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If Students Could Create a School, What Would It Look Like?

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Guest Post by Michelle Healy

With her colleagues, Michelle Healy is spending the 2012-2013 school year crossing the country to identify successful practices from schools of every kind before her team designs and opens its own model public school in New York City. For this blog, she is sharing some of those stories and how they relate to what she sees in each new episode of A Year at Mission Hill.

Last fall, over a lunch of burritos, my colleagues and I listened to a group of students from ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They had just returned from a meeting with their city's mayor, Richard Berry, and they were eager to tell us about the project at the center of it all -- a project that began with an exploration into their own personal identities. They talked about who they were and what they stood for. They shared their excitement about reading the book Albuquerque by Rudolfo Anaya, and using the text to discuss the identity of their own city. And then they applied their knowledge to the creation of an urban design plan that would revitalize and grow Albuquerque into a 21st century city while still maintaining its distinct personality and flavor.

It was hard to believe the well-dressed, articulate students before us were kids who, as ACE founder Tony Monfilletto said, were on their second, third, or fourth chance with school. Some were former drop-outs or had been expelled from their public schools for violence or vandalism. The high schoolers candidly talked with us about their old schools, telling us exactly why traditional schooling hadn't worked for them. One girl recounted being required to write weekly book reports on books that were agonizingly boring, only to notice that the teacher had no intention of even reading or checking the reports. She asked herself often, "What is the purpose of this? When am I ever going to use this in the real world?"

ACE, which stands for Architecture, Construction, and Engineering, is a different kind of high school. Students in grades 9-12 are grouped not by grade but by projects. Projects are influenced by real contracting and building work in the Albuquerque area, to which local contractors, architects and engineers have invited students to participate. The students we talked to said that the projects were engaging and exciting to take part in, and helped them understand the importance of learning to use one's mind well.

Thematic, interdisciplinary, hands-on studies and projects like the ones at ACE are prevalent in many of the schools we have visited on our yearlong journey, and seem to be expanding as a result of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. In Oakland, for example, Laura Kretchmar's sixth graders at Lighthouse Community Charter School assumed the role of Ichthyologists by examining the ecosystems and life cycles of sharks that populate the San Francisco Bay. At one point, the kids trolled the bay and collected water samples and specimens to gather information about the ecosystem.

On the other side of the country, at King Middle School in Portland, Maine, we participated in an eighth grade culminating presentation of a unit called reVOLT, in which students studied solar energy and invented and designed energy devices that would solve modern-day energy issues in a unique way in energy-strapped regions. And in Bloomington, Indiana, we observed Kindergarten and First grade students at The Project School study the intricacies of honeybees at the Wonderlab Museum of Science, Health, and Technology.

We see this same sort of group inquiry on display in the latest chapter of A Year at Mission Hill, when we watch students immersed in the topic of ancient China by making masks, folding wontons, and learning traditional dances. The palpable enthusiasm on the face of Mission Hill's students is the same that we've seen wherever children are participating in units of study that pervade every part of the school day and are both experiential and relevant to the world outside the school's walls. Indeed, the school's we've visited that provide thematic units of study are packed with opportunities for students to develop essential skills, including asking questions, doing research, making inferences, recording observations, crafting hypotheses, sharing knowledge with others, and reflecting upon their own work.

At the end of our interview with the students at ACE, we asked if they had advice for us before we created our elementary school. "Make the curriculum engaging, connected to the world, and hands-on," they said. This advice, straight from our nation's children, should resound across our country and inspire us to find ways to make education relevant, exciting, and real for all students.

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