Normally, good neighborhoods mean good public schools, and the opposite is also the norm, especially in a state like Missouri where public education is funded through local taxes, and not redistributed by the state. So it takes something heroic to run this process in reverse, for a school to help raise up a struggling community. But that may very well be what is happening around Maplewood Richmond Heights in St. Louis. I got to spend an afternoon and evening with the Middle School team that is helping make this happen, and it may become an iconic example for educators who want to make big changes in both public and private education. This group of dedicated educators is smack on the front lines of re-framing the learning experience of the future.
As I understand the history from Asst. Superintendent Roxanna Mechem, a decade ago this community was on the ropes, caught in the all-too familiar spiral of capital flight, poor-performing education, and a school system ready for take-over by the state. In came new district leadership and a stout refusal to maintain status quo. Today, test scores are way up, almost all of the high school graduates are accepted to at least one college, and middle class families are starting to move back into the area.
I spent most of my time with Middle School principal Bob Dillon and his team, as well as meeting with a group of students. It is hard to articulate the sheer energy that pervades this school; it is electric. I will try to hit some highlights, but if you want to visit a school of the future that is operating RIGHT NOW, in a traditionally underserved area, and doing it despite every traditional hurdle faced by public education, Bob and the rest of the leadership team at MRHMS are people to get to know.
The district has one elementary, middle, and high school, with a total of about 1,200 students. It feels like a highly diverse private school, yet the community is pretty impacted; there is no wealth in this area. Their middle school overarching paradigm is “expeditionary learning”, embedded between the elementary theme of “school as a museum” and the high school’s theme of “school as apprenticeship” for the real world. They are completely re-imagining what learning should look like, and are thinking way outside of just higher test scores. A foundational piece is to build experiences that will capture the imagination of students and wrap content around that. Middle school students spend 25% of their time off campus, in the community and in the field.
They have had to make some choices, and they have chosen to align every dollar they can to staff training and enhancing the student experience. Grant funding has helped and they are willing to take risks with partners in order to see if programs will work. A few have missed the mark, but most have worked out and added a completely additional layer of resources and experiences for the students. They invest in people, train those people in the ethos of the school, and then trust them. Faculty are expected to dream, ideate, come up with ideas, try them out, get student and colleague feedback, assess, and then do it all again the next day.
If there were one major takeaway from my visit it would be the sheer energy and enthusiasm amongst the faculty. They flat out love coming to work every day; they put in longer hours than if they worked somewhere else, and there is a sense of camaraderie that on might find in the military. These folks are working for each other as much as for the kids. It is worth gold. Demand to come teach at MRHMS is through the roof; Bob has 150 applications for every open teaching spot.
Some bright lights in the program:
- They have gotten rid of virtually all textbooks and reallocated the savings.
- Students are working with an urban design group on a major urban renewal project as an elective class. The students are learning to prototype, produce and present alongside professionals.
- There are working gardens everywhere; and a fish tank-fertilizer-lettuce growing pilot; and a huge bee-keeping project; and a chicken and egg project; and farm to restaurant relationships; all worked by students and families and percolating out into the community. They keep a database of all the families in the community who raise chickens! And all of this comes back into the classroom in terms of content in math, economics, science, social studies, art, and more.
- They have two “Instructional Coaches” who do everything from research new pedagogy, to help teachers write units, to in-service technology, to substitute in classes so teachers can get release time. Coach Dan Reeve: “We come in and ‘flood the zone’ where needed” so ideas come to reality in hours or days instead of weeks or years. They create a safe space for teachers to imagine and try projects and keep decisions from piling up on the principal’s desk.
- They create off-campus expeditions for all sorts of learning, and they feel those opportunities have had a real impact on student learning back in the classroom. They also believe that students who may struggle for a range of reasons in the classroom can find their way or their voice off campus in a wide range of projects, including just working and learning in the garden. Expeditions also forge a deeper relationship between the teachers and students.
- The faculty loop with the students so they get to see and work with them for two years, not one. It stretches out their assessment schedule so they can focus less on grading periods and more on authentic learning time. Classrooms look more like office spaces; they are not organized around a teacher desk. The teachers flow with the students and don’t bog down in ownership of space.
- The Library has already been re-named as a Design Learning Center; I can’t WAIT to see what that looks like in a year or so!
The core idea that Bob and his team have developed and share so deeply is that they want to make the community a better place. They are growing empathy around breaking the cycle of poverty and issues of justice. “We want to be here” was the main message when I met with the entire faculty. Like Denver Green School, teachers meet with their incoming students and families at home before the school year. Bob hires people who are creative and who bring strengths and interests to the team other than just being a good teacher. He and his teachers blog, tweet, and connect with others outside of their walls any way they can to find another way to improve the student experience. The students know they are part of something special. They know their teachers are putting in longer hours. Every one of the students I met with had some idea of a personal goal well beyond high school, and in this community, just a decade ago that would not have been the case.
I could go on all night and still not do this team justice. Just visiting all of the working gardens and pilot projects that surround the school could have taken a half-day. Here is what sets this school apart in my mind: every day they are re-imagining what learning and school can be, and every bit of it is focused on student experience and achievement. They work the data. They try, and re-try and tweak. Their students get it. The faculty gets it. The superintendent and assistant superintendent are just as passionate as the first year teacher. And the whole darn community is slowly but surely seeing what a really good school can be.