The South Tucson community has illustrated its resilience once again.
Just a few years ago, Ochoa Community Magnet School faced guaranteed closure, a failing score by the Arizona Department of Education and a neighborhood stereotyped for drugs and violence.
They’re still open in 2014 after receiving a B score and gaining more support than ever from the community, after the school was saved under the leadership of Principal Heidi Aranda and a unique approach to learning.
Ochoa Magnet is a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade school at 121 W. 25th St. Although it is a public school, it uses an alternative mode of learning where teachers focus on discovering how the individual child learns best. This mode of learning, known as the Reggio-Emilia philosophy, originated in the small town of Reggio, Italy. It emphasizes the “image” of the child, meaning his or her sense of identity and self-importance. By recognizing the student’s social, cultural and personal identity, teachers think students can understand who they really are.
“Everyone knows, ‘I belong here, I am welcome,’” studio art teacher Mimi Gray says. “They know they are acknowledged and respected.”
In addition, the Reggio approach employs an “emergent” curriculum, which is flexible and constantly evolving to meet the needs of the students. In fact, the most notable difference between the Reggio approach and traditional teaching is how teachers structure classroom learning.
Teachers try to observe the children and their interests in the classroom, according to Kira Moore-Rendon, learning support coordinator and counselor at Ochoa. The school is still guided by state standards and students take the same standardized tests of non-magnet schools. Teachers have a lesson plan, but keep it open for adjustments. They try to embed the necessary knowledge of the curriculum into the children’s interests, as opposed to using a straight curriculum and teaching by the book.
“If kindergarteners are really interested in dinosaurs, we incorporate dinosaurs into the classroom, whether it’s by literature about dinosaurs for reading or mathematical problems involving dinosaurs,” Moore-Rendon says.
Ochoa wasn’t always this progressive. In the winter of 2008, it was on TUSD’s list of four schools that had to close. According to Aranda, it was the hardest year of her professional career.
“I remember standing in this big room with all of the teachers and parents, and telling them the school was going to close,” Aranda says. “That’s a big deal.”
After breaking the news, Aranda says the room turned into a campaign center.
“Parents and teachers immediately organized themselves and flipped on this switch,” she says. “Parents were taking off work and going to Walgreens to get supplies for posters.”
Aranda says Ochoa avoided closure by the work of the community. At one board meeting, more than 600 people gathered and made a human chain around the school. Hundreds of people wrote letters and attended board meetings, where many of them wanted to speak out in support, according to Aranda.
In March 2009, TUSD reversed its decision. A few months before, in January, Ochoa was approved to become a Reggio-Emilia inspired school and the process was underway.
“It was like going through growing pains at first, because the staff was unsure if it was best for the school,” Aranda says.
At the end of the process, 100 percent of the school council voted to be a Reggio school.
“Anything that’s worth doing in life is going to be difficult,” she says. “If something is too easy, you have to wonder if it’s that good.”
Aranda’s dedication to the school ensured it remained open and even brought their score from the Arizona Department of Education up from a failing grade, a change that she attributes to the Reggio program.
She also says the program succeeds because ownership isn’t in the teacher’s hands: kids are personally invested in the content of their classrooms, making it easier for students to make connections with what they’re learning.
“Research says learning that involves children having ownership will be sustainable,” Aranda says.
Gray, an art teacher at Ochoa, has been studying the Reggio approach since 2000. After visiting Reggio, Italy, and fully embracing the fundamentals of the philosophy, Gray argues that students who immerse themselves in this mode of education actually learn more than children at traditional public schools because they are invested in their studies.
Four days a week, she works with groups of four to six kids at a time in her art studio for 45 to 50 minutes. According to Gray, the studio is not focused on art education like a regular public school classroom might be. Instead, Gray begins the class with a “provocation,” otherwise known as an activity that “provokes” exploration and creativity.
She says students should learn conceptually, not like they’re in a box.
“We don’t have a picture of Monet up on the projector, talking to the students about the different strokes and techniques used to create the piece,” Gray says.
