NEW SPRINGVILLE — When parents attend the open house for the Marsh Avenue School for Expeditionary Learning, principal Jessica Milona asks them to think back to their own favorite teachers.
She said the best teachers are the ones that are engaging, give students hands on learning and make them want to come back to school every day. They're the ones she wants working in her middle school.
“That’s what we want our teachers to be like here,” she said. “Give teachers the tools that create a highly engaging learning environment for kids. When we think back to our favorite teacher in school, that’s essentially why they were our favorite.”
The school uses student “expeditions” to create a hands-on learning environment. The students spend three to four months working on a project, which culminates in a final presentation that ranges from a mock book signing at Barnes and Noble to a museum on the Industrial Revolution at the school.
“Some students created speeches where they pretended that they were living in the past and they were a muckraker uncovering the truths of what was happening at the time,” said Milona. “Other students created artistic exhibits demonstrating what had happened during the time.”
The goal of these expeditions is to get the student to be able to verbalize what they learned, without them having to read from their notebook, Milona said.
Milona wrote the proposal for the non-zoned school and it opened in 2008. Since then, interest in it has steadily increased.
Last year, the school had 1,500 applications for only 150 6th grade spots, and the school generally doesn’t admit students in 7th or 8th grade, hoping to keep the same children through the three year program.
Aside from expeditions, the school also has a small student body size — 450 — to help keep the school a more engaging experience for students.
Why was keeping the school at a small size important to you?
I think middle school is a big land of confusion and kind of an anxiety producing experience for a lot of our parents. Because they come from this elementary school where they’ve come to know and love their teachers, the principal and the community. They’ve been there for five years and then, all of sudden, they’re going into these larger, more comprehensive middle schools that have upwards of 1,000 to 1,500 kids.
Another piece to our school, and being a small school, is we have this advisory period built into the school. Students meet in a small group [known as crews] with a teacher, and they keep that same teacher for three years.
We focus on literacy during that period. We focus on hot topics that are relatable to kids, like should cell phones be used in schools? We do team building in crew. That’s something that the parents really like, because it ensures that their child is known well by somebody.
Aside from the expeditions and small size, what makes this school different from others?
Rather than parent teacher conferences, which take the kids out of it, students lead conferences. The focus becomes on them so they present the work they did that quarter, they present their strengths, their weaknesses, where they want to see an improvement.
They will present that to me, their parents, their crew teachers and their regular teachers.
What has changed since you started the school?
We’ve grown in size. We started with 150 kids and eight founding teachers. The following year we doubled to 300 and 20 teachers, and the following year we tripled to 450 and 25 teachers.
The big project for me was making sure that we were all still very much on the same page like we were in the first year. Now we’re at 45 staff members and just making sure that everybody’s on the same page and that everybody receives professional development.
What do you hope to accomplish moving forward with the school?
One of the big goals we have is for every 8th grader to participate in something that we call passages. It’s essentially a rite of passage for students to leave the 8th grade and move on to high school and create this portfolio of work and reflections based on their three years of being here.
They’re standing behind a podium and they’re presenting it to their parents, to me, their crew teacher, a current teacher and a community member. They have to receive a passing score on our rubric in order to be promoted to the next grade.
For students that don’t pass the first time, they continue to do it until they receive a passing score.
My second goal would be to continue to have students at the level that they’re achieving. Our students are doing really well on the report cards and standardized tests.
Our kids are doing really well and obviously we want to continue that momentum and send kids off to high school achieving at the level they’re achieving at or better.