Gainsville, Florida - USA
Why the trip?
In April 2016 I was invited to visit a well-established demonstration school, PK Yonge, located in Gainesville Florida. As University of South Australia looks to redevelop its Teacher Education facilities, we are looking to international models of demonstration schools. I was investigating best practices in what is widely considered to be a site of innovative learning and collaboration. Aside from seeing the school itself, my focus was on the integration of research and pre-service teacher training. I was also interested in the relationship between flexible learning spaces and learning practices and the possible complexities surrounding this. Of course, a visit like this only manages to brush the surface; however, the trip was insightful on many levels.
PK Yonge has existed since 1934, so it has over eighty years of history. Early on, it was founded by the University of Florida primarily as a recruiting tool for professors who may have wanted to relocate their families. However, since its inception PK Yonge also served as the training site for future teachers, though; shortly after World War II the number of teacher education students quickly outstripped what the school could accommodate.
In PK Yonge’s history, there has been a real shift in accountability and policies that governed the school. When the Martin Bill passed in the state of Florida, it secured the future of the four lab schools in the state but the school lost its autonomy. PK Yonge went from being very independent and open-ended to having to negotiate policies that come from the Florida Department of Education. Today, PK Yonge is obligated to adhere to all of the policies and statutes around public schools and is funded directly by The Department of Education. Yet PK Yonge is governed by the University of Florida, and they have many ongoing partnerships from researchers from various colleges and disciplines across the campus.
Pupils and Teachers
Under the Martin Bill, the PK Yonge population is required to mirror the population of the average public school in Florida. The school is required to have certain percentages of students in 1 of 4 specific income categories, certain race categories and then as close as possible to a 50-50 female/male percentage rate. They have a database and they randomly select students who meet that criteria and then students are invited accordingly. Therefore, for research purposes, it is always a representative data sample. Furthermore, PK Yonge has a strong outreach mission to other schools in Florida where their teachers deliver professional development.
I toured the new building and was able to see how the space was malleable than traditional classrooms and could easily be changed to fit the learning needs of the students. Walls could be shifted to alter the size of the classroom around group instruction, individual instruction or whole class teaching. As a site of innovation, PK Yonge focuses on how instruction can take place where learning is not driven by the architecture. This also means that teachers (and pre-service teachers) work collaboratively to ensure the best outcomes for students. In terms of the learning space staff spoke about the constraints that they operated under (time, space, staffing) and how it required extensive pre-planning. During the visit, I witnessed a real sense of team spirit and strategizing around learning where educators discussed at length how their teaching had developed and their goals for improvement.
During my visit, the most striking aspect of the culture was the investment in a robust and exciting research. Innovative work was being done with National Science Foundation in transforming the delivery of science at the middle school level. I met with a professor of psychology who had conducted numerous research projects at PK Yonge. She spoke about how research was negotiated to ensure the best for the students. The School of Psychology at University of Florida has a very integrated program in which future school psychologists graduating from the University of Florida spend at least a year on the campus and combine their course studies with hands-on learning.
The most important facet is how the research is not just a focus on the school but also on dissemination. According to the PK Yonge staff I spoke to the best partnerships come from faculty who are involved in graduate programs. Through a collaborative approach, there are many projects going on simultaneously in teachers classrooms, associated with their course work and/or with their partnership with professors. Collaborations also exist with outside funding sources, such as The National Science Foundation and The Gates Foundation.
My visit to PK Yonge was exciting and made me consider how we can work with space to foster innovative learning practices.
Image 1 Sourced from: http://pkyonge.ufl.edu/modules/cms/pages.phtml?pageid=163972 Image 2 Sourced from: http://outreach.pkyonge.ufl.edu/modules/groups/integrated_home.phtml?gid=4768191&sessionid=98d3f5ca7e8648396112ec03c8332ca9 Image 3 Sourced from: http://pkyonge.ufl.edu/modules/cms/pages.phtml?pageid=294153