It’s About Community

We were lucky enough to snag half an hour of Marcia Capparela’s time recently and were able to dig into her huge depth of knowledge as the admissions director at Westland for the past 7 years. Marcia actually got into education as a parent in the 1970’s when she became involved with her own child’s schooling to such a degree, that she launched a career from it. Marcia says she’s been driven since she was a young mother to support children and families and was drawn to the philosophies of progressive education at Wildwood, where she worked for 34 years, and at Westland where she has been for the past 7. She says that both schools give children the opportunities and support they need to grow and explore. Even though Marcia has only been at Westland for 7 years, she points out that she and her husband have been part of the immediate community for years and that the school has always been part of her life in one form or another.

The term progressive gets thrown around a lot and because Westland uses it heavily in their mission we asked Marcia what it really means to her. “To us it means that we acknowledge and respect children’s innate interest in learning, we create a learning environment with real-world experiences, and we develop a deep sense of social justice so that children will become active and caring citizens. We choose to have a social studies core curriculum so that the work we do is integrated and grows from the dynamics of each group. It’s a study of peoples. With this philosophy, we have the opportunity to make the interest level so high that as a learning experience, kids just easily absorb and retain the information because they are so excited about it.” The school uses field trips to go out into the world seeking answers to questions rather than learning exclusively in the classroom. From this, the faculty encourages students to integrate these questions and experiences into their studies in unique ways. Marcia shared the example of a recent trip the school took to a museum along the aqueduct near Pyramid Lake. The objective was to study the water system in California and understand how water comes into the city. The field trip ended up being a primer for the student’s study of the city as a whole. Marcia says “It was fantastic. They got a lot of information when they were there and when they came back, they did a massive block building in their classroom. The project ended up being three or four days and the students worked in teams to recreate and design the whole mechanism of water coming into the city starting with the Sierra Nevada mountains and coming down into Pyramid Lake and then into the city. It was just amazing what they did with the information.” Marcia said that as the project grew, students kept adding elements as they remembered them and the whole process culminated with a visit to City Hall where they met with a council person. The students then came back together and discussed how cities work and how individual parts contribute to the greater whole. The students continued the project by adding to the city, building structures in woodworking to represent different businesses and services within the city. In sum, the whole experience created a uniquely integrated learning system that incorporated everything from science to the arts.

By cross-pollinating disciplines, Westland keeps learning fresh, integrated and totally unique. Marcia also points out that this type of learning “incorporates collaboration, group work and basic inquiry where the children’s questions form the foundation for what they’re studying. It all fits together and has to do with them exploring, making, doing and thinking rather than reading a textbook, answering a test question and moving on.”

Uniquely, Westland doesn’t use a traditional grading metric, instead, deploying a thorough reporting process that includes a narrative and checklist so that at the end of the year parents understand what’s been introduced and mastered. Marcia says these typically run five to six pages in the upper grades and create the document that accompanies students when they apply to middle school. We were curious how this system gelled with more traditional academic schools that the students might be applying to and Marcia told us that they have a counseling support system to help each individual family research and create a strategy for their next educational steps. The school completes the paperwork required for the middle school application process. The school also helps students with the ISEE by providing coaching a couple of times a week. The head of the school goes over sample questions, teaches strategies and gives practice tests. Marcia points out that the school begins helping students with strategies for standardized testing as early as the fourth grade so that students can begin mentally preparing for these kinds of standardized tests.

When talking about the admissions process and anxieties that can accompany it, Marcia reflected what we’ve heard from the other admissions directors we’ve spoken with. “I think how you feel walking onto a campus or into a main office of a school tells you a lot. While I think people might discount this original gut feeling, they really shouldn’t. We encourage people to gather all the information that’s necessary and to actively make comparisons, but at the end of the day, it’s important to have a sense that this school feels like home. It’s so crucial because the school really does become an extension of your home and family. Because of our size and our intentional mission it really has to feel right for families.” Marcia makes the distinction between the quantitative and the qualitative and says parents should pay attention to both equally. “Some people want to know how many minutes students are studying science and that sort of thing. But we want parents to look a little deeper to see how people are interacting with each other. Pay attention to how they treat and speak to one another. When you walk around, watch how the children treat you as a visitor and what their response is to visitors in their environment. I would really move all of this up in importance”

We asked Marcia what misconceptions they deal with on a day to day basis. Like other school administrators we’ve spoken with Marcia says there are definitely misconceptions about facts like number of available spaces and wait lists but she also pointed out how social media is impacting this generation of parents in a whole new way. “I think that this generation of parents are highly informed by social media and I think they’re a little bit bombarded with information and that makes it very difficult for them to just stop and consult their inner selves. They’ve got so much conflicting advice from friends, blogs, and Facebook that it makes it difficult to figure out what they really value.” Marcia says that as a 24 year old parent in the 70’s —while she still had a lot to learn—she had really given a lot of thought to what she and her husband did and didn’t want and they were better able to recognize it when they saw it. She says she sees a problem now with people being confused about schools’ philosophies and pedagogies and that it can be easy to create misconceptions based on jargon. “Beware of drawing false dichotomies such as a school is either academic or progressive. These terms aren’t representative of an entire school’s philosophy. For instance, we might be less traditional in terms of the way we teach, but we are still very academic.” Marcia says that thing that’s constantly on her mind is how to explain the school best, how to capture the essence of the most important things that are happening at the school. She points out that for a lot of parents understanding dawns about midway through the school visit. “You know, we might have somebody whose come in sort of stiff and nervous like they’re going to the principal’s office or something, but then midway when we get to the chickens, you can just see them melt and they start to get really engage. That’s when  you know they got it. It’s a lightbulb moment and when it happens, it’s just the best part of my job.” Marcia says she can often recognize a family that’s going to fall in love with the school and be a wonderful fit, but appreciates the variations and differences between all of the families and students. The common thread, ultimately, seems to be a worldview rather than a set philosophy about life. The school resonates with families who have a way of looking at the world that is in line with honoring and understanding childhood. She says “We really, really honor childhood here. Developmental theory is a part of that. Honoring these children’s experiences is really what creates success and holds families here.”

It’s no surprise that meeting the children is one of the most important pieces of the kindergarten admissions process for Westland. Westland invites five kids in at a time where they spend an hour playing games, drawing, building and talking. The process, she says, is very relaxed and low pressure which is important when you’re working with 4-year-olds. The parent interviews are understandably more in depth, and meant to focus on the authentic desires of the families.

Marcia says the school has about 20 spots each year and they receive nearly four times that in applications. When we asked her whether parents should start applying as early as pregnancy, she assured us that a year before is entirely sufficient. However, she also took the opportunity to bring up the topic of people finding their own values early on. “Pregnancy and the infant years are a really good time to start thinking about how you want to bring up your kids, how they will live—and what kind of family you want to create. There is so much good information available and there are plenty of opportunities for people to educate themselves about child development, how kids learn, and how parents can integrate that into their own families.” At all points in the admissions process Marcia advises asking good questions and paying attention to how you feel. “I mean, what’s the point of not being your authentic selves as parents in the interactive pieces of the admissions process? We want to know we’re getting the right fit for every child and every family.” Marcia says that Westland strives to create an environment where people can relax a bit. She says that everyone should be prepared, but that ultimately the process works so much better when there is a mutual feeling of trust and comfort.

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