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by CKL, Old Palo Alto,
on Apr 16, 2007
The Connections Program at JLS Middle School works wonders for many students. I believe someone coined the phrase "organized chaos" to describe the Connections Program. That's not too far off.
A lot of the students from Ohlone thrive in the Connections Program. Very very similiar to what Susan Charles has set up at Ohlone.
It's run by Steve C. Good guy, solid teacher. The 6th grade staff rotates, but I believe two young ladies handle some of the teaching now. They're great too.
It's the exact opposite of what direct instruction is.
(I subbed once in the classroom. Very "unique" kids and at times very out of control)
My son has been in the program for two years and intends on continuing next year. I think this is really great program for any type of kid. The children delve into subjects much more than in many other types of classes; they are encouraged to learn about things they are interested in about the subject under study.
One of the hallmarks of program is the assessments on student progress that are not simple letter grades, but are instead long in-depth essays about how your child is doing in many different domains. As such, these give you a much more complete picture of how your child is doing in school.
The kids work harder than some folks think, and they learn a lot through cooperative projects. The kids in each class really gets to know each other (and trust each other), and as a result really build their own community in which they share and support each other. One of the main things that is emphasized in the program is for the kids to become self-directed and set their own goals for their own learning. My son, who was not very self-directed in the beginning, has made amazing progress in this regard in the Connections environment.
Another distinction of the program is the involvement of the parents. The parents really share the vision of the program and are intimately involved in suggesting directions, topics, field trips, and other events that fit with the curriculum standards. One of the main ideas of this program is that there be as little division between home and school as possible. Together, parents and students are viewed as part of the whole Connections community.
I have spoken with kids who have gone through the program and on to high school, and they have all adjusted very well. In some cases, they are better prepared for "project work" in high school because as Connections kids they did so many projects at JLS. The high schooler have all said that they felt really well prepared for high school by going through JLS under the Connections umbrella. Frankly, I can't imagine a kid who wouldn't do well in this program.
Just a note for the previous commentor: I have also substitute taught elsewhere, plus spent some time in the Connections classrooms. Because the teaching methods used here take a lot of skill, practice, and coordination between teachers, it is not easy to bring in a mainstream sub for a day or two. Connections kids do not generally do the type of worksheets that are the staple of substitute teaching elsewhere.
An (obviously) enthusiastic Connections parent
WE love connections and JLS. We chose to go to JLS after having one child go through Jordan which is our neighborhood school. WE are very happy with our decision. We find the connections program academically rigorous enough for our GATE child as it allows for depth of learning within the traditional curriculum. Students are also able to be part of the larger JLS community without any problems...
I ask the question, if connections is so good, why can't they fill the program. Since Ohlone has a waiting list and the connections program follows the same philosophy, why are the Ohlone students not filling the connections program. I keep getting letters from JLS telling me that there are places in the program for my child if I so want them. I also happen to know that connections teachers are also teaching in regular classes, because the program is not fully utilised.
The Connections program is run very much like the dedicated San Francisco GATE program in which my oldest spent several years. The academic level is outstanding. My daughter is thriving in Connections. It is likely less suitable for children with more average learning abilities. I would be glad to chat with any parent who is interested in the program-650-322-0686.
On the behavior of the children in Connections, I have been in the classroom and on field trips several times this year. The previous comment from a "sub" on unruly children is likely dated. At least in 6th grade this school year, I have seen no such behavior. My comparison would be two sons previously at JLS in the standard program.
Our elder son has been in Connections for two years, and really enjoys it. There is a lot of emphasis on respect for self and others, as well as building self confidence and being comfortable in who you are. This latter point was brought home to me when some Connections alumni, currently at Gunn and Paly, came to talk about how their time in Connections was helping them in High School.
Don't think Connections is soft academically. The work is rigorous and covers the same syllabus as direct instruction - it's the approach that is different.
As mentioned in an earlier posting, the parental involvement also seems much greater (but of course it is optional). Yesterday I helped drive a number of 7th Grade Connections kids to the Fort Miley Adventure Challenge Course - what a great day for helping to build the community and encouraging the kids to push themselves to try new things.
Another enthusiastic Connections parent.
Had 3 kids who attended Nueva School for the Gifted and then attend(ed) JLS Connecitons program. It is a good program for gifted kids as the curriculum and approach is very similar to what scholars have designed for gifted kids (and frankly what works best for all kids). Project based learning, differentiated curriculum, student driven projects and more choice. Real life analytical skills are more valued then rote learning. 6th grade is very strong with 2 teachers who team teach (science/math and english/social studies). 7th and 8th grade is run by Mr. C. Kids are treated with respect and have a voice. Your kid will have an advocate and mentor. Nice community of families within a very large middle school.
