Paulo Freire Freedom School to Offer New Public Downtown Middle School this Fall

May 21, 2014

The sign adorning Paulo Freire Freedom School's University location. The logo is taken from a Mayan glyph, meaning 'to rise'.

The sign adorning Paulo Freire Freedom School’s University location. The logo is taken from a Mayan glyph, meaning ‘to rise’, which forms part of their school mantra, ‘to know, to dream, to rise’.

by James J. Jefferies

Of all the hot-button items of the day, few are as contentious, but genuinely important to everyone, as education. Whatever your take on the issue, preparing our children for an unpredictable 21st-century information-based enterprise economy is of real concern for every single parent in the greater Tucson area.

We all want our kids to succeed, but the path towards making that happen is unclear. We know that our educational systems face stiff challenges, and we’re trying to figure out how to engage our students in ways that will actually expand their horizons, capture their imaginations, elicit their best performances, and prepare them for the workforce.

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator who took issue with what he called the ‘banking method’ of traditional learning, which treats young minds as passive, empty vessels to be ‘filled’ with knowledge through rote memorization and testing with the teacher leading the lessons. A look at today’s headlines shows this is an argument still very much alive today, given the battles over standardized testing.

What Freire believed, contrary to tradition, was that learning happens when students take agency and are empowered by hands-on opportunities to actively engage with the materials and ideas in a real-world context, allowing them to forge their own meanings and create genuine, deep understanding of subjects in a way that rote memorization simply doesn’t allow for.

An upstairs mural depicts Mahatma Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and César Chavez. A strong component of the curriculum at PFFS deals with social justice and problem-solving with regard to issues of environmental sustainability.

An upstairs mural depicts Mahatma Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and César Chavez. A strong component of the curriculum at PFFS deals with social justice and problem-solving with regard to issues of environmental sustainability.

Employers desire skill sets these days, rather than people who emerge from a school system able to recite most state capitals but unable to manage a project, engage in quality research, or express a nuanced point-of-view. To be able to do this, though, it also means that teachers must be free to manage smaller class sizes, allowing them more time to engage individual students, instead of being forced to warehouse more than 150 students at a time spread across a day’s individual classes at the middle school level and above.

From a personal standpoint, the approach espoused by the Paulo Freire Freedom School really intrigued me, because in my own experience, junior high was precisely the time when my own academic investment became far more detached, which resulted in complete disinterest, truancy, and plummeting grades. This was a trend that didn’t reverse until years later, long after graduating high school and returning to attack my undergraduate education with a very different outlook.

I sat down with Santo Nicotera and JoAnn Groh, co-directors of PFFS, who both struck me as incredibly kind, but very passionate and dedicated professional educators with a lot to say about the issues at hand. Offering up my own personal story, my drop in academic performance after being a star pupil in elementary school, got the ball rolling on the conversation. “Just based on what you’ve described,” said Groh, “we could talk about that whole spate of issues for hours. One of the biggest things here – and one of the reasons we’re so keen on keeping class sizes small – is the level of student-teacher interaction.”

Another mural at PFFS University celebrates diversity and acceptance of sexual orientation.

Another mural at PFFS University celebrates diversity.

As they went on to explain, when a teacher has ‘X’ number of students whom they must administer to, once that number hits a certain critical mass, they believe there is a diminished level of emotional involvement that an individual teacher is capable of. That’s not to say that teachers suddenly make a conscious decision to stop caring, far from it, but there’s just not enough hours in the day to give each student the level of attention they need to succeed.

At PFFS, teachers only administer to roughly 75 students per day, with a very different and flexible use of time that varies wildly throughout the year according to an evolving overall curriculum. The new location opening Downtown this fall will emphasize the same kind of asymmetrical use of time, with large blocks of time in the morning often focused on just one specific subject, which will allow for that kind of deep interfacing accompanied by problem-solving in real world environments, along with ongoing close mentorships with the faculty, instead of students being shuttled between six different classes, and a spate of instructors with whom none of the pupils get enough face time with.

The open-air, unsecured cubbies for student belongings at PFFS. The idea here is that instilling a sense of respect for others' belongings pays dividends in the long run.

The open-air, unsecured cubbies for student belongings at PFFS. The idea here is that instilling a sense of respect for others’ belongings pays dividends in the long run.

One thing that I was immediately struck by, just walking around the location on University, was a simple, but very telling difference present in the hallways: instead of a very orderly armada of lockers, there were open-air cubbies for students to store their belongings, completely unsecured. As Nicotera explained, “We believe that a core component of developing these kids begins with teaching them how to be respectful of each others’ property.”

It’s a small, but profoundly different way of doing things at the most basic level. Is this something that could be easily implemented at a large public middle school such as my old school, Mansfeld Magnet Middle School? Probably not overnight, and maybe not without a rash of initial thefts. Research has shown that people tend to behave in ways that are framed by expectations, and when kids are thrown together in a large, impersonal situation amid the pressures to be “cool”, sometimes a phone or a jacket just becomes an irresistible target for someone who doesn’t have nice things.

Doesn’t make that action right, of course. However, it is compelling to begin wondering aloud if things could be different if framed by a well-defined and oft-enunciated culture of mutual respect, isn’t it? It’s a fertile set of ideas to chew upon, and given the rapid pace of signups for Paulo Freire’s new Downtown 6th and 7th grade classes to begin on July 31st within the City High School site, it clearly is striking a chord with parents in the Old Pueblo who want something better for their children.

For more information on Paulo Freire Freedom School, and how it operates within the City 6-12 STEM Education Complex, please check out their website here.

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