Charter school draws on principles learned at Brandman

April 08, 2015
Brandman University alum Ruth Dutton, M.Ed., is the founding principal and superintendent of Sycamore Valley Academy in Visalia, California.

Ruth Dutton, M.Ed., is the founding principal and superintendent of Sycamore Valley Academy in Visalia, California.

Spend a few minutes talking to Ruth Dutton and suddenly you can see all the possibilities for making school exciting, fun, engaging and, yes, educational.

The Brandman University Master of Arts in education graduate is the founder and principal/superintendent of Sycamore Valley Academy in Visalia. The autonomous charter school, the first in the Visalia Unified School District, grew out of what Dutton learned while earning her master’s, her personal experience as a gifted student and daughter of a teacher, and the frustration and worry she felt about her own daughter’s education.

But unlike some parents with concerns about their children’s educations, Dutton didn’t turn to home schooling. Instead, she thought what would be good for her children would be good for other children.

“I think every teacher thinks ‘I could do better if I could start my own school,’ but it wasn’t until I had to, when my daughter’s life was on the line, that I got serious about it,” said Dutton.

Dutton credits Brandman with introducing her to the concepts behind constructivism and John Dewey’s progressive education model – at their most simplified, learning by doing through “real life and authentic situations.”

“The progressive approach is really a branch on the tree of constructivism,” she said. “At our school we do project-based learning.” Students not only work on projects, they’re expected to present them to a public audience. The assessment is authentic.

It’s also immediate. Watch a video of Sycamore Valley Academy’s fourth-graders learning about the California missions, a subject every fourth-grader in the state is expected to learn, and you’ll have a good idea of what project-based learning is all about. Instead of reading about the missions, listening to a teacher talk about them and then building a Styrofoam or stick model, Sycamore Academy’s students created games with the help of a community member, researched the topic, revised and designed their games and then held a game night.

More than an education

The academy’s mission isn’t just to educate children. It’s also to help them understand their community and make it and the world a better place. First- and second-graders recently learned about what it takes to make a city, developed business plans and then offered a marketplace where they bought and sold from each other.

Core features of Sycamore Valley Academy
• Multi-age grouping
• Differentiation
• Thematic Learning
• Project-based learning
• Enrichment
• Social and emotional learning
• Authentic assessment
• Collaboration

Those who saw slower sales revised their plans – “learning through the natural process” – and all of the children learned about goods and services, sales and promotion and the market economy. They also learned to count money, one of the standards for their grades.

Because the school was launched in 2012-13, Dutton and her staff are at the forefront of common core teaching. They’ve also drawn from concepts previously used just in classes for the gifted. “We work from the assumption that what’s good for the gifted is good for all children,” she said.

The school is a public school, albeit with a specific mission (charter), and open to all students. New students are chosen each year through a lottery that asks only for name, grade, address and whether siblings are already at the school. The school has grown each year but the number of applicants has grown faster, from two for every seat in the first year to seven for every seat in 2014-15. The number of students identified as gifted make up about 25 percent of the school.

Among them is Dutton’s daughter, now a fourth-grader. Although Dutton had taught at the high school level and had concerns about how No Child Left Behind standards were being implemented, it wasn’t until she saw her daughter’s abilities being thwarted (“you can’t read that book”) and the anxiety it produced, that her concerns converged. “I know the needs of both the classroom and the child.”

She said she thought, “I have a choice. I can fight every year with each teacher and principal to try to get her what she needs, or I can start my own school and help more children as well as my daughter. It was like a light switch and kind of crazy when I think about it now. Why did I think I could do that?”

Work began in 2010

Ruth Dutton starts her staff meetings with a quote from John Dewey's 'Democracy and Education,' a text from her days as a master's student at Brandman.

Ruth Dutton starts her staff meetings with a quote from John Dewey’s “Democracy and Education,” a text from her days as a master’s student at Brandman.

Dutton started work on the school’s charter in October 2010 and completed it in June 2011. Among those offering help were two of her instructors from Brandman, adjunct professor Dr. Karin Dixon and assistant professor Dr. Jim Spence. Both were founding members of the school’s board of directors and Dixon continues to serve as board secretary.

Dutton also recruited members of the Visalia community, held events to raise awareness and worked to build a trusting relationship with the district.

“We operate like a traditional school with a regular schedule,” said Dutton. “But we’re autonomous. We have our own board of directors. The teachers are hired by us. The district has oversight and gave us the permission to operate, but we make all the important decisions at the site level. Our autonomy gives us the flexibility we need to innovate.”

The first year, they shared a site with an existing district school. The second year they moved into a previously closed school, after negotiating for repairs. The 3.5-acre school now has multiple classrooms, a library, 40 people on the staff and 300 students.

“The learning that happened in my graduate work helped me to identify and feel able to respond to the need,” said Dutton, who has begun engaging her staff and the community to develop a strategic plan. “I want to use this institution to prove that student-centered learning is effective,” she said.

Academic equals

Perhaps the best endorsement comes from Dutton’s daughter. Her old school, she told her mother, made her feel like she was either normal but everybody else was a baby or that everybody else was normal and there was something freakish about her. Now, her daughter said, she feels like they’re all “up here.”

“The fact that she feels her classmates are all academic equals is the result of the open-endedness in instruction and our use of gifted strategies with all students. There’s a community of achievement and a culture of academic enthusiasm.,” said Dutton.

Dutton would love to see that community of achievement spread. “I think there’s a missed opportunity so far in the story of charter schools in the state – an arbitrary division between districts and charters. We’re all public educators and we share the goal of providing excellent public education. We need to learn from each other and share ideas more.”

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