I was the sub for a connections class this year, they were in 7th grade and I found them to be very insightful. They were great kids although they did seem to undermind my teaching and some were rude to one another. But overall i was pleased with what i saw, and now i am considering putting my son in the program for 6th grade.
In response to another comment "I ask the question, if connections is so good, why can't they fill the program. Since Ohlone has a waiting list and the connections program follows the same philosophy, why are the Ohlone students not filling the connections program. I keep getting letters from JLS telling me that there are places in the program for my child if I so want them. I also happen to know that connections teachers are also teaching in regular classes, because the program is not fully utilised.
Posted by JLS Parent, a member of the JLS Middle School community, 1 hour ago "
i would like to say that by alot of students connections is 'misread' it is a great program. I think alot of parents arent even aware of its existance and that if their children really knew what went on in the classroom we would have more students. I also know that last year we had two classes of about 23 i beilive and this year (same students) we have two classes of about 18-20 so only a few students left. Some of them moved away or had to leave the program for other reasons.
I would like to echo the parent who stated that Connections is often "misread". My son is currently in the program and he is thriving in it. Before leaving 5th grade, I have asked advice from his teacher about her take on Connections and she strongly discouraged me from putting him in there. My son is a gifted child who loves learning and often work a lot harder than what is required of him. The teacher has the perception that Connections are designed for kids who don't do well in school and needs an easier curriculum. This is not true.
The nature of Connections allow students to be the best they are. Every child is different. Connections would allow the child to learn in a way the child can learn best. So, for gifted kids, they would have an awesome learning experience. For the kids on the other end of the spectrum, they got to give their best too without the need to feel inferior to others.
Another misconception that I found is that Connections is easier. Frankly, I can't understand that. In most circumstances, it is easier to be told exactly what to do than to have to figure out what needs to be done. That's the difference between Connections and Direct Instructions.
Hope this helps.
My child went through 3 years in connections. He is an extrmely bright, gifted child who was reading and drawing diagrams out of my college astronomy textbooks at 4 yrs old, however he had always struggled in the traditional classroom setting. He is an artist and a very visual learner. His problem with direct learning is that he has trouble focusing on tasks unless the topic/subject really interests him - he found it terribly hard to concentrate otherwise. He was consistently labled as having ADHD and we were constently worried about what to do. I have to say that Connections was great for him. Trust me, he still had trouble getting his work done when it wasn't interesting, but the great thing about connections is that he had more freedom to make it interesting and the teachers cared to help find solutions to make it work for him. For example, instead of writing an essay about a topic which he found terribly boring, he could create a powepoint presentation or FLASH movie illustrating what he learned and present to the class. Many times he did projects like this with a partner or group so he learned how to work with others which was also a struggle for him in elementary shcool. He still learned how to write an essay, math, history, science, etc. as other students, but could use more creative/artistic ways to learn and illlustrate what he learned. I could go on and on but the main point is that I feel that without connections my son would have failed miserably. I am proud to say that his first semester in High School, he received all A's and B's which we would have never thought could have happened. He continues to keep up his grades and is extremely motivated and focused on doing well. I attribute this to Mr. C's guidance and the rest of the teachers who believed in him in the Connections program.
The most important thing for my kids to learn is to be decent human beings who are engaged in their learning and in the world, and I am confident in a Connections-style program as the best way for anyone to learn these things, as well as confident in the current Connections teachers.
Connections currently has two dynamite sixth-grade teachers in their third year there. The math/science teacher has over 10 years experience and most recently taught in Cupertino, which is way ahead of Palo Alto in differentiating math instruction. my son is thriving in his second year with connections and will continue. He likes to go to school, which was not always the case in elementary school where he was bored with the pace. In sixth grade he had the best math differentiation I have ever seen in Palo Alto, and I have been helping in math classes with him and my older son for the past nine years. In sixth grade Connections, I regularly volunteered in the classroom working with small groups on math challenges.
Four years ago I did not put my older son into the Connections program because he was a strong introvert who liked to work by himself. I thought he might draw more into himself in the noisy classroom environment I saw. I think the current sixth-grade teachers keep the classes more under control; they do not want to have a noisy classroom although wth group work going on it is going to be noisier.
I concur with most of the comments that have been made. The seventh/eighth grade Connections teacher has his priorities straight and understands that process is as important as product at this stage in our students' development. In his hands history is a dynamic, living subject and he helps the students make connections to our lives today.
