Creating a Culture of Learning With Students in Poverty: Holy Names School, Memphis

photo-1Is there a place for student-centered school innovation at the crossroads of poverty, test scores, and growth mindset?  What does that look like? Many others are tackling this question, but I had the opportunity to see a piece of it today when Laura Dearman of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence and I visited Holy Names School this morning in Memphis.

Holy Names is a small Catholic school, grades 3-8, with just 56 students in Uptown Memphis.  It is 98% African-American in a neighborhood where median annual family income is about $15,000 a year.  Most do not live with their biological parents and as many as 80% have suffered some form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. The Memphis philanthropic community has put together a non-denominational fund to support Catholic schools in underserved neighborhoods, subsidizing 80% of the cost of tuition for families who make both a financial and social commitment to their children’s education.

Second year principal Lytia Reese, who left a job with the Federal Reserve bank to go into education, spent more than an hour with us discussing the history and program of the school.  An old neighborhood school, it had closed back in the 1970’s and reopened less than a decade ago. After a series of short-term leaders, Lytia is trying to create a long-term sustainable track of improved student performance.  We were visiting with her because her whole faculty will attend the Harvard Project Zero conference hosted at the Martin Institute this February.  And that is what fascinates me about this school.

Lytia says, as do others who serve similar student populations, that they have a huge challenge in developing a culture of what school even means.  Students are not accustomed to learning, accountability, civil discourse, discipline or rigor. Before they can take ownership of their own learning, they have to learn a cultural foundation of what it means to take school seriously, to make choices in their daily habit and routines.  “These students have a great deal of grit and resilience due to how they live, and we need to get them to channel that into their habits of learning.”

What if this marvelous space at Holy Names School had idea paint of the walls and a 3-d printer?!

What if this marvelous space at Holy Names School had idea paint of the walls and a 3-d printer?!

The entire school spent the first two weeks of the year “reminding ourselves and learning what school means…how we ‘do’ school”, says Lytia. They use a “house” system that creates leadership opportunities for every student in the school.  Older students spend time mentoring younger students.  Parents sign contracts to ensure the students read at home and show up to school on time and ready to learn. In just her second year, this kind of commitment to the learning process has resulted in far fewer detentions and discipline problems, and steadily rising test scores. “Last year we had discipline problems because students were really disruptive; this year it is because a student has forgotten to turn off a cell phone.”

As the school community learns the language of the basics, they are already focusing on letting go some of the rigidity they have used to instill the building blocks.  They are eager to attend Project Zero and learn more strategies for creating a more dynamic, fluid, even noisy learning flow.

I was reminded of my visit with Eric Juli at Design Innovation School in inner city Cleveland last year, where Eric says his first task was getting both students and teachers to understand what learning actually looks like.  He is making enormous strides while facing huge challenges.  But one thing stuck with me: he says if he could have had his 9th graders when they were in elementary school, he could have developed these community understandings and values, preventing the 9th graders from falling several grades behind before they get to high school.  Schools like Holy Name are taking on that challenge, and we will be interested to see their response to the Project Zero conference, and just how those lessons can be adapted to the real challenges their school and students face.

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