Although only two years old, Great Valley Academy in Manteca, California has garnered so much attention that traditional districts are contracting to implement the charter school’s visual learning model. High student test scores, hands-on business experience, and above-average physical activity are all trademarks of the school, as well as a merit-pay system for teachers and an open-door policy for parents.
Founder Eldon Rosenow applied years of child development research to create a visual learning model.
“Kids are coming to school with fewer skills and at the same time the state is demanding higher performance and it’s a perfect storm,” Rosenow said. “There is really a lack of intelligence development and a mis-timing of academic demand with brain development.”
‘Every Child a Gifted Learner’
After age six-and-a-half, a child’s developing brain is geared toward visual learning, Rosenow said. So teachers aim to develop that ability.
“I try to incorporate visual games, so [students] are using their eyes to learn,” said Crystal Tanaka, who will teach third grade in fall 2013 at GVA as part of a three-year loop of following her students through grades.
“What if we can create better students to go along with better teachers?” Rosenow asked.
The school includes dyslexic, autistic, and hyperactive children in classrooms, who benefit the visual focus. Regular optometric exams allow the school to recognize visual deficiencies early.
“When you start training intelligence and the skills that gifted kids use, all of a sudden, every child becomes a gifted learner,” Rosenow said.
No Test Prep
Unlike many schools, Great Valley does not focus on test prep.
“We’re really committed to putting kids first in that regard and in instruction that is meaningful and that test results will comes as a byproduct,” said principal Russel Howell.
In its first year, the school’s Academic Performance Index was 800, considered the long-term performance target for California public schools. The maximum API is 1,000.
“We’re all about intrinsic motivators but we’re also all about real-world experience,” Howell said. “Each student has a job in the classroom.”
The students earn school “dollars” for their assigned tasks, which they can use on “market days.”
“One time a month a class will be selling, and another day students will be buying,” Howell said. “So students create and develop their own products, establish services, create games…. They learn from experience, not from a worksheet, so ideas of supply and demand and pricing point become very concrete lessons.”
Student-Focused, Parent Partnering
Putting kids first and partnering with parents create a culture of security and love that breeds successful students, Howell said.
“Too many times [schools] are trying to throw one blanket solution on too many kids, one instructional approach, and it’s not realistic,” he said.
Valerie Ford’s fourth-grader struggled academically until this year at Great Valley, when he took off.
“It was an amazing thing to watch my son,” Ford said. “Even when he was struggling and behind he had such a good support system. He never felt stupid, he never felt frustrated, he just kept pushing on with the support of amazing teachers and an amazing principal.”
“Both our girls’ teachers will communicate with us via e-mail or in person anytime there is a concern, update, or even something they want to praise our girls for,” said GVA parent Jeff Threet, “and both teachers are phenomenal at responding to any text sent, no matter the topic. This type of open communication is priceless to us.”
Ford teaches sign language at GVA and Zumba volunteers.
“Being a big part of your child’s education is a huge blessing in itself,” Ford said. “Knowing you can drop in anytime, that’s a big deal. It’s a fun, thrilling place.”
The greatest determinant of school success is teacher quality, Howell noted: “Seniority alone does not define an excellent teacher.” GVA teachers develop their own professional growth plans and salaries are partially merit-based. This has helped attract and keep top teachers, he said.
“I think it really comes from the top down,” Tanaka said. “They really make the environment work and care. I can go and reflect with them and take risks."