Anna, thank you for the compliment but i am actually a student. One problem i do find in the connections program is that there are alot of parents who think it is for mentally disabled students and so they put their students in it. There is obviously no one telling them not to (especailly not me) but i do think that they should knokw what the program really is before just sticking their kid in it.
I would also like to add that for parents afraid of their kids "regular" grades dropping or them not doing well in the future. I came home last semester with almost straight A+'s, and i know i am not the only of the students, the majority of my friends in connections had straight A's.
The Connections program has been amazing for my daughter! She did not attend Ohlone before but our neighborhood school Fairmeadow. The transition to the Connections format and philosophy was perfect for the big leap of middle school. My daughter has thrived the last two years while being in the program and will for sure participate next year.
In so many ways we feel that Connections is the best kept secret in the PAUSD.
I'm the same FYI from above.
I'm glad that many students and parents are happy with the connections program. I stand by my statements that it's "organized chaos". I have MUCH experience with the program, the teachers, and such.
The numbers are so low for connections that there is no 8th grade class.
The numbers for the 7th grade class total 17 students. The average class size needs to be at THIRTY to sustain itself. Connections is extremely low and there's a good chance there won't be an 8th grade class in 2007.
The numbers for the 6th grade are better, about 22-23 kids. However, as has been the case in the past, many of these kids will drop out of connections by the 7th grade... and the cycle repeats.
Just the facts...
As the sixth grade math teacher in Connections, I can say that FYI is correct about our numbers being low however, there IS an eighth grade planned for 2007, there are TWO seventh grade classes this year, not one, and we have two sixth grades for next year. I think our low numbers are due to a complicated set of circumstances that cannot be completely explained in this forum. Connections is not well known: more than half the people at an informational meeting this year said they'd never heard of it before. But, those who do know of it, don't always have an accurate perception of what it should be. For instance, some staff at the elementary level have recommended it as an alternative to special education classes, some people think there is no homework, some others have perpetuated the idea that there are few expectations. Because of all this, some people have been attracted to the program for the wrong reasons. That is, they have signed up because they thought it would easier to get by than in the mainstream program. These students have not been a good fit because Connections is a place where, ideally, they need to work hard not only at their academics but at self-management and independence. Having students that don't fit has had some negative effects, but the attrition rate from sixth to seventh grade this year is less than half what it was last year. To be honest, Connections struggled for a few years, but we have been trying hard the past three years to create a solid program that lives up to our standards of a quality education. It is difficult to change a reputation but our parent/teacher/student community is very strong and supportive and I believe that, with continued efforts to get the word out, Connections will start to grow.
Posts from the parents of Connections students above speak for themselves about how thrilled people are with the program.
Find out more about Connections Philosophy, at: www.jlsconnections.org
The reasons that the program is smaller than it could be are:
Most people don’t know about it
Sustaining the program requires parent involvement (now in place)
No outreach to the fifth grade students last year
Reputation from issues the program had long ago
Connections now has a strong Parent Board, improved outreach to the community and will continue to grow.
Next year the number of students enrolled in Connections is over 50% higher than last year. An English teacher will be added to the program for a total of four teachers. The program is thriving.
Claire Amkraut, Connections Board President
I speak about my child's experience with the connections program and my observations.
This is my child's second year in the program. She is a special ed kid, and she is thriving. She has learned to work with a group, from organizing and planning, conducting research, integrating the individual works into one, to giving the presentation, and answering questions.
As a result, she has become extremely confident speaking in public, she is faster on her feet and most importantly she has learned to think on her own, specially on how to approach a problem. She is cognizant of deadlines, and strategies on how to meet them, one of which is the time honored practice of cramming. She also has learned how to think creatively, to make her work different and stand out. Her people skills have improved tremendously and she has learned to put aside personal differences to achieve the ends of the group (somewhere along the way she has also learned the value of nagging). How helpful is that for her future?
Don't get me wrong, it hasn't been easy. There have been a lot of tears to get to this point.
A serendipitous benefit is that the connections kids have become a unit unto themselves, almost akin to being family. They are normal kids, rowdy and noisy, but they all seem to care for each other. I have on more than one occasion seen that when one of them becomes upset, the other kids will try to comfort them or simply stay near them until they feel better. How's that for compassion and humanity?
She loves the program and most specially the people, both students and teachers. She only wishes she could have it in high school too. So do I.
We almost missed this program when entering 6th grade. I'm so glad we didn't.
Our two cents.
