Marin Schools Offer Exciting New Educational Experiences

A botanist leads an elementary school field trip

THIS SPRING, SOME Marin Academy students will have the chance to visit social media companies on a trip led by their entrepreneurship teacher, who is on the faculty of the Athenian School in Danville. Others may meet online with students from Athenian or the Urban School of San Francisco for multivariable calculus study sessions. They may also attend film festivals with their cinema teacher from Lick-Wilmerding, then upload their videos to share with classmates across the Bay Area.

All these courses and a few more are offered as part of the San Rafael High School’s participation in the Bay Area BlendEd Consortium, a prime example of how innovative schools are combining the benefits of technology and one-on-one instruction in a blended or hybrid education model. Using videotaped lectures and teleconferencing allows Marin Academy to pool resources with four other independent schools to offer classes in niche interests that the 410-student school couldn’t cater to on its own, says Liz Gottlieb, a biology teacher who coordinates the program at the school. It’s not all staring at a screen: in several in-person meetings per term, the kids have experiences a traditional course wouldn’t allow time for. In her Bay Area Field Ecology class, Gottlieb will take students camping at Point Reyes, and they will work with naturalists to gather data in the field.

“It’s both independent and extremely facilitated through the learning management system and these trips,” Gottlieb explains.

The efficiency of blended learning, which allows students to study at their own pace and spend less time in class, is one of its most significant benefits, educational consultant Jan Keating says. “The hybrid learning environment is an efficient use of time, which gives kids more time to be creative and use what they’re learning.”

Keating, who helped create Stanford Online High School and Santa Cruz’s Pacific Collegiate Charter School, is working with developer North Coast Land Holdings to propose a hybrid prep school on property formerly occupied by the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Strawberry. This concept, put forward after the Branson School dropped its bid to expand there, would serve both local students and boarders and would combine video conferencing and other technology with on-site resources such as a maker lab or film studio to create an elite school with a highly individualized curriculum, Keating says.

One reason hybrid education can be so personalized is that prerecorded lectures can be watched over and over by students who need the repetition, or skipped by students who already know the concept, she says. Then there’s the advantage that people other than high school teachers can deliver the lectures.

“You can get top people in their fields lecturing on specific topics. They only do it once, and then you’ve got it,” Keating says.

Hybrid or blended education is just one type of educational innovation seen in independent, private, and parochial schools in Marin. Among the others:

Project-Based Learning

A significant innovation in 21st-century education is PBL, which Marin’s own Buck Institute for Education defines as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

The efficiencies and flexibility of hybrid or blended education lend themselves to PBL, but this innovation is also embraced by schools independent of technology use.

Just two of many examples: K-8 Jewish day school Brandeis Marin, in San Rafael, lists PBL as one of its core educational pillars, noting that it “fosters creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving.” Mark Day School, also in San Rafael, incorporates PBL into its first-grade curriculum when students create worm bins to process compost and then create books to educate others about vermicomposting.

“We don’t want to just focus on a lecture format, where the teacher’s just giving all the information, and the kids are memorizing it and taking a test,” says Raquel Rose, assistant superintendent at the Marin County Office of Education. “Project-based learning is more about focusing on the 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.”

Student Leadership

While having a student council is nothing new, schools in today’s Marin give student leaders more opportunity to work out serious issues they and their peers face.

“The old way of doing things was, as the teacher or the guidance counselor, you would identify for the kids what the problem was and coach them through trying to solve it,” Rose says. Now kids are being allowed to call out problems themselves and brainstorm solutions.

In February, students from both private and public Marin schools had the chance to compare notes at the first Marin County High School Leadership Summit, organized by Rose’s office.

“When you take the leadership group from Marin Academy and join them with the leadership group from Redwood and San Domenico, here’s a group of leaders who can come together and say, ‘Here’s what we did at our school,’ or ‘How could we emulate that or make it work for our school?’ ” Rose says.

Outdoor Education

Dovetailing with the trend of less seat time and more projects and independent or collaborative thinking is the increasing prominence of outdoor education in Marin schools. Throw in Marin’s irresistible outdoor landscape, and it’s not surprising that so many independent schools tout the amount of time students spend in nature. Schools frequently credit their forays into the outdoors with building students’ self-reliance as well as fostering cooperation and community.

“The overnight fall trip focuses on hands-on outdoor learning and environmental education. The students learn to work together as a class and form strong connections with their teachers and peers,” reads the website of Fairfax’s small Cascade Canyon School.

Novato’s Good Shepherd Lutheran School works outdoor education into the academic curriculum from fourth grade onwards. Fourth graders spend two nights at Coloma Outdoor Discovery School, near a historic mining town, to flesh out their understanding of California history, and fifth graders spend four nights learning from outdoor science activities in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline “Education Innovations.”