John Rex Charter Elementary School hits second birthday

When kindergarten teacher Wes Dicken asked his students what they wanted to learn, one student suggested making pancakes.

As other students expressed a similar desire to learn how to make the popular breakfast dish, Dicken wondered how to incorporate pancakes into his lesson plans at John Rex Charter Elementary School.

During a school year, kindergarten students typically learn letters and sounds, practice writing their names and encounter basic math-related skills. Dicken plans for his students to grasp the fundamentals, but he seeks to deliver them in a unique fashion. The pancake lesson could be a counting or shape-recognizing exercise or incorporate new vocabulary words in English or in Spanish.

Dicken previously taught in Newcastle, Indiana, and moved with his wife, who is also a teacher, for open positions at John Rex. The pair said that most school districts push teachers to “follow the steps” found in curriculum books.

Luckily for the Dickens and their students, that is not the message delivered to teachers at the downtown charter school.

“Teachers are given the opportunity to teach some really neat things outside of literacy, math and social studies,” he said. “Teachers can dive into what the kids are interested in … You have the freedom to teach how you want to teach and in a way that kids are going to want to learn.”

Teaching flexibility

John Rex Charter Elementary School, located at the corner of Sheridan and Walker Avenues, opened its doors to students in August 2014. The school is one of 34 charter schools in the state and the only school situated in downtown Oklahoma City. One of the MAPS for Kids projects built the school, and Oklahoma City Public Schools holds its charter.

Year two of the tuition-free school began on Aug. 3 with 380 students. As a public charter school, John Rex depends on state and federal funds, which come through the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as private funding.

Joe Pierce, head of John Rex, said the school is preparing students for academic achievement with a unique edge. Like public schools across the state, teachers follow Department of Education standards. John Rex students also take state-mandated standardized tests.

Mastery of learning takes time, and students learn at different speeds and means. John Rex teachers understand the school is not a “widget factory” in which one-size learning fits all students. That’s why teachers enjoy more instruction time and are encouraged to get creative, said Pierce.

“We still have a huge focus on the foundations of literacy and math,” he said. “There is no doubt those are extremely important, but that is not all we feel we should do. We have a responsibility to bring in science and the arts.”

The school launched a Spanish language program this August, and this year’s kindergarteners are the first to begin Spanish language learning.

Another new program came through a partnership with Oklahoma Arts Council. Professional artists visit the school to teach specific curricula. The program expands an already-existing art program that features an art and music teacher.

‘Higher expectations’

Like all public schools, John Rex is evaluated annually by the State Department of Education, which grades the school on a scale from A through F. John Rex will not receive a grade until fall of 2016, after its first third-grade class completes state testing this spring.

Teachers and administrators are not concerned about “teaching to a test.” Instead, teachers stick to unique teaching styles to achieve higher educational outcomes.

“It is a culture of higher expectations and quality education,” said Pierce, who notes that he is proud of the rich educational environment.

It encourages parents’ involvement and participation in their child’s education. Parents can share lunch with their student, volunteer as chaperones for the walking field trips and attend special PTA events such as Donuts with Dads, a program that brings fathers, students and teachers together to interact before school.

Earlier this month, Dicken taught a lesson on shapes using Wassily Kandinsky’s watercolor “Squares with Concentric Circles.” Students identified shapes in the original piece and painted shapes with watercolors. The result was “KINDERcentric Circles,” a piece showcasing the students’ new knowledge.

“This school encourages you to step out,” said Dicken, “and do things a little differently.”

Print Headline: Expanded learning, Downtown charter school encourages teachers to get creative with lessons for students.