Our son thrives in the 6th grade Connections for the reasons noted above by various authors. The teachers are superb - team teaching at its finest. This in fact has been one of the BEST KEPT SECRETS in PAUSD. We moved into the district last year and only learned of the program's existence when we visited JLS to meet staff and attempt to find an atmosphere similar to what our children had previously experienced; when we described what we sought we were immediately referred to these fine teachers and within minutes our decision was finalized. This year an outreach program was (re-)instituted with the very impressive rise in participation for next year's 6th grade documented above. REmarkable cooperation by students, teachers and parents.
My child was in Connectons for all of Middle School and during those 3 years I noticed, along with everyone else, that this program was not supported by the rest of the JLS community and that's what I attribute to the low enrollment in the past. I'm glad to see that enrollment into this alternative program is up and that it looks as if in the future it will thrive. We need programs like this in our public schools. The Connection teachers are amazing educators who are dedicated to the students and to seeing them thrive in an open education environment. But don't enroll your child in this program if you are not a supporter of this style of education and don't use this program as a place to let your kid twiddle his/her thumbs in middle school. But if you are in favor of a non-punitive style of education, where students learn, not for the grade, but because class is just extremely exciting and interesting, then Connections is the place.
One specific question if anyone from Connections can answer. Our daughter is in private school and in the lottery for Sixth grade in Connections for next year. Her class is currently working through the California 7th or 8th grade math curriculum. What will happen when she gets to sixth grade? I have looked at the curriculum and she mastered the fraction subject matter and order of operations etc. in third grade! Will she be allowed to work forward, or will she be limited to "differentiated" curriculum that is variations on the same subject matter that the sixth grade books cover? It is literally the only point of concern in what seems otherwise to be quit exactly the program we have been looking for! Comments and advice, anecodtal experiences welcome. Thanks!
I agree that Connections looks wonderful, though our child is still one year away.
I don't know the answer to your Connections question, but true differentiated instruction is not merely a variation on the same subject matter. It provides the right challenge for every kid by differentiating various things, including CONTENT. What passes for differentiation often isn't.
yes, been there done that in a Palo Alto school, which is why I am asking. Ideally the child would be able to test out of the entire year's curriculum, if appropriate, and just keep right on progressing at her own pace with all kinds of depth and breadth added to keep it exciting and challenging. What passes for differentiation atthe moment in a lot os schools is simply more of the same sort of work, leading children to learn that the reward for successfully completing boring work is more boring work. Connections sounds like a refreshing change from that teaching mentality. I hope it is.
Oh, got it.
On the other hand, it's worth talking to the Connections people. The website mentions not just differentiation but also constructivist pedagogy and project-based learning. So they talk the talk; if they walk the walk, they'll be able to keep your daughter moving forward and excited. Please post relevant feedback from the program, if any.
The Connections program sounds great, but it has always been presented as the "Connections Program at JLS". My eldest was in high school before it was clear that it was a choice program open to non-JLS students.
A question - is it a good enough program to pull a child out of their neighborhood school (Jordan or Terman), have them loose their friends and need to be driven to school rather then biking or walking?
Hi Palo Alto mom,
Only you and your family can answer the question about whether you child will be OK with changing from your neighborhood school and established friends, having to commute, etc. It's highly subjective. It's the question that people all over the district face when choosing a choice program.
For my family, the answer would be yes.
My twins are in the Connections sixth grade and it has been a very positive year for them academically. My youngest child is an incoming sixth grader, entering the program next year. We have found the teachers and the approach to the curriculum to be exciting, compelling, interesting, and unique. The field trips have been excellent, and not all of them are shared by mainstream classes.
As for the 'best kept secret in Palo Alto'...well, no longer! The applicants exceeded the available spaces, and there's a waiting list. The word is out.
One of the best things about the program is the community that it creates. That is a very positive thing because in middle school, kids--and parents--often become disconnected.
If you choose to transport your child outside of your neighborhood attendance area for a choice program, please take responsibility to minimize your personal traffic impacts on the neighborhood streets around JLS where hundreds of children walk and bike to school every day. These children need safe routes to school. Driving parents are the primary traffic safety and congestion problem in and around our school sites. Most middle school-age children have the cognitive and physical skills necessary to independently ride a bike to school. If your child needs to learn bike safety skills, please visit this web site for class information: Web Link . This is an outstanding class that willl teach your child what he needs to know to be safe on the street. Please consider riding a bike, walking, carpooling whenever you can.
Kids in choice programs can walk and bike to school, too. In fact, getting exercise before school in the morning improves school performance and overall helath and well-being. It also builds a sense of self-reliance and independence...appropriate for middle school development.
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