The Gillispie School is an independent, coeducational day school in La Jolla, California, enrolling 250 students from age two to Grade Six (age twelve). The school began as a small cottage that served hot meals to the underprivileged children of single mothers or working parents in La Jolla in the lean years of the Great Depression. Its founders, pediatrician Samuel Gillispie and his wife, registered nurse Ada, had the prescience to offer the children in their care early childhood learning and opportunities long before nursery school was the norm.
With support from the La Jolla Kiwanis Club and the community at large, Gillispie grew from a tiny orphanage and preschool, established in 1933, to a vibrant, diverse educational community serving children ages 2 to sixth grade. Through its evolution, Gillispie has remained at the leading edge of early childhood education, breaking ground on its current site in 1953, building out additional grades in the 1980s, adding rigorous curriculum development and assessment in the 1990s, winning awards for technological innovation from Apple and the National Association of Independent Schools in the 2000s, and launching a sustainability initiative to green the School’s building and ground the students’ environmental education. Throughout, the School has maintained its commitment to the arts, music, and physical education.
The Early Childhood program enrolls 90 students from ages two to five. We have a staff of 13 Early Childhood educators. The Gillispie School has been named one of the top three best private schools in La Jolla for four years running, and the Best Preschool in La Jolla in 2016 by the La Jolla Light Newspaper’s Reader’s Choice Poll.
Our preschool program is based on social-constructivist beliefs that play-based socialization supports children in constructing their own knowledge. We view the child as the protagonist of their own learning, and through projects teachers support children’s curiosities, questions, and theories. This focus on children’s unique ideas empowers them on their life-long journey to become self-motivated problem solvers.
We believe the environment a child works in is crucial to the learning that takes place. Our nurturing and developmentally appropriate classrooms are designed for children to explore independently, and collaboratively, with teachers and peers. A wide variety of materials are intentionally placed to inspire investigation and creativity. Our indoor and outdoor environments reflect a strong belief in the importance of valuing the voice of the child and support opportunities to work together with others, develop and challenge theories, and problem solve.
For many children, this is their first group care experience, and we partner with families to bridge home to school. Trust is an essential component to the separation process, and we offer many opportunities to bring children, families, and teachers together.
Our Storypark Experience
In the past, we communicated the learning in our classrooms through weekly emails to parents and, later, through classroom blogs. We displayed documentation around our classrooms and the children’s work was compiled in physical portfolios, which teachers tried to update as often as possible. We found that the portfolios highlighted only a fraction of the children’s learning. There were numerous photos and videos that accompanied a lot of the learning, but there was not a way to really share the volume of digital documentation with families. The portfolios were presented to families at the end of the school year, when all of these learning moments had passed. As much as we encouraged it, and as much as they wanted to, the parents in our community often didn’t have time to visit the classroom and look at portfolios throughout the school year. It was very important to us to convey the learning going on in our room in real time, and to more fully involve parents in their children’s school lives, so we began looking for a better way to connect school and home.
We looked into other platforms but nothing addressed ALL of our needs. There were good options for sharing photos and text, but nothing provided personalized digital portfolios as well. Storypark had everything we were looking for; it was user friendly; the staff was very responsive to our questions; and it was priced reasonably—so much more cost effective and environmentally responsible than paper, ink, toner, and binders for 90 physical portfolios. Our Head of School gave us the green light to pilot it in our classroom last year, and our experience was so positive that all six Early Childhood classes are using it this year, as well as the Kindergarten classes.
We love that the format of Storypark encourages the sharing of smaller moments—things that we may not have written about in the past in our generalized, weekly wrap-ups. Back then, we were trying to be all things to all families—every child was featured in our emails or blog posts but we couldn’t get into great detail about any one student. With Storypark, we have a place to highlight the developmental achievements of individual children and celebrate the small but meaningful milestones in their social, emotional, and cognitive growth. We’re so much more attuned to learning story possibilities– meaningful interactions, explorations, experiments, and experiences that reveal so much about how a child is thinking and learning and growing. We feel more engaged with our students. We love that parents can learn about their child’s day, talk about it at home with them, and reflect back to us via Storypark comments. They have been so much more responsive to our Storypark posts than they were with our emails or blogs. They comment, share insights, offer ideas, and add in their own meaningful moments from home. These reflections help us extend the children’s learning. We feel that families have a deeper understanding of our emergent curriculum and a greater appreciation for where their children are right now in their development. We know that the stories we’re highlighting are changing parents’ perceptions about how much thinking and learning goes on in a child-centered, play-based curriculum. It’s wonderful that parents can access their child’s portfolio any time and any place, and that the portfolios will be available to them for years to come, no matter where the children continue their education. It’s been especially valuable to parents who travel a lot for their jobs. Through the Storypark app, they’re able to stay connected with what their child is doing and comment on stories wherever in the world they are. Because the children’s portfolios can be shared with extended family members, we’re connecting with aunts, uncles, and grandparents all across the United States. It’s such an easy but meaningful way for parents to include the rest of their families in their child’s school experiences.
Having access to each other’s student portfolios has provided the teachers with many opportunities to collaborate. We have a greater understanding of what’s happening in each other’s classrooms and what ideas are percolating among everyone’s students. We’re discovering shared interests among students of all ages, and are able to connect them for small-group projects. We’re helping each other extend ideas in our rooms and, as a result, our Early Childhood community feels more connected and more personal this year.
Most Gillispie students are in our EC program for three or four years and then move on to our Kindergarten and elementary school program. We love that the children’s learning history will move with them through the EC years and into Kindergarten, giving all of the teachers insight into their students’ interests and accomplishments. Documentation of a student’s learning over the years is an amazing tool to show teachers their students’ learning histories and help them differentiate their instruction.
We have sung Storypark’s praises ever since we began using it. We’ve encouraged other educators in our community to implement it in their own programs, and we’re hoping that more of the elementary classes at our school will use it as well. We can’t think of a program that wouldn’t benefit from using Storypark.
Savonia Guy is an Early Childhood educator and an Atelierista at Gillispie, working alongside her at Gillipsie is Michelle Quinton who is an Early Childhood educator.