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Schools with a Specialized Approach

This page covers:

  • Language Immersion
  • International Baccalaureate
  • Montessori
  • Waldorf
  • Project-based/Thematic Instruction
  • Religiously Affiliated Schools

So, now that you have the general lay of the land, let's dig a little deeper into the varieties of philosophies and specialties out there.  Some are traditional; some have thematic or philosophical differences.  Most of these mentioned below are available within the Lottery Choice system (as a PPS focus or Charter school) and as private options.  They only ones definitely not available as a public free option are religiously affiliated schools. (You know, that thing called separation of church & state:-)

Language Immersion Schools

The Portland area has a wide variety of language immersion programs, in several different languages.  They all vary in terms of what portion of instruction is in the target language and what portion in English. Some of these language immersion options are separate programs within a standard school, though a number of them have a school building completely to themselves. In an immersion school, the culture connected to the language is woven into instruction and content is taught in the foreign language, so students learn the language by using it – which is very different from traditional language classes where the language is taught explicitly as the subject matter itself.

As a side note, we should mention that beyond the “immersion” programs, many of the schools in the area have foreign language programs where kids are exposed to a foreign language and will learn the basics to varying degrees – but where fluency is not aimed for nor expected.  (And many will say that full fluency shouldn’t be expected in a partial immersion program either – but rather competency or proficiency is what will emerge.)  So, if your goal is full fluency in a second language for your child, and you don’t go the route of an immersion school, you should expect to find other ways to expose your child to the language. You could speak the language at home exclusively, surround yourself with friends, childcare providers who speak the language, or travel regularly to where the target language is spoken.  But many people will assure you that consistent exposure and learning of a foreign language, even if it’s not an immersion program, will pay multiple dividends in the intellectual development of your child.

More: The What, Why and When of Language Immersion; The Where around town to find schools; and some encouragement on doing a second language without full immersion schooling.

International Baccalaureate Schools

International Baccalaureate is a well-known high school program derived from European educational traditions, including the taking of a final exam prior to graduating (but not required).  The International Baccalaureate Organization has developed elementary and middle school programs as well, with Portland jumping on the bandwagon to install them in several schools.  The more rigorous, highly regarded academic curriculum includes foreign language instruction, and a global citizenship focus which makes it very appealing to a lot of Portlanders.  Curriculum is thematic, meaning that teachers lead 4-6 week studies of various global issues which culminate in a project that demonstrates the learning of the students.  Teachers are trained in the IB philosophy and practices, then work together to develop their program - a process that is overseen by the International Baccalaureate Organization.  Schools must be accredited by the IBO by being observed and reviewed in depth for the first three years to ensure a quality program.  It’s worth keeping an eye out for these schools, since the IB program has been known to drastically increase achievement and thus are on the rise nationwide.

Montessori Schools

Most people have heard of Montessori as a pre-school program, but few realize the philosophy and practice can extend through high school.  Montessori education has been around since 1907 and was developed by the first woman physician in Italy, Maria Montessori.  After years of observing children and how they learn, she developed a philosophy based on supporting a child in his or her natural tendencies and curiosities.  In the preschool years, this includes a multi-sensory approach to largely independent tasks in a well-ordered environment with the teacher acting as a guide.  In the elementary years, this evolves to include more small group projects with students and teachers working together to create a balance of study in various subjects but also allowing kids to study topics that interest them.  In addition to students choosing topics, teachers guide students through the “great stories” (which sounds fruitier than it is) that tie together broad themes including science, social studies and mathematics.

The end result of a Montessori education is typically a very independent learner that has clear and pursued interests, and often is very strong in math, pretty academic, and intellectually creative.  The creative arts are used to support their work (as in designing a cover for their report, or making a three dimensional representation of something they’ve studied) but are often not pursued as “art for art’s sake,” which is a drawback for some parents.

Montessori schools vary in the usual ways – setting, feel, level of formality – and also by philosophical bent.  There are two accreditations for Montessori in the USA - Association Montessori Internationale, which has a strict interpretation of Maria Montessori’s approaches and emulates them as closely as possible, and the American Montessori Society, which allows for variations on the curriculum.


