The story of MRH is a great one–an urban school with all the attendant problems was transformed into an innovative environment where students and teachers were actively involved in learning and improving their community. Linda Henke and her team prove what courage and skillful leadership can accomplish.Peter Senge, professor MIT, author of The Fifth Discipline, founder of SOL ED
When I met Linda Henke in Clayton School District in the late 90’s, I immediately knew that I was in the company of an exceptional person. So when she told me that she was going to Maplewood Richmond Heights District just outside of St. Louis, I was thrilled. If anyone could do the near-impossible—transition a traditional, failing district into one in which students and adults thrive—it would be Linda. And it happened.
Through amazing daring and grit, she used creative, unique pathways to transformation while being willing to be judged on narrow testing protocols and NCLB. Investing in pre-school, poverty and homelessness, engagement through action metaphors (e.g. the middle school as expeditionary, the high school as apprenticeship), teacher and parent development, and shared leadership, this district was turned around. Dramatically so. For instance, a computer in the hands of each secondary student resulted in a 75% drop in discipline referrals. The district values of diversity, collaboration, and imagination embrace every inhabitant of MRH.
Two years ago, I had an opportunity to witness these successes first hand and can testify, without hesitation, that the MRH School District is a place where students love to learn and adults love to teach. For those who would say it can’t be done, just talk to Linda Henke.
Linda Lambert, author of Building Leadership Capacity and Constructivist Leader, consultant, professor emeritus, California State University, East Bay
This story is so remarkable that it would leave me skeptical if I had not seen it with my own eyes. I visit many schools, but rarely do I leave as inspired as I was after spending time with the Maplewood Richmond Heights district. To lift education in this country we need more than new mandates and assessments: we need models of what great schools can be.
The beginning of the story is familiar: an urban school district with poor performance and low morale. Typically, those stories have a sad ending. Despite interventions of new oversight and tight accountability, transformation to high achievement is rare. Occasionally, there is a school that beats the odds and becomes a high-performing school in a struggling urban neighborhood; typically, that is a small new charter school with an almost exclusive focus on basic skills in math and literacy.
This story has a different ending. Maplewood Richmond Heights transformed its public district schools toward high achievement using a surprising approach. They recreated their schools to focus on critical thinking and inquiry; collaboration and communication; creativity and craftsmanship. They put arts at the center. They built schools where students take leadership roles in creating high quality work for public audiences, work of value to the world. They built schools that combine high achievement with discovery and joy in learning.
Perhaps the best measure of any school is this question: Would I want to send my own children there to learn? There are new, high-performing urban schools that focus tightly on basic skills and have a culture of compliance, schools where children follow directions capably and score well on state tests of reading and math. Many people admire the success of those schools. But they would not necessarily want to send their own children there. Those parents want more–higher order thinking; deep work in science and history; rich opportunities in arts; and the cultivation of student agency and leadership skills. There are many expensive independent schools that offer that type of learning environment, and then there is Maplewood Richmond Heights, which offers it to low-income families in a neighborhood public school.
We all have something to learn from this school and this story.Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer, Expeditionary Learning National Organization and author of Ethic of Excellence