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Ron Berger

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