A visit to the McGillis School in Salt Lake City has made a fine end to Leg 1 of Wisdom Road. McGillis is a K-8 school with several very interesting and almost unique elements that I think make it a sure bet to continue to thrive in this growing market.
The first is that McGillis is an independent school rooted in Jewish values and open to all children. Their vision and value system starts with Jewish traditions and history, but only 15% of their students identify as Jewish. And they study other world religious traditions as deeply as they study Judaism. They say they are a “values” focused school and, to be honest, I see it at McGillis more strongly than at most other schools that make that claim. They are hyper-focused on inclusivity, diversity, and the other core values which are posted in every room and apparent in so much of their program. Their students perform very well academically, but academic performance is not the principle driver of their program.
Their middle school has adopted an Integrated Studies program for humanities, writing, and science for which they created long blocks of time in the afternoon. Give credit to the great team at Leadership +Design who helped them structure this program; the focus on student-centric design and reflections of the Stanford d.school practices were evident and clearly energize the students. I rank McGillis high on my list of schools that are taking design-based learning very seriously. And they are leveraging their location in the Mountain West for field trips and longer learning experiences from the Tetons to the Colorado River, in addition to the local mountains and deserts. The have truly focused their curriculum on finding and solving real world problems.
Perhaps most unique is something I have been begging a number of independent schools, particularly those with admissions challenges, to look into for almost a decade: opening the doors to students with more significant learning differences. McGillis’ Learning Center serves students with language-based learning differences who work on their academic program in groups of 5-6 with teachers trained in Orton-Gillingham and Wilson techniques. They mainstream with the rest of their grade for arts, music, PE, lunch, and social time. The faculty report a high degree of integration amongst the two cohorts, and that students in the traditional school very much understand that “people’s brains are wired differently and we can celebrate and learn from those differences.” Admissions for the Learning Center program is strong as it is essentially one of a kind in this area, and in fact the entire state of Utah.
In the afternoon I got to hang out with all of the third graders where we talked about story-telling, learning by listening, and other lessons from my Wisdom Road journey. They asked some REALLY good questions, which reflected how well the school is preparing them as learners, not just as students.
Reach out to McGillis if you are interested in elements of their program; they are living their purpose of a values-based education!