January 10, 2011

posted Jan 9, 2011, 5:07 PM by Katherine Stahl   [ updated Jan 9, 2011, 5:08 PM by PFC Webmaster ]

Dear Walnut Acres Parents,


Happy New Year to you all! May 2011 bring peace and joy to your families and many exciting and memorable learning moments to your children! It was a true pleasure to welcome the children back to school after our break.


I love William Spady’s quote that, “All students can learn and succeed, but not on the same day in the same way.” He is speaking to the diversity of our children as learners, not only in their skill levels, but in their interests, motivations, backgrounds and experiences. Our students will not learn in lock step. Instead individual learners make great gains and then plateau; they may stumble and then have ‘aha’ moments of understanding; they may need scaffolded support and then outgrow that support in their own time. Our teachers prize this individuality in our children. We know that each child is unique, and as a team we have processes in place to support our unique learners. In this message I hope to introduce or remind you of these various procedures.


One way to support learners is to provide differentiation through product, process, content, or environment for students in the classroom. This is difficult to do in classrooms with 31 to 34 students, but our teachers are continuing to grow in the practice of differentiation through subtle means such as differentiated questioning or choice activities. They practice more visible differentiation through such strategies as Universal Access, in which grade level teams create flexible groupings of children according to student skill levels. Each child’s placement in a UA group is designed to recognize that student’s current skill level and the strategies and processes that will help that student move forward with learning. Then each UA group provides appropriate next steps in skill development. It is vital to note that these groups reflect skill levels, not ability levels. Students may be moved between UA groups as their skill levels reflect mastery or difficulty. Ultimately, all students are expected to master grade level standards with “just right” amounts of scaffolding and support to succeed.


The challenge of differentiation is that it is never complete! The more a teacher differentiates, the more he or she will see the need for further differentiation. The instructional assistants that are graciously provided through the PFC are a valuable asset in our efforts to develop and refine differentiation strategies. Teachers at Walnut Acres realize that they are extremely lucky to have caring, dedicated assistants to support student learning in our current economic climate.


Schoolwide structures, such as reading intervention, ELD pull-out classes, lunch bunch social skill classes, and learning center support provide further differentiation for our students. Thanks must be extended again to all of you, our PFC members, for our reading intervention program, which is available due to your generosity. Thanks also to the wonderful parent volunteers who work one on one with students in the learning center so that individual children can receive support for finishing class/project work or get extra skill practice. (If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please contact Mary Lou Richards at richardm@mdusd.k12.ca.us.)  


Federally mandated programs to provide student access to learning are in place at Walnut Acres. 504 regulations support students with diagnosed physical or mental disabilities that negatively impact learning, while special education programs, and the SART (School Attendance Review Team) process, are designed to provide another layer of differentiation for students with particular needs. To help refine the kinds of support that an individual child may need, Student Study Teams (SST) meet regularly. The SST is a structure for pertinent personnel, including the principal, psychologist, resource teacher, speech and language therapist, nurse, parent, and teacher, to review the individual strengths and needs of a specific child and develop a plan to support that student’s learning. Walnut Acres also has a Care team (composed of special education personnel and the principal) that monitors the progress of students who have needed or may need extra support.


If you would like further information about 504 plans or special education from a parent’s perspective, we now have a flyer available in the office that will provide you with parent contacts so that you can ask questions or gather information from trained and experienced parents.


The federal/state program for gifted and talented students is not similarly mandated, and it is therefore more difficult to implement. We still do our best to differentiate for gifted students through compacting, tiered assignments, flexible grouping, questioning, interest and classroom learning centers. If you have questions about differentiated learning experiences for your gate-identified student, contact your child’s teacher. I am excited that the use of benchmark exams through Curriculum Associates seems to be a real asset in emphasizing the need to provide differentiated learning experiences not only for gate-identified students, but for all those who are mastering grade level standards early in the year. I am hopeful that our 21st Century Learning efforts will provide us with models and strategies to meet that identified need for enhanced depth and complexity. 


I thank you for taking the time to read this and each monthly newsletter from me. It is my hope that these newsletters provide you with further information about the vision, procedures, and climate in our school community. I encourage you to participate in other community forums to learn what is happening in the district and at Walnut Acres specifically. (See the Communication tab on the PFC website for details.) PAC meetings are a great way to get information about district news, while our PFC meetings and SSC meetings are ongoing opportunities to gather Walnut Acres updates. Please note that our next PFC meeting is Tuesday, January 18 at 7:00 p.m. During my portion of that meeting, I will update the group on solar energy panel status, share homework plan progress, and report on 21st Century Learning innovation activities.


As we enter the new year, I ask you to remember that, “The most inequitable thing we can do for our children is treat each of them the same.” Here’s to a joyful learning year for our unique and precious learners!



Colleen Dowd

Walnut Acres Principal