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EDUCATION : At Westside Prep, Innovations in Learning Get Chance to Work

November 29, 1990|MARY YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mary Yarber teaches English and journalism at Santa Monica High School. She writes a weekly column on education for The Times

What do teachers do when they want more freedom to develop curriculum and try unusual but promising teaching methods? Some of them open their own schools.

Westside Preparatory School in Culver City was opened this fall by a small group of teachers and other education experts with the goal of combining into one program some of the most noteworthy teaching methods developed over the last 15 to 20 years. The school has 80 students in kindergarten through grade 12. Tuition is $6,000 to $8,000 a year, depending on grade level.

The entire curriculum and teaching approach at Westside Prep is based on the theory of "mastery learning" developed by Benjamin Bloom, an educational theorist at the University of Chicago. Under this approach, students must practice each skill or concept until it is fully learned. The underlying principle of mastery learning, according to Carol Kearney, assistant headmaster at Westside Prep, is that "given enough time, within reason, and enough direct help on specific learning objectives, in the end the product will be higher quality."

Headmaster Les Birdsall said the principal teaching tool in a mastery learning program is revision--"repeating work, doing it over, revising it and refining it until you do your highest quality work."

Spending so much time on review, however, can reduce the amount of material that is covered in class. That could mean that a Westside Prep student might not be introduced to as many writers, math formulas or historical events as students in other schools.

Birdsall is aware of this tension between "depth and breadth" of knowledge but does not yet see a problem. "We'll have to look at that carefully at (year's end)," he said. "It's too early to know what we're struggling with in that area."

Because of the intense practice and review, most Westside Prep students get As and Bs and, not surprisingly, they love the grading system.

"If you make a mistake, (teachers) don't judge you by it," explained seventh-grader Heather Jett.

Cooperative learning is another innovation in teaching used in many public schools, but rarely as intensively as at Westside Prep. Developed in the 1960s by Spencer Kagan, a UC Riverside professor, cooperative learning has students complete assignments and projects in small teams rather than individually.

In doing so, students frequently teach each other. "They learn how we have to function in the workplace, how to be responsible with others in a team project situation," Kearney said.

Students also like the school's comparatively lenient philosophy of testing and deadlines. "If you know you're going to fail a test because you haven't studied," said Dameon Turney, junior, "then you can take it home and do better on it, and actually learn the concept."

The tone of student-teacher relationships at Westside Prep is also unusual and strongly praised by the students. Teachers are addressed by their first names, and participate in a mentoring program through which each teacher monitors and advises a small group of students.

"We know a lot of the teachers well," said Steve Cohen, a junior, "and it's a lot easier to learn when you have a more personal relationship with the teacher."

Kearney agreed on the value and pleasure of knowing students beyond the academic level. "It's really sharing in their lives, feeling like you're working with the entire family to get behind the kid."

Although teacher empowerment is a hot trend at many public schools now, teachers at Westside Prep experience more of it than most. They have the authority to develop their own curriculum and text materials, and it is this freedom that attracted most of the 14 teachers on the staff.

Gary Orlin especially likes being able to choose the books and teaching strategies he uses in his geometry and algebra courses. "I'm in the middle of creating some activity-based projects, which is not usually done in geometry classes," he said. "Instead of just doing book work, we're going to be building geometrical objects and patterns and shapes."

All teachers at Westside Prep have adopted what is known as the interdisciplinary approach to their work. Encouraged by the National Council of Teachers of English, the interdisciplinary approach requires the teaching of a core group of basic thinking skills in all classes.

Reading and writing skills, for example, are taught not just in English classes, but in math and science as well.

It is far too early to judge whether Westside Prep's unorthodox practices are working. But Birdsall has great faith, he says, in his staff's "sense of mission and everybody being committed to the same curriculum."

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