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Getting elementary, middle school students ‘career ready’

By RACHAEL NARSH

Students at St. John School in Ellisville

A private, parochial school isn’t usually expected to be a progressive school, but St. John School in Ellisville is striving to change that perception. 

In 2020-21, the school will roll out its personalized learning program, which has been in the works for the last two years.

According to Seth Hinz, marketing director for Pathfinder Church/St. John School, St. John utilizes digital curriculum, project-based learning, student-owned daily scheduling and flexible seating in creating unique classroom environments. 

“Backed by research and best practices, this model tailors the educational experience to each student’s ability, pace and learning style,” Hinz said.

St. John administrators believe that their approach provides students with an opportunity to gain real-life success skills such as collaboration, creativity, self-advocacy and self-regulation.  

“Students encounter social-emotional learning and grow as a whole person – academically, socially, interpersonally and spiritually,” Hinz said.

Students at St. John School in Ellisville

For their part, students begin every day by creating their own personal schedule. Various components are deemed “must dos” or “may dos” depending on the day and what is necessary to progress through lessons. 

“Every student has certain tasks or subjects that they must work on each day for the required amount of time, but they are able to build their own schedule for the day based on when they want to do them,” explained parent Tim Dewitt. 

Students follow a digital curriculum, working autonomously in their daily schedule while also receiving personal attention from the teacher when needed. 

“By using Pathblazer and other computer-based programs as part of the personalized learning approach, every student’s progress is monitored constantly and consistently, not just at test times,” Dewitt said. “Their learning plan is then tailored to meet their needs and they cannot move forward until they have grasped the lesson they are working on. 

“This also puts each student in the position of having to learn to self-advocate without the humiliation that comes from raising your hand in front of a class full of peers that all understand, to say, ‘I still don’t get it.’”  

Teachers also feel an advantage in that students are not being compared to each other because everyone works individually at his or her own pace. 

A student and teacher at St. John School in Ellisville

“They don’t develop a sense of not being as good or not being as smart,” Julie Lorenz, admissions representative, explained. “They don’t develop the negative attitudes that affect them the rest of their lives.”

Not only is the teaching style different, the classrooms are different, too. There are no desks. Instead, there is a variety of seating, from beanbags on the floor to barstools at hi-top tables. 

“Kids weren’t meant to sit in rows,” said Lorenz. She added that teachers played a large part in the layout and décor of the rooms. “Teachers know how kids sit, move and act. Who better to design a room?”

In the classroom, students may be working on lessons sitting on the floor alone or at a table working with other students – whatever appeals to them. Teachers move around the room, checking in with students and assisting when students have questions or need a hands-on explanation. During project time, students collaborate with other students to reinforce the curriculum and apply it to practical use. Principal Scott Osbourn calls this “learning for a purpose.”

“Of course, we care about top academics, but we are also equipping kids with life skills,” Osbourn said. 

Students at St. John School in Ellisville

Early Childhood Director Rachel Bausch explained it this way: “Kids learn and forget. Project-based learning is embedding that learning for a future purpose.”

“Students are grouped together to collaborate on various projects throughout the year from start to finish – everything from posing a question to formulating a research and development plan [to] building a prototype or proof [to] presenting the solution or finding. The teachers guide this entire process, but the work is done by the students,” Dewitt said. “Most importantly, the ideas come from the students.

“Instead of a typical classroom environment, where every student is sitting at their desk being taught the same thing by being lectured to by a teacher, they are working together as a team to problem solve, create and present. They are learning how to function in an environment exactly like the one they will be in when it is time for them to start their careers.”

The goal is to focus on both real-life success skills and social-emotional growth. For example, having students plan their daily schedule teaches them how to manage time, prioritize and advocate for themselves. 

Students and their teacher discuss a lesson at St. John School in Ellisville

St. John School’s personalized learning approach was developed by Osbourn, Bausch, Stephanie Bowman, Jen Holshouser and Rob Jacklin. It began as a pilot program in grades three through five, but is now incorporated throughout the entire school, from kindergarten to grade eight.  

According to Osbourn, the team wrestled with the many different features they wanted to incorporate in its tailored design, including 21st century skills, future readiness and project-based learning. He said a lot of research and planning went into designing the new curriculum. Research came from many different influencers in curriculum development, including educator and author John Spencer and his work in project-based learning; educator and author George Couros and his Innovative Teaching, Learning and Leadership approach; as well as from the Future Ready Schools project created by the Alliance for Excellent Education. 

For inspiration, the development team visited MOSAIC School and Rohan Woods School in St. Louis, Anastasis Academy in Denver and Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Kansas City. They met with administrators who were implementing this type of curriculum, all while designing a program that still satisfied the standards set forth by the state. “We are now two years in, with a lot figured out,” Osbourn said. “Schools are now using us as a model.”

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