The secrets behind one school’s remarkable turnaround

Technology, service learning are key components of the turnaround at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School

Technology and service learning are key components of this school’s remarkable turnaround.

Twelve years ago, Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, Mo., ranked among the area’s lowest-performing schools. With a 59-percent poverty demographic, low test scores, and dilapidated facilities, the school faced serious challenges that some thought insurmountable. A turnaround would require a bold vision—and nothing less than a groundbreaking shift in approach.

That turnaround happened, and in ways that many people didn’t think possible. In 2012, MRH was one of two $60,000 Grand Prize winners in the Follett Challenge, which recognizes top-notch educators who are designing 21st-century teaching and learning programs. That same year, we were honored to be named an International Center for Leadership in Education Model School. In November, we were named a 2014 National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Breakthrough School in recognition of our strong academic success in the face of challenges that result from high poverty rates. In 2014, we enter our third year as an Apple Distinguished School.

This remarkable turnaround took a decade, and its trajectory has been grand and nuanced in ways that still amaze me. Where you once found decrepit buildings and students and staff who felt about as run-down as their physical surroundings, you now find community gardens and bee hives, art, and a vibrant use of technology throughout.

A laptop for every student

One key to MRH’s dramatic turnaround is the integration and well-designed use of technology resources.

In 2007, MRH become one of the first Missouri public high schools to hand out laptops to all students. Today, we are a one-to-one laptop school. All students receive a laptop, pay a small insurance fee, and are allowed to keep the computer forever upon graduation. This has leveled the playing field and narrowed the digital divide by giving all students equal access and training to the same powerful technology.

Whether they’re at home or at school, students can access all classroom curriculum resources on our Desire2Learn (D2L) eLearning site. Parents also have access to student work, grades, and attendance online, enabling them to track their children’s progress.

Taking full advantage of a laptop’s resources requires reliable internet access. MRH stays open until 5:00 p.m. every day to allow students without internet access at home to take advantage of our free Wi-Fi. Students can also access Wi-Fi after 5:00 p.m. at the Maplewood Public Library, which sits next door to MRH.

The Research & Design Center (R&D)

Our library, known as R&D, is the vortex of learning and collaboration at MRH. Up until the turnaround, it was an old-school library. But MRH staff envisioned our ultimate new “library” as a true R&D center—a buzzing, one-stop resource shop for teachers and students.

(Next page: How the school’s ‘Cornerstones’ program was instrumental in the turnaround as well)

We imagined a place where students and teachers could go take a mini-lesson on editing video, talk about new ideas, work together on projects, have a cup of coffee in the café and read, checkout a Flip Cam, or get help from a specialist. These things were happening all over campus, in small groups or classes, but we wanted a hub—a center for kids and teachers to find everything and do everything together, at once.

After a solid year of thought and planning, the next step was a physical one: moving classes and programs into the Research & Design center. The change makers came first, but essentially, we moved the major programs all at once. We just dove in, which meant we had to rethink a lot of rules for the space. This required a big mind shift for the teachers. In the beginning, it took some getting used to. Today, I teach every single freshman in the social justice foundations class here, out in the open, and we have study halls going on at the same time. Kids come and conference with teachers on projects.

The R&D Center is a place where kids can meet their resource needs and engage in activities that help them network with mentors and social entrepreneurs in the community, preparing them for a range of capstone apprenticeships. It’s also a place where kids participate in causes that are personally meaningful, and they learn how they can be a catalyst for change.

Our Cornerstones

The transformation from the old way of doing things into the new would not have been nearly as impactful without the district’s Cornerstone program, which remains a guiding mission.

Our district vision is anchored by the four Cornerstones: leadership, scholarship, stewardship, and citizenship. All ninth grade students and transfers are required to take the Cornerstone course, which, in addition to teaching the four Cornerstones, promotes our school-wide literacy program, teaches high school-level study and note-taking skills, and spends five full weeks discussing items such as laptop-related issues.

Our four Cornerstone tenets are the undercurrent of everything we do in the district. For example, the district has three gardens that are tended to and harvested by students in their Seed to Table program, and they run a food pantry out of the high school that serves 54 people—30 of them children—with food for the weekends. The kids do it all—from building the shelves for the pantry to presenting their program to community leaders to get them on board. They also have an after-school cooking class, Mouths of Babes, for student moms in the Teen Kitchen, where the girls learn to create healthy meals from food provided by the pantry. Child care is provided by students.

We have an aquaculture program and are experimenting with raising fish, and we offer formal secondary courses in leadership, environmental sustainability, entrepreneurship, citizenship, and service learning. The varied opportunities for service learning are built into the curricula and culture of the district. They’re not just special classes taken by a select few students; they’re what our students know.

Training for excellence

Our teachers are the authors of our varied curricula. To get those online and accessible, all staff were trained in how to write Understanding by Design (UbD) units online. They are supported by a school-wide system of feedback via local curriculum experts, in-house experts, and peer reviews. This process is ongoing, but all curricula were fully implemented in 2010.

Quarterly staff trainings are done in each department to focus on the latest trends in the field and to discuss any relevant issues and problems related to the teachers’ classroom technology needs. Each summer, MRH also offers free staff tech trainings based on the needs demonstrated by a yearly staff technology survey. Administrators receive training by our tech staff every month and are taught the latest Mac and Google-related programs on their phones, laptops, and iPads.

A model for other schools

I came to MRH in my 20th year of teaching high school English. Before arriving here, I watched two failed transformations from the inside at other schools. When I heard what MRH had done, I was skeptical. But being a part of this remarkable turnaround has made me a believer in the fact that it can be done with dedication, innovation, and desire to let students and staff excel.

Patrice Bryan taught high school English for 20 years before transitioning to the service learning arena. With 10 years experience in a tech classroom, she currently teaches social justice and service learning at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis. She also coordinates the school’s on-site, student-run food pantry, which serves 25 district families weekly.

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