, remove non-native plants from hiking trails, test water quality and promote animal spaying and neutering programs through volunteerism and public service announcements.
“Their curriculum is totally real and hands-on,” says Bill Trewartha, whose fifth-grade students are raising salmon. “It fits in with our life-science curriculum perfectly. And we have so much community support. I have more volunteers in my classroom than I know what to do with.”
The motto of the K-8 single-school charter district is “Community: Live in it, learn from it, and give to it.” There is a community garden. Community volunteers are welcome to pitch in. Teachers mentor student teachers at nearby Humboldt State University, who in turn work at the campus tutoring or teaching enrichment classes. Instead of being kept separate, middle school age students spend time with their younger “buddies” on the playground.
But the best form of community is “giving back” through service learning. By linking curriculum and state standards to hands-on projects, students are instilled with a sense of curiosity, purpose and love of learning, while benefiting the rural Humboldt County community of Bayside.
“You can see how much they have learned over the years,” says third-grade teacher Catherine Girard, watching students pull non-native plants from the school’s nature trail. “What they are learning in school makes sense to them because it’s in their backyard. In fact it is their backyard.”
“Some people think that all we do around here is teach to the test, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Karen Simmons, president of the Jacoby Creek Teachers Association (JCTA). “We have high scores because of the good teaching that happens here every single day.”
Among the good teachers is Kirk Goddard, California’s History Teacher of the Year in 2008. He was selected by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History for keeping students engaged with primary documents such as eyewitness accounts from events in history. He modestly says that he is only one of many outstanding teachers.
“We have a great faculty that works very well together,” he relates. “Students are motivated and interested. Starting in kindergarten, they are taught self-discipline and self-motivation techniques, so that by the time they get to the upper grades they have self-discipline. Once they apply what they are studying to their lives, they see value in what they are learning.”
Another key to success is the faculty’s commitment to ongoing and meaningful dialogue. Teachers hold grade-level meetings three times a month and schoolwide staff meetings to discuss issues. Central to these discussions is the school’s vision for the next five years, which includes focusing on student achievement in a depressed economy.
“On the surface, we are no different from any other good public school,” Simmons muses. “We are bound by the same standards as all schools and given the same standardized tests. We have a full special education program. Sometimes we take kids who have worn out their welcome everywhere else and we are asked to fix them. We have given up a lot of things due to the constraints of the state budget. We may be a charter, but being a charter school is not a magic bullet.”
“A good school is really about good teachers,” says seventh-grader Margo La Clair. “The style here is very interactive. They ask us questions so we learn to think critically. I’ve been to a lot of schools, and I like this one the best.”