Teaching goes at warp speed at Walnut Elementary, or, as Principal Mark Holmes put it: “For a first-year teacher here, if you can imagine a train flying down the tracks with someone hanging onto the caboose and flapping in the wind, that’s what it’s like.”
The Turlock campus, home to an arts magnet and a math-science magnet, boasts high test scores, a standout attendance rate, uber-involved parents and teachers known for their collaborative zeal.
“You have to get rid of the quiet classroom,” said Mary Jo Lee, a fifth-grade arts magnet teacher. Chatter is welcome here.
It takes a fresh mindset, explained colleague Dianira Schisnewski: “Your whole way of thinking is different.”
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“It’s about their way of thinking instead of our way of thinking,” added sixth-grade teacher Danielle Silveira. In their seventh year of arts instruction, her students get feedback, not lectures, she said. “They are the makers now.”
You have to get rid of the quiet classroom.
Mary Jo Lee, fifth-grade arts magnet teacher
The pace of classes, electives, performances and events is nonstop, Holmes said. But keeping it all grounded is an inclusive attitude and a cohesive campus climate. All of which, he adds, makes students say going to this school is “night and day” different from the rest.
Walnut was built from the ground up to be different, opening in 2007 outfitted for the Renaissance performing arts magnet school on its north side and the Discovery math-science magnet school to the south.
With up to 200 on waiting lists, the 912-student school is always at capacity. More than 400 parents each year go through the district’s paperwork and basic background check to qualify as classroom volunteers and field trip chaperones.
The Walnut parent club raises tens of thousands of dollars each year for field trips and campus purchases. Donations and grant writing by teachers have stocked the school cupboards with class sets of tools, dance shoes, iPads and other well-used extras.
“Having a stage that’s drama ready is a beautiful thing. Having a music room that’s not a converted classroom is a beautiful thing. Having an art studio dedicated to just art is a beautiful thing,” Holmes enthused as he led a whirlwind tour of the school’s artistic side.
We don’t do it because we have to. We do it because we love it.
Kerry Nored, fourth-grade teacher
The music room has a grand piano, walls and tables lined with instruments and mounted sound reflectors. The arts studio has ample storage, a large angled mirror over a front table for demonstrating techniques, a linoleum floor and impervious black lab tables.
“You can make a mess and clean it up in here,” Holmes said, gesturing around the colorful space lined with student pastels and mixed-media artwork. Other displays of art and photography parade across the multipurpose room
That cafeteria/after-school/assembly room serves as performance seating area, but instead of the roll-out stage most schools have, there sits a permanent, two-story black box theater. Over the years, two professional-grade lighting systems and a sound system have added to the dramatic impact. The backstage area opens wide to flip and serve a stepped, open-air stage facing the campus quad.
Student piano recitals seat players at a concert grand piano – larger than the practice grand in the music room. Performers dress in formal attire, introduce the piece they will play, and are bowed offstage with a rose in hand.
Annual drama productions involve students in every phase, including staging, choreography, makeup, costumes, sound and the host of small tasks every professional play entails. “It has it all. It’s just a smaller scale,” Holmes said.
If you don’t get to be creative, play, make mistakes, you’re not going to be productive in 21st-century jobs.
Danielle Silveira, sixth-grade teacher
The school has a dedicated TV studio and Vimeo channel shared by both magnets – part of purposeful mix of right- and left-brain talents.
“A high percentage of (Rennaisance) girls are artistic, creative coders,” said third-grade teacher Irene Hales, who teaches in the arts magnet but picks elective topics that showcase technology, mixing in math-science magnet students.
The school has a unique schedule, giving kids a steady diet of elective choices in blocks of 11 40-minute sessions and a Showcase Day. The 32 offerings range from rocket launching on the science side to boys tap dance and readers theater by arts teachers.
But while the school’s showstoppers are its experiments, electives and performances, at the core of Walnut’s two magnet programs are its academics, steeping the lessons of standard subjects in math, science or art.
For example, Lee ticked off, a unit on explorers can include mapping the sea routes, teaching techniques in visual arts while covering the social studies topic, the science of longitude and latitude, and the math of measuring degrees. The theme of points of view can apply to the American Revolution – “Are you a Tory or a rebel?” – as well as an art lesson in perspective, she said.
That tapestry of interwoven subjects can happen only in elementary school, before every subject is a separate teacher and period, Holmes pointed out. “It’s not going to happen again in their educational career. Once they’re through at Walnut, it’s over,” he said.
The power is in the collective. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Mark Holmes, Walnut Elementary principal
The view of art as an essential, as another core subject, has to be explained to every new year of parents, Holmes said. “People see art as over and above, add-ons, extras, not as a basic,” Holmes said. “Arts are academic.”
Test scores support his point. Some 42 percent of Walnut sixth-graders tested at grade level in 2016 state tests, compared to 25 percent of Stanislaus County sixth-graders overall. In English, 52 percent of Walnut sixth-graders met the proficiency bar, compared to 42 percent of sixth-graders countywide.
Teachers see beyond the tests, however. “If you don’t get to be creative, play, make mistakes, you’re not going to be productive in 21st-century jobs,” Silveira said.
“Kids want to come back the next day – that is a big success,” said Lisa Chittim, pointing to the school’s 97 percent attendance rate.
“I want to come to school the next day,” added Lee with a wry grin.
That back and forth is the secret of both magnets, Holmes summed up: “The power is in the collective. I’ve never seen anything like it.”