Friday, June 29, 2012

A Chunk of Our Story

The renaissance of the Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School started ten years ago as the State of Missouri prepared to place the school and the district on provisional accreditation status. The school was a place that housed kids as the neighborhoods crumbled around it. The school seemed destined to be another example of urban decay in Saint Louis. One decade ago, less than 40% of the middle school aged students in the district attended the public schools. Housing prices, local businesses, and a variety of other city services were on the decline. The cities of Maplewood and Richmond Heights appeared to be slipping into the downward spiral urban sprawl. Today, the reality of the Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is quite different. Our steady, sustainable test score growth speaks loudly about the impact that the renewed Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is making on kids, families, and our community.

The foundation of our sustainable growth has been the dedication to both the programming and the culture of the school as seen in the diagram. Schools that focus on one above the other or one without the other are destined to create a false sense of growth that will crumble with new leadership, teacher turnover, or slight changes to the system. In the area of culture, our success comes from building a compelling education vision that is embraced by students, teachers, and families. This clear understanding of our mission as a school allows for innovation, communication, collaboration, and partnerships at new levels of intensity.

Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is also dedicated to the metaphor of learning of School as Expedition, and this drives all of our planning and decision-making. Our School as Expedition parallels in many ways the Expeditionary Learning model that can be found in schools throughout the country. For us, expeditionary learning means that our kids are outside of the classroom learning about 25% of the school year. This includes time outside on our campus, outside in the community, and learning opportunities outside of the community. These opportunities build a skeleton of context that all of our learning can rest. Unlike many middle schools, our students rarely ask “why” about projects and assignments as they have experienced the context for the learning. Another incredible outcome of this model is its ability to close the expectations gap and opportunity gap simultaneously with the achievement gap. We believe that only through working on each of these gaps in tandem can we not only help our students of poverty reach the front doors of the university, but also create the opportunity for them to have a successful experience and graduate from university. Too often in the past, we have prepared kids for university academically, but the cultural and experiential divide was too great for them to mange while on campus.

Another essential elements of our cultural turnaround comes from a dedication to continuous improvement throughout the learning community. This continuous improvement has come through a cultural shift to deprivatized practice that includes teachers visiting other teachers classrooms, unit tuning, lesson and project critique as well as making time for collaboration throughout the day a non-negotiable in our master schedule. The results of have been a more energized teaching staff that is excited about taking positive risks for kids.

Along with the fostering of a healthy culture in the school, the past decade has been about building a strong program for excellent student learning. We have realized that learning is a dynamic process that when done well results in increases in scholarship, leadership, citizenship, and stewardship. This is seen in our test scores, but also in a variety of other ways including the excellent student work and projects in our students’ electronic portfolios. Developing leadership, citizenship, scholarship, and stewardship has become the cornerstones of the excellent programming that we provide students. Our definition of success has expanded to truly embrace the growth in all four of our cornerstones. In order to make this complex web of learning possible, we are relentless about engaging community partners that can supplement the knowledge and expertise of our teachers as well as provide students with new avenues in which to build their skills as citizens and leaders.

In an environment of innovation and growth, there is no time available for inefficiency, and our teachers embrace the professional development, resources, and time and space provided to help them grow their toolbox of best practices. Teachers at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School also realize that the best professional development is now available on a global scale and on a continuous basis. This has led to teachers to search for teachers and educators outside the building to collaborate with by using social media outlets including blogs and Twitter. Our teachers are building extensive professional learning networks to share, grow, and collaborate.

Finally, our learning community has embraced the essential nature of our cornerstone of stewardship. We believe that twenty years from our now our planet will spend much of its time taking about food, water, and energy, and we are dedicated to our students being leaders in this conversation. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School is known as a regional and national leader in the area of urban sustainability. This recognition stems from our work in four areas of learning. These include our raised bed gardens on campus that produce food for our cafeteria, area restaurants, and the local farmers’ market. Our students are involved in all areas of the process from seed to table in this area of study. We also have about 100,000 honeybees on our campus that produce 20 gallons of honey annually. Students are involved with maintaining the hives, extracting the honey, and cleaning and preparing the honey, so that it can be sold as a variety of products include wax, lip balm, soap, and jars of honey throughout the school year by our small business known as Bee MRH.

Students are also involved with learning about and caring for our chickens. The district has about two-dozen chickens for students to grow more comfortable in the conversations surrounding food and food production. This is also the case for our work with the recirculating aquaponics project that has our students studying how fish and plants can live in a symbiotic relationship. Each of these projects is designed to build deep curricular knowledge, foster new partnerships, and return the knowledge to the community. These results are being seen with greater frequency as we remain dedicated to being a Green School with a sustainable mission.   

Core Area 2- Personalizing the School Environment

Maplewood Richmond Heights in its journey toward excellence in the last ten years has worked to place the students in the center of the learning environment. This has required our teachers to move into the role of facilitator as students engaging in challenging, long-term projects of excellence. These projects allow students a variety of real-life experiences that foster essential skills such as communication, collaboration, and presentation skills. Our students have voice. They are involved in a variety of classes, committees and opportunities where they are able to speak about the things that they are passionate about, develop solutions, and truly make a difference in our school and community.

