ROCK among programs under scrutiny
Plans to redesign, alter or dismantle four small teaching pods for ninth- and 10th-graders at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo are upsetting parents who say their children love the programs and don’t want to lose them.
In particular, parents of students in ROCK, or Revolution of Core Knowledge, program say their kids want and need the support of that type of small learning community — or SLC — that it provides.
“It’s disappointing to learn that ROCK will be closing after almost 30 years in our community,” said Jennifer Bryant of Fairfax, one of nearly 200 parents who attended a feedback session last week with Drake principal Liz Seabury.
“I feel that this is the education that I’ve been wanting for my daughter this whole time: project-based learning with real world applications for her to sink her teeth into — all while maintaining high academic standards,” Bryant said. “It’s also what sets Drake apart from other local high schools. I’m super-bummed for her and for future generations of students.”
But Seabury and other Drake officials said ROCK and the other “community-within-a-community” programs have been ongoing since 1992 and are need of a redesign. She said the plans are still in flux for the groups, and she declined to confirm any intent for a wholesale closure. A school task force has been looking at potential changes for more than a year, she added.
“Our parent meeting (on Oct. 2) was informative in nature and we did receive feedback that we are working on responses to in an upcoming newsletter,” Seabury said, referring to an online bulletin board for parents, Drake Direct.
“We do not know the future of our programs at this time,” she added. “But we do know that in order to create more aligned and equitable programs and decrease the competition for spaces in particular, specialized, SLCs, current programs need to be reconsidered.”
Despite those assurances and clarifications, parents like Bryant and Laurie Sterling of Mill Valley, who said their children are thriving at ROCK, added that they wonder if the decision has already been made to close the SLCs and, specifically, ROCK. Sterling said she felt “deeply disappointed and disheartened” by that idea.
“I am shocked at the notion the administration would dismantle a team of teachers who set the highest standard for the SLCs at Drake and break up what has been a powerful teaching team, making a difference in thousands of students lives over two-plus decades in service to this community,” Sterling said. “The administration seems to want to get excitement from the community about changes in order to make the SLCs more fair and consistent with regard to ‘common outcomes’ and become less ‘misaligned.’”
According to the parents, students are selected for one of maybe about 100 or so slots in each SLC after they submit a list of their first three choices. While some students get their first choice of ROCK, not all students have the same luck. The dissatisfaction from those families may be a reason for the restructuring, according to Bryant and Sterling.
Seabury declined comment on whether there have been lawsuits filed or threatened by parents of children who did not get their first choice of SLC.
Meanwhile, the four ROCK teachers — Mary Kitchens, Michael Wing, Paul Grifo and Jasper Thelin — also declined specific comment, saying the situation was too complex for quick interpretations. They have been working together in the program for the last 20 years.
“This is a complicated and nuanced story,” Wing said in an email. “ROCK has been in continuous existence since 1992.” Reasons and questions about what’s next, “are numerous and not at all clear,” Wing wrote.
According to a email sent by Kitchens to ROCK parents on Oct. 3 provided to the Independent Journal, the school has already told those four teachers that they would not be working together next year — and hinted that the same news has been likely given to teachers in the DaVinci program, another small learning community that is under review.
Former ROCK parent Henry Kyburg said he could not understand why the school was tinkering with two such popular programs.
“I assume the reason is that many students and parents complain that they cannot get in — is this true?” Kyburg asked in an email. “The competition is high to get in, and the results are fantastic. My daughter was lucky enough to be in ROCK. While the work load was high, the payoff has been fantastic.”
Kyburg added: “There is already talk of starting a charter to provide this program to the Ross Valley School District. You bet my family would be on board if it meant my next child could have the same opportunity.”
Seabury, meanwhile, said she understands why the programs have been successful.
“The small learning communities for ninth- and 10th-grade students provide large schools with a structure to organize students into a smaller ‘community-within-a-community,’ with the same three to four teachers for their core classes during those first two critical years of high school,” she said.
“Students are also enrolled in classes not included in their small learning communities, which can include other graduation requirements and their electives unless included in the SLC,” she added. “This structure, which Drake began using in 1992, has many cultural benefits around student support, providing relevant curriculum driven by project-based learning and fostering a stronger connection to school.”
Nonetheless, Seabury added: “Twenty-seven years later, it is time to reflect, study and re-imagine this foundational approach to the educational model at Drake High School.”
Now that the task force has finished its review, Drake staff “are now shifting their focus to drafting ideas for how our SLCs will be designed in the future,” Seabury said. “Our goal, and the next step in our process, is to have a strong draft of a plan that we can share, get input on and implement.”