St. Louis Suburb Offers Innovative Elementary School

The school would have an alternative curriculum — one that uses real-world problems to help students learn — that lacks the restraints grade levels sometimes place on learning.

by Elisa Crouch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / January 11, 2016 0

(TNS) — The Mehlville School District in St. Louis County, Mo., is moving to bring school choice to a place it’s not often seen in the St. Louis region — the suburbs.

Children in the Mehlville district may have the chance in two years to attend an elementary school with an alternative curriculum — one that uses real-world problems to help students learn and without the restraints grade levels sometimes place on learning.

It would be a school that parents would choose, and there would be no admission requirements. If more children apply than there are seats available, the district would hold a lottery.

That kind of competition for classroom seats has largely been limited regionally to the city of St. Louis. There, district magnet and choice schools, along with independent charter schools, offer language immersion education and schooling that focuses on science, engineering, technology and math.

Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines received preliminary approval from the district’s School Board last week to move ahead with a “Choice School of Innovation” that would be the only of its kind in St. Louis County.

The school would use technology and different instruction methods to help children learn at their own pace. They could hone their reading, math and science skills by developing solutions to problems in their community — such as hunger or water shortages — and through projects that require critical thinking. And if a first-grader is capable of fourth grade math, she would learn at a fourth-grade level.

“We’re not blowing up what folks might consider as traditional schooling,” Gaines told the School Board. “We’re still going to have those opportunities for kids. We’re just going to have some other opportunities for kids who may not be successful in a traditional setting, but might find this more engaging, more exciting, more relevant to what they’re interested in.”

Mehlville would join several other districts who are trying either to meet children where they are, or are attempting match education with the world around them.

Pattonville is trying “proficiency-based learning” at one of its elementary schools, grouping children during reading and math instruction based on their skills so that teachers can meet each one where they are.

The Parkway district offers the Spark! Program, which allows high schoolers to immerse themselves in fields of engineering, bioscience, education, business and others through work off campus. In Affton, juniors and seniors can embed themselves several hours a week at a workplace, such as hospitals and engineering firms, learning while doing the work.

Mehlville’s choice option for a school with alternative curriculum is unique in the county.

In the 1980s, the Webster Groves School District opened the Computer School, a choice school for elementary students that gave children more time with technology than at other schools in the district. These days, aside from size, the are no distinctions between the Computer School and others in Webster Groves.

In Mehlville, parents don’t have to buy into the new school if they don’t want to.

“No one in the region is doing anything like this,” Gaines told the School Board last week. “It moves us from a one-size-fits-all education model.”

‘Ready for change’

The school in Mehlville would be modeled after the EPiC school in Liberty, Mo., which has received national attention after it opened in 2014. The first year, more than 1,000 students applied for the 300 available seats.

“That told me people were ready for a change,” said Michelle Schmitz, principal of EPiC. “What kids do is they solve a project — a water crisis, hunger in our county. They investigate and solve problems. It matches the world around them.”

The Mehlville school would be in addition to the district’s 10 elementary schools. The plan is to open it inside the former St. John’s Elementary School at Lemay Ferry Road and Will Avenue, near Mehlville High. That building is being used as an alternative school for students from multiple districts with behavior challenges. That program would move elsewhere.

The proposal was met with excitement from the School Board, which in recent years has grappled with cuts and program reductions — not innovation. The new school would be funded through revenue from an extended summer school and through savings district administration has identified since the fall.

“It’s an opportunity to put the Mehlville School District on the map for innovation and opportunity for student learning that we haven’t had the ability to do in the past,” said Lisa Dorsey, a School Board member.

Board President Venki Palamand called the idea “creative and promising.”

Leading the way

Gaines said “if the Innovative School could be properly funded and executed, Mehlville could lead the way in how students are educated in the St. Louis area.”

Gaines has studied personalized and project-based learning as a member of the executive committee of the American Association of School Administrators. He’s spoken with educators at EPiC about the project-based approach. In the fall, he began mulling a similar concept with his top district staff.

“As we sat down and started thinking and scribbling on my white board, we thought, ‘Why can’t we do something similar to that?’” Gaines said.

The board’s preliminary approval allows district officials to hire the principal and put together the implementation team needed to plan how the school would open and operate. Next winter, Gaines will come before the board with specifics on staffing and operations and will ask for final approval.

If the school opens, district officials would have to figure out how to keep children engaged once they move into sixth grade and beyond.

“If we start this school, Choice of Innovation, and kids go kindergarten through fifth grade in a project-based learning environment, we’ve got to have something ready when they hit middle school and high school,” Gaines said.

©2016 The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.