The classroom is not your standard rows of desks and dusty chalkboards. A sunny, open space filled with hundreds of different materials, colors and shapes welcomes students. Easels stand sporadically throughout the room, surrounded by round and rectangle tables that serve for different activity stations. One table, titled “the circle table,” is stacked with varied sizes of tangerine, magenta and aquamarine cardboard circles for the younger students. Organized shelves line the walls, some holding miniature mason jars of bright Crayola crayons while others display massive glass vases with sticks protruding out.
In order to teach basic early knowledge about colors and shapes, Gray employs alternative methods to simply telling students what colors are.
“Everyone is so concerned, do the kids know their colors and do they know their shapes,” Gray says.
During one class, she had a small metal tower standing in the center of the classroom with a basket of pink fabric beside it. She instructed the children to start decorating, and they instantly started hanging, draping and cutting.
“While they were doing it, they were learning how to tie knots, tie bows and work together,” Gray says. “They were cutting, and this stuff is kind of tricky to cut if you’re a new cutter.”
She added that Ochoa is different from regular public schools because the teacher suspends judgment.
“If a student comes up with a theory and it’s incorrect, the teacher will stand back and allow the child to figure its plausibility for themselves,” Gray says. “It’s the process of finding out that is the focus of education here…not finding all of the right answers all the time.”
In addition, Gray says learning at Ochoa is about creativity just as much as math or science.
“It’s about constructing knowledge,” Gray says. “We all have to come to our own way of learning on our own.”
She says she believes knowledge comes and goes, is relative to the environment you’re in and relies on the marriage between creativity and problem-solving. This assertion is just one of the key fundamentals of the Reggio approach. The staff and curriculum maintain that sustained learning is constructed through past and ongoing experiences and interactions with materials, knowledge and people.
“Working with materials and connecting it to context allows students to learn about the world,” Gray says.
This philosophy stems from the poem, “The Hundred Languages of Children,” written by a founder of the Reggio-Emilia program. One stanza reads, “The child has a hundred languages, a hundred hands, a hundred thoughts, a hundred ways of thinking of playing, of speaking.”
Ochoa employs this poem by recognizing how the school must offer students many ways of learning.
“There’s not one way to learn, and children need a lot of ways to research,” Gray says.
The staff believes every child is competent and important. In Gray’s class, she only offers the best brushes, paper and paint.
“Every kid’s a best kid,” she says. “We don’t give them anything funky or broken.”
In addition, students frequently draw self-portraits in order to illustrate how they see themselves and spark a discussion on self-awareness.
Cesar Aguirre, parent volunteer, says the high value on the child’s image is one of his favorite aspects of Ochoa. He’s been volunteering for the past four years, helping out one to three times a week in his first and fourth grade children’s classrooms.
“At one point I was commuting 45 minutes every day to bring my kids to this school, I could barely afford the gas,” Aguirre says. “That’s how much we love it here.”
According to Aguirre, the teachers at Ochoa are simply “amazing,” sincerely taking time to get to know children and their families. Some teachers have started taking Spanish classes to communicate better with certain kids and families.
Growing up, Aguirre says he was never told he was good enough in school although he knew he was intelligent. Because he thought outside of the box, he felt he never quite fit.
“It was very important that my kids be at a school where they were allowed to think what they think and be accepted and appreciated,” he says.
Aguirre’s fourth-grade daughter, Alissa Aguirre, says she loves her school because she feels safe in her classroom. In addition, she gets to learn about topics she cares about.
“I like writing because the writing is focused on things I like, like medicine and diseases,” she says.
Aguirre has unknowingly noticed what Ochoa specifically aims to do: incorporate topics students are interested in into day-to-day learning.
“At Ochoa, we are raising a generation of learners who are personally invested,” Principal Aranda says.
Not only did the switch to a Reggio approach change Aranda’s professional career, it also transformed the way she sees learning.
“It’s not about having the perfect lesson plan,” she says. “It’s about using the children’s knowledge to drive the curriculum.”