These opportunities include our adventure club, dog club, and citizenship advisory panel as well as students participating in professional development conferences as speakers, panelists and presenters. Middle school students are looking to be heard, and they are looking for ways to harness their passion for life in a positive way. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School has embraced this energy. One way to view the learning outcomes in this area is to explore our YouTube Channel, Here you can see how our students embrace tough issues and work to raise awareness for students, families, and our community.

In order to be successful in personalizing the environment, it is essential to hire teachers that are missional to the whole child. No longer can excellent schools afford to have teachers that know their subject, but can’t also focus on the whole child. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School has built its capacity in this area over the last decade, moving away from teachers that lacked the empathy for the struggles of our students in poverty as well as the overall needs of students at the middle level. This shift has brought fresh energy and greater achievement to the building. Teachers have been involved with creating vehicles for connection with students like a daily advisory period and a monthly town hall meeting to celebrate hard work and dedication to character. Teachers have also grown their capacity to teach and guide social and emotional development in real-time ways. Teachers feel comfortable talking with students about choices and decision-making at the moment that things occur.

This type of learning and growth is essential for growing leaders and citizens that can self-correct, show restraint, and lead by example. All of these efforts to personalize the environment and place kids in the center of the school have led to a school that feels like a place of learning, where respect is high, bullying is low, and quality is the norm. None of this could be said about the environment ten years ago. Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School now has close to 80% of all middle school aged students attending the school, student achievement is nearing 70% proficiency in both math and communication arts on a very rigorous state test in Missouri, and the excellent student work that we are able to share with parents through our bi-annual student-led conferences now fills our electronic portfolios. One of the best ways to see our learning and the beauty of the learning is to visit our Flickr site that showcases the images of our school from the last year. It can be found at:

Core Area 3- Making Learning Personal: Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

Now more than ever, students don’t have to rely on the classroom teacher to be the primary source for information and ideas. Schools are definitely in a shift from being the dispenser of knowledge to helping students curate information and building their skills to analyze and synthesize knowledge. At no point in time have students been armed with more information (on their computers, phones, and televisions) that allows for them to make their learning personal. This shift hasn’t been fully realized by most schools, but schools like Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School realized that high levels of technology integration were essential to building the 21st Century Learner. Each of our students has a school assigned laptop that they are able use both at home and at school.

Teaching in this personalized environment has brought many benefits to our students. They have been able to have continuous access to the daily learning objectives and resources for each of their classes as our full curriculum is available on-line for students. This curriculum was built using the Understanding by Design philosophy that begin with the end in mind, so that students and teachers can personalize a path to success for all students that allows their understanding of enduring understanding and essential question to blossom along with the knowledge and skills of each unit.

Students at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School are also challenged to work to an excellent level on high-level projects that require multiple iterations to achieve a level of proficiency necessary to impress a public audience outside of the school. It has been amazing to watch the quality of work rise when the final audience isn’t the teacher’s desk. In addition, our students have real-life experiences through a variety of expeditionary learning opportunities each year. This year, our seventh-grade students completed an art integration and community research project as they travelled across town on the light-rail system. They explored the neighborhoods along the way, interviewing riders, and documenting the trip and art installations along the way using digital cameras. These same students travelled to the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont as a capstone experience to study bio-diversity and salamander habitats. Along with these trips students spent time learning on multiple college campuses as well as completing many service learning opportunities including one at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers with our partners at the Audubon Society.

Technology integration has led to major growth spikes for our students over the five years of having a 1:1 environment. Differentiation of product is possible at a greater rate when students are creating video and audio representations of their learning using technology. Our students have become incredible videographers, and this is seen clearly through our final reflection project known as the Defining Moment project where students are writing a personal narrative that they use as a voice-over to a original movie of their story. This is the type of high-level learning and outcomes that allow us to remain true to our definition of success that is much larger than test scores.

Over this period of renaissance, we have expanded the learning opportunities for students. Students are receiving more highly focus literacy services as needed that extends beyond the reading classroom and into the other subject areas through the use of our instructional coaches. We are providing our struggling math learners with asynchronous ways to practice their computation skills with excellent results. We are providing all of our students’ opportunities to write additional formal essays in communication arts and social studies. Around 80% of students are now receiving high school credit in Algebra something that would have never been possible at the beginning of this journey. Students have incredible new ways to explore their passions in learning with electives such as: Citizen Science, Sustainability, Creative Writing, Current Events to go along with our incredible arts program that features a middle school jazz band, a middle school acapella choir as well as our art integration specialist that brings art into all areas of our learning.

The fruit of this decade of work has been moving from a near provisional accreditation from the state to being accredited with distinction by the state for our work in the school and district. In addition, Maplewood and Richmond Heights are becoming destination cities for families that are looking to live in a diverse, urban environment with excellent and innovative schools. The population in our schools is growing at a faster than expected rate and the satisfaction of parents is at an all-time high. MRHMS is now a place that is studied as a model for the culture and programming that it provides its students. In the haze of failing schools and systems in decline, Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School had broken out of the pact to be the place in Saint Louis for students and families to experience excellent and know that their students will be prepared for the future.

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