Waldorf Schools

The Waldorf philosophy is the brainchild of Rudolph Steiner, who opened his first school in Germany just after World War I.  He too observed children and sought to follow and foster their natural development, which he saw as being at early ages primarily imaginative, and evolving into the analytical.  Waldorf schools therefore seek to foster creative depth, connection between subject areas, and investment in nature, with all classroom materials being made of organic substances such as wood, wool, or glass.  TV watching and other media use is restricted, and in many cases prohibited.

Waldorf instruction is designed around a driving topic that is taught in the “daily lesson,” which is thematic in nature.  Students record their learning in logs that are carefully crafted and often illustrated using Steiner’s specific approach to teaching color and design principles.  All students learn an instrument from an early age, learn a second language, and receive instruction in a bevy of classic skills – knitting, dance, and drawing amongst them.  Socialization and a connection with the outdoors are highly valued, with several long recesses a day, rain or shine.  Also notable is that Waldorf teachers follow their students for all eight years of the program, with subject specialists added in over the years.

With its heavy emphasis on fostering the creative, early years in a Waldorf elementary look quite different than other schools.  Learning to read and write are delayed in the Waldorf approach – it is not until third grade when students are explicitly taught to read, which usually happens quickly and relatively painlessly by virtue of students being ripe for the challenge.  The ultimate result of a Waldorf education is reputed to be students that are reflective, creative, motivated, independent, and innocent to popular culture.


Project Based /Thematic Learning Schools

While many schools in the area will have students work together on group projects, a few schools integrate project-based learning into nearly every subject.  Reggio Emilio is one of these approaches.  Founded after World War II in Italy by Loris Malaguzzi for preschool and primary children, Reggio places a high importance on the early years of development for forming a person’s identity.  Their program is based on the principles of respect, responsibility, and community.  Much attention is given to forming an environment that is rich and supportive of students exploring their own interests in a self-guided way, and learning is expressed in multiple ways, most notably through art.   Much attention is given to creating a pleasant and stocked learning environment where students can take initiative and ownership of their projects.  Planning tends to be quite open-ended, as teachers seek to let students construct their own meaning and process.

Other project-based approaches in the Portland have similar approaches.  Some of these project-based schools have topic areas chosen by the teacher as well to ensure allegiance with state and district learning standards.  But all project based approaches strive to connect learning across subjects, empower students to plan and execute big ideas, foster teamwork and collaboration, and present finished work to the community at large.  This repeated experience makes for students that are motivated learners, skilled at working with others, and confident interacting out in the community at large.

Religiously Affiliated Schools

Although Oregon is considered to be one of the “least churched”  states in the nation, plenty of people still send their kids to religiously affiliated schools of all stripes. The majority of these schools are Catholic, though various Protestant, Orthodox or non-denominational Christian schools exist here, as do Jewish and Muslim ones.  Some religiously affiliated schools require participation in religious education; others offer optional supplemental programs and classes. It should be noted that many (if not all) of these schools are opened to, and teach children who are not affiliated with their particular religion – so don’t let the fact that you are not a “follower” sway you from exploring a school that may have other appealing aspects to it.  All of these schools are tuition based, though many may offer aid to families who can’t afford to pay full tuition.

More: The über scoop on Private Schools

Religious schools boast a range of rigor and innovation.  Some are quite traditional in their approach; others take on some of the philosophies described above to combine with their religious offerings.  The common element amongst them is a focus on spiritual values and morality, so students have a reputation for stronger development in these areas.

So, to sum it up, there are many specialized ways to skin a cat.  Though the majority of elementary schools in Portland fall under the "traditional" category, those looking for an innovative approach have some good choices.  One word of warning – with the exception of the religious schools, many of these options are popular with lots of Portlanders, so if reading these descriptions got you all excited, prepare yourself for some competition. 

Note: If you're one of those people who ask "What Does It Mean to Be Well-educated?" or question the predominant model of our school system, or wonder what an ideal classroom might look like, then you might be curious to get the overall scoop on Non-traditional Schools.

If you want to learn more about a specific method of education, or school type, we've tried to provide some links.  And, when you're ready to find out what specific schools in the Portland area have to offer, our RESEARCH section will show you where to look.  

Dig deeper into the philosophies described above that appeal to you the most by clicking on the websites listed to the right.  Make a list of potential pros and cons of each approach and jot down any questions that you may still have to save for the touring step of this process.

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