Going back to school this week will be especially exciting for a few thousand Oregon children. They’ll get to be the first students in at least a dozen brand-new Oregon schools.
There are new school buildings every year, and this fall is no different. There’s a new high school campus in Redmond, new charter and elementary schools in the Willamette Valley.
When Salem-Keizer officials cut the ribbon on Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School, hundreds of people came out to watch, and take a look inside.
Eduardo Angulo directs the advocacy group, the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality. He rallied the crowd of mostly Latino families, chanting “Si, se puede!” in call-and-response.
The new elementary in Northeast Salem is the third public school in Oregon named for Chavez.
But the new school has another distinction.
“Our new school is the most technologically advanced teaching and learning lab in the state of Oregon,” Angulo says.
To understand what he means, you have head inside.
Chavez Elementary’s most obvious “learning and teaching lab” feature isn’t inside the classrooms. It’s between them. Assistant Superintendent Mary Cadez is in a small conference room with one-way windows into classrooms on two sides.
“What you’re looking at is, we have four classrooms on each level that are set up, and so this is one observation booth serving two classrooms,” she says.
Cadez says student-teachers will come into this observation room and watch teaching in action – without having to go into the classroom.
The day of the celebration, students served as tour guides even as they got to know the new school themselves. Incoming fifth-grader Kylie Fox had been told that people might be watching them once classes start, from behind mirrors at the back of class.
“Student-teachers will be able to go in, study, and children won’t even know about it because they will be mirrored-off, and not see-able,” Kylie says. “So the kids won’t be distracted, they’ll just be able to work.”
Teachers and students would know when there’s an observation going on, but teachers say the kids will quickly forget. Kylie Fox agrees.
“I will know someone was in there but it won’t distract me as bad, as when I didn’t have those. It feels a little bit more better to do it like that.”
Nicole Bell will teach English as a second language to fourth graders at Chavez Elementary.
“When there’s lots of people in and out of the classroom, sometimes it can be distracting, depending on what you do,” she says. “Having them behind that wall looking in would make the minimal amount of distraction.”
Salem-Keizer administrator Cadez says many of the 600-or-so students at Chavez Elementary will come from poor families, or will need language assistance from teachers like Bell. Cadez says the observation booths will put a spotlight on those childrens’ needs. She hopes it’ll help Salem-Keizer stand out.
“We have the same situation as many schools in Oregon, in trying to hire bilingual teachers and teachers who are comfortable working with second language learners. That was part of it. Also children who come from poverty – those are very, very high on our list of priorities. It’s also representative of many, or most of our schools in the Salem-Keizer district. So it’s a very realistic look at our population.”
District officials also plan to stream video from the demonstration classrooms to education schools at Western Oregon University, for instance.
Chavez Elementary teacher Kelly Leavenworth says there’s certainly value in having student-teachers observing from a distance – some of the time— just not all the time.
“The kids like to look around and see what’s going on, if there are people in the classroom,” Leavenworth says. “But I also invite people to come into the classroom and have conversations with our students, as well. Because who better to ask what they’re learning, than the students themselves?”
Salem-Keizer officials say they’ve already received inquiries from other districts that want to observe the observation booths in action. Administrators in Salem say they’ll be doing their own research at Chavez to see if the observation booths are making a difference in teacher training.