Community Collaboration and Conviction Lead to Authentic Learning


You might ask, “What takes an urban school with 100 percent poverty and more than 20 percent of students with disabilities from low performing on state assessments toward excellence?”

Our school community at John P. Parker Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio, would answer, “collaboration and conviction.” We have learned to work together for the betterment of the students we serve. Through a districtwide comprehensive improvement plan, Vision 2020: My Tomorrow, Cincinnati Public Schools is creating greater equity, access, and opportunity for all students with a new challenging curriculum that builds the skills needed for critical thinking, advocacy, and engagement. As a result of a shared vision and mission—as well as piloting tenets of this new program—our students are thriving, achieving double-digit gains in math and reading in just one year. At John P. Parker, we worked together to engage, empower, and educate in a purpose-driven environment where everyone could achieve.

How We Engaged to Refocus Our Mission

From November 2015 to February 2016, we engaged our entire school community to define our mission, vision, and core values. After this period of meetings with parents, partners, teachers, and students, we settled on the mission and vision that would guide our school community beyond 2020, and our union-based teaching staff voted unanimously to adopt them. By end of the 2015–2016 school year, we established our mission and vision as follows.

Mission Statement: John P. Parker School will prepare students for college and career readiness, knowing that they have the responsibility to make a difference in the world and the ability to do so.

School Vision: John P. Parker School will become an urban model school of excellence that is a positive hub for the community where parents, teachers, students, and the community are all equal partners in educating the child.

CORE Values: Accountability and Responsibility, Teamwork and Collaboration, Service Learning, Global Citizenship, Environmental Literacy, and Lifelong Learning

Empowering the School Community to Make Our Vision a Reality

As the 2016–2017 school year got off the ground, we knew we needed to work with our school community to establish a new program focus. From November 2016 through February 2017, we pulled together to get this job done. In order to structure the adoption of our initiative districtwide, our district asked schools to apply to become a Vision 2020 school, requiring each to create a community engagement plan using a four-step process:

  1. Analyze the purpose of engagement, stakeholders, opportunities, and challenges.
  2. Plan how to reach out to each type of stakeholder.
  3. Do the engagement plan.
  4. Review the data to identify a suggested program focus.

Using our mission, vision, and core values as a starting point, we began to survey our community—business owners, parents, community council members, students, and of course our teachers and school partners. We held listening sessions for parents and partners, surveyed community members at the monthly council meeting, solicited student feedback through surveys, and discussed with our local school decision-making committee. We wanted to know what type of program they wanted for our school.

Fortunately, the stars seemed to align: In meeting after meeting, the respondents would say they wanted a program that focused on the environment, global citizenship, and service learning. Using these components, we set out to create a program that fit all of these criteria, calling it the Global Environmental Literacy (GEL).

Ensure Authentic Instruction: Project-Based Learning, Cross-Curricular Study, and GEL

Our Global Environmental Literacy (GEL) curriculum is designed to ensure students develop a knowledge base and appreciation of the natural world and our place in it by becoming stewards of our world locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. Our program has five components: global citizenship, environmental literacy, digital literacy, health and wellness, and service learning.

  • Global citizenship gives students a greater awareness, curiosity, and interest in researchable problems of the world, according to one report. Students are required to articulate the significance of their questions and know how to respond to these questions by identifying, collecting, and analyzing information from a variety of local, national, and international sources. They gain an understanding that they possess citizenship at home and at school, and in our neighborhoods, city, state, nation, and the world. We expect that by the end of grade 6, our students will participate in an international field excursion.
  • Environmental literacy requires students to identify and ask relevant questions; analyze environmental issues; investigate, evaluate, and make personal judgments about environmental issues; use evidence and experience to defend positions and resolve issues; an create and evaluate plans to resolve challenges. Each student participates in a cross-curricular, project-based learning experience with an environmental focus, based on our science standards.
  • Digital literacy allows students daily exposure to technology in an effort to develop digitally competent learners. Our students understand how to use technology, know how to navigate online, possess the ability to communicate effectively, and acknowledge their legal rights and how to protect themselves from harm. To analyze and share information, students use the latest technologies such as laptop and tablet computers as well as GoPros®, swivel technology, and 3D printing.
  • Our health and wellness component is based upon the standards provided by the Centers for Disease Control (2016) and state standards. Students comprehend concepts related to health promotion and disease prevention to enhance their health as they analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology, and other factors on healthy behaviors. They demonstrate the ability to use decision-making skills to enhance health as they set goals for their own healthy choices.
  • Service learning allows our students to participate in personally relevant, meaningful service that possesses an intentional instructional purpose to meet a learning goal aligned to our state standards. This program features a reflective component that incorporates student voices and utilizes the many school-community partnerships to enhance the learning experience.

Using these five program components, we teach the Ohio State Standards to our students in a manner that promotes 21st-century skills such as communication, collaboration, teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills, while ensuring that students understand global implications and experience an international field experience by the end of grade 6. Through our innovative program focus, we offer our students hands-on, authentic learning experiences to bring our curriculum to life through practical application of the state standards with an emphasis on the science and social studies standards as a means of teaching the other content areas. This research-based approach to learning has provided our students with incredible academic gains.

The Results

By December 2016, we were well on our way to piloting aspects of GEL in our school. Teachers were excited about the new direction and were using authentic, hands-on, cross-curricular study to motivate and engage students. By the end of the school year, we knew we had made a good choice. When we received our scores, our school experienced double-digit gains on every state assessment!

Our Annual Measured Objective, a measure of closing the achievement gap, increased from 0.0 to 89.9 points in one year, while our Performance Index, a weighted calculation of all tests, increased from 56.2 to 70.7 points. Although our scores are not as high as we would like, we are improving and making strides toward excellence. Our journey has taught us that providing authentic, hands-on learning experiences through global environmental literacy is making a difference. We see the results first hand.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Join the team from John P. Parker along with ICLE thought leaders and 5,000 of your peers at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24-27 in Orlando. You’ll take away innovative strategies for strengthening your teaching and leadership practices and develop an action plan for positive change. Come be inspired by our success story and many others!

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