Our Trip to Springfield Renaissance School

Two Fridays ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Renaissance School in Springfield, MA with a team of teachers from GHS.  The school is considered a magnet school within the Springfield school district.  Its population is typically urban, with a high percentage of African American and Latino students.  The concept of the school focuses on expeditionary learning, and this, along with its mission and values, is prominently displayed at the school’s front entrance.

The school is fairly small by urban standards, with only four cohorts of twenty students making up each of its grade levels.  The school houses students from grades six through   12; they also share a huge and maze-like post-war structure with a typical Springfield middle school.  Students are expected to follow a strict code of conduct which includes wearing a uniform (black or tan pants; red, black, white, or “college” sweatshirts), no cell phone use in the building, and no eating or drinking in the classrooms.  This code is held together by clearly defined behavioral values.

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Springfield uses assessment calendars to try to distribute them and help students plan.

Renaissance school looks like a regular school.  What you notice upon entry, however, is that it doesn’t feel like a regular school.  There is an aura of engagement in every classroom, hallway, and office.  In one Social Studies class students worked on fine-tuning political cartoons about World War I.  The teacher, crouched in a corner beside one student’s desk, was barely visible.  Students erased and redid.  They talked quietly to each other.  Some held paper up to the huge windows in the back of the room so that they could use the natural light to aid in tracing pictures they had copied out of books.  On each student’s desk was a paper that included feedback categorized as “praise” and “polish.”  What a wonderful way to categorize recommendations made by other students!  No person in the room was moved or deterred by our intrusion.  We each walked around the room, viewing student work and chatting with groups.  I quickly noticed how articulate Renaissance students are; when you ask them a question they look you in the eye, think for a moment, and then respond appropriately.  They are self-reflective and sincere.

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Student ambassadors share excellent work displayed in the hall.

This is totally related to the school culture.  Teachers focus on both written and oral communication.  Expeditionary learning requires reflection and presentation, and these kids are great at it.  This poise was exhibited in other ways.  Students do not enter classrooms unready to work.  They know how to be students and are called on it when they act otherwise.  The principal and founder of the school, Dr. Mahoney, asked us to observe as students shuffled from class to class after a bell rang.  He said, “You’ll really get a sense of the culture if you just watch them.”  And he was right.  Students addressed us politely.  They walked purposefully.  There was no yelling, running, throwing, or cursing.  Two students were stopped by the principal because of a uniform infraction.  One had a grey sweatshirt on; the other had a red sweatshirt with a popular name brand on the front.  I glanced at the principal as the boy walked off, red-faced.  “American Eagle,” he explained, “is not a college.”  Just as the late bell rang a young teacher marched a class of freshmen into the hallway and closed her classroom door behind them.  She then, in the hallway, had a discussion about school and class rules.  One by one, students were asked to share classroom expectations.  When she was satisfied, the teacher reopened the door and led the way back into the classroom.  “She doesn’t play,” I said to the head of the guidance department who was standing in our group.  She laughed.  “No she doesn’t.”

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The mission is creatively displayed in each classroom.

The culture of Renaissance is supported in many positive ways throughout the building.  Values and the school’s mission—which I had memorized by the end of the day—were strewn through every single classroom in signs made by teachers and students by a variety of mediums.  Candid pictures of the students covered every hallway, the way that a proud mother displays photos of her children in her home.  Display of student work in beautiful shadow boxes and glass cases were as numerous as photos.  When students graduate, huge signs of this accomplishment are made and signed by their classmates.  These cover the halls as well.  The message is clear to all who enter the school.  At Renaissance, we care about you and because we do we expect you to work hard, we expect you to go on to a challenging career or college, and we expect you to carry yourself with pride.

Students are not expected to accomplish their goals without help.  Each morning students attend what they call a “crew.”  Teachers meet with the same group for thirty minutes; longer for freshmen.  During this time teachers don’t just schmooze with students.  There is a clear agenda and learning targets that are tied to students’ grades.  Most of this learning, though, focuses on skills (How do I communicate my message?) or problem solving (How do I choose a good independent reading book?).  Through these meetings teachers and students establish a bond.  Students trust the adults in Renaissance school, so they turn to them for help.  This was apparent after we spoke with a pair of teachers after lunch.  For them, this bond was what drew them to the school.  The less experienced of the two teachers commented how in many typical urban public schools, there is very little time to make connections with students.  At Renaissance, it is part of your job.  Teachers are available not just during crew time, but after school and on Saturdays.  This connection between teacher and student is the crux of the culture at Renaissance and–if you ask the teachers–the reason for student success.

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Leaving Springfield!

One of our GHS teachers, Aaron Hull, asked this new teacher if she felt she was saving lives.  She shrugged and then told us a story about a young woman who was in her crew class last year.  “We didn’t get along at first,” she said, “but now she stops by all the time to see me.”  The girl’s mother, having seen a positive change in her child, had personally thanked the teacher at the last open school night.  In the middle of this story, Dr. Mahoney walked into the conference room and sat down to enjoy some of our cold French fries.  He said, “I know the girl you are talking about.  She has a really, really tough home life.  She was just recently reunited with her mom.”  Aaron Hull then turned to the teacher and said, “Let me ask you again, are you saving lives?”  She lowered her eyes and said quietly, “I guess I am.”

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