In response to a proposal by local parents, the Sunnyvale School District started Fairwood Explorer in the 2010-11 academic year as a pilot program. Housed in Fairwood Elementary School under the administration of Principal Sarah Tellez, this parent-participation, hands-on, project-based learning program began with 60 students in Kindergarten through 3rd grade classes. This academic year, there are 222 students in the Fairwood Explorer program, with its first class of 5th graders moving onto middle school at the end of 2012-13 school year. On the whole, Fairwood’s enrollment has grown from 285 in 2010-11 to 415 this school year.
Sunnyvale School District is ready to roll out the Explorer model to the entire Fairwood School this fall. Up to 84 kindergarteners will be admitted (in three kindergarten classes and one kindergarten-1st grade combo class) and from this point forward all incoming classes will be in the Explorer program. Both the neighborhood and Explorer classes follow the same State-mandated curriculum; it is the delivery and enhancement of the curriculum that sets the Explorer program apart. The Explorer classes have a higher adult-to-student ratio as a result of parent volunteers in the classroom. There are more small group hands-on activities, adult-guided project-based learning, and more frequent field trips (roughly once a month).
In preparation for implementing the Explorer model in all of Fairwood’s classes, Principal Tellez has budgeted her school funds to provide substitute teachers so that Explorer teachers may work with other teachers in the same grade-level in all-day mentoring meetings. The goal is to train every teacher on the Explorer philosophy of teaching and methods of enhancing learning in students. A program coordinator will be hired to help integrate all the parents, ones who are familiar with the Explorer model and ones who are new to it.
One of the founding parents of the Fairwood Explorer program, Allison Ireland, has been a parent in the program for four years, with her two children now in 1st and 3rd grades. She shared that she has been pleased with the Explorer program so far, and “the way the parent community has come together, the tremendous and positive impact parents have on their children, have exceeded my expectations of the program.” The Explorer program relies on teams of parents and teachers collaborating on curriculum, lesson planning and hands-on learning activities for each subject matter: art, music, garden, etc. The program asks parents to volunteer two hours per week per child and to serve on a team (gardening, art, fundraising, etc.). The variety of volunteer work includes assisting the teacher in the classroom, doing preparation work at home, serving on instructional teams and being involved in parent organizations. Currently the Explorer program has an Explorer Parent Board (coordinates programs/events for the school) and an Explorer Alliance (fundraising). The parents in Fairwood’s Neighborhood classes (all classes not in the Explorer program) have a PTG (Parent Teacher Group). Ireland looks forward to the fall when all these organizations will be combined into one parent teacher non-profit organization, working to benefit everyone at Fairwood School.
Tuky Reyes has also been a parent at Fairwood for four years. She has two children, the older of whom is currently in 3rd grade, in the Neighborhood Program at Fairwood School. Though Reyes works full-time, she is an involved parent, volunteering in and outside of her child’s classroom. She believes that “while the traditional style of teaching offers a sound platform to learning, the benefits of hands-on learning enriches that knowledge and is crucial in 21st Century education.“ Like Ireland, Reyes also observes, “the Explorer Program has helped established a solid parent network.” Reyes further noted that the notion of parents working together to assist in the classroom and school functions is slowly spreading throughout the school, though is still primarily dominant in the Explorer classes. She commented, “Principal Tellez has done an excellent job at balancing both the neighborhood program and the Explorer program given the resources at hand.” Reyes’ main concern with the Explorer expansion will be how all parents contribute to assisting in the classroom. Certainly there will be challenges as Fairwood Elementry becomes Fairwood Explorer in the fall. Principal Tellez is aware of the various needs of the program and that of the families at her school, and is ready to work closely with the Fairwood community to ensure a successful transition.
Contributors: Allison Ireland, Fairwood Explorer parent; Tuky Reyes, Fairwood Neighborhood parent; Nina Wong-Dobkin
Correction: Article has been updated to reflect the correct 2010-11 enrollment number of 285 students.