Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mission Hill - Jamaica Plain, MA

Mission Hill K-8 School

A Boston Public Pilot School

Founded in 1997 by Deborah Meier, Mission Hill is a K-8 Boston public elementary school primarily serving low income children, most of whom are Latino or African American. The school district recently relocated the school from its former location in the Mission Hill neighborhood to Jamaica Plains. The school has become an international model of democratic/progressive education, and is featured in a film series created by Filmmakers Amy and Tom Valens, which beautifully captures one year at Mission Hill. My tour of the school was hosted by Dani Coleman, Director of External Affairs, and I met with the Principal of the school, Ayla Gavins.

Ayla Gavins
School Principal
There is a certain humility you'll find at Mission Hill, embodied in its principal, Ayla Gavins, Her calm and modest presence speaks to an ethos of equanimity, determination, and resilience at the school that is felt throughout the faculty and staff. Always deflecting the attention to teachers and students, Ayla holds a prodigious set of responsibilities, beyond the reach of most mere mortal school administrators. Since its founding in 1997, the school has been committed to directing its resources as directly as possible to the students, and consequently the layer of administrative support found in most public or private schools does not exist. Funding normally channelled to administration has been redirected for the purpose of hiring teachers and keeping class size as small as possible. Most of the classes I visited had 16 students. The day I visited, Ayla, whose desk sits alongside the school secretary in the outer office, answered several incoming phone calls, handled two deliveries to the school, comforted a distressed after school teacher, gave directions to several visitors, administered to a child who'd been involved in an altercation, and calmly answered my interview questions. All this after spending the morning at the district office at a principal's meeting. At 2:30 PM, she'd not stopped for lunch.

Ayla defines progressive education as the natural enhancement of that which humans bring to learning. Progressive educators consider all things about the child in developing around him or her a learning experience. In a progressive school, each child's individual experience is considered in the context of the whole; this does not mean that each learning experience is unique- indeed, schools create learning experiences for groups - however, each child is deeply understood as a learner and as a full human being.

The archive, where student
work is respectfully kept
When I asked her how progressive education manifests at Mission Hill, Ayla points out that some of the origins of public education are in Boston, a place deeply rooted in tradition. Boston is also one of the first school districts to introduce the notion of autonomous public schools, and Mission Hill is one of the pilot autonomous schools implementing alternative avenues for student success. This context created the perfect climate for innovation and school founder Deborah Meier, whom Ayla affectionately refers to as a "preservationist," happened along at just the right time to bring progressive education to a very traditional school community. The mission of the school tethers all adults to the interests and well-being of the children; all decision and actions must flow from this covenant.  

Habits of mind
Five "habits of mind" bring ballast to the curriculum and learning program at Mission Hill. Evidence (How do you know?): Conjecture (What if things were different?); Connections (What does it remind you of?); Relevance (Is it important? Why does it matter?); Viewpoint (What would someone else say? What would someone else feel?). These essential framing questions are prominent throughout the school and very alive in the classrooms. The teachers are scrupulous in their work to make these questions underpin the activities and lessons they construct with the students. A child going through Mission Hill will no doubt assimilate these habits, serving him/her well in the transition to high school.

Dani Coleman
Director of External
I pursued the question about teacher autonomy that I have asked every school leader in my interview. Progressive schools are "teacher strong" schools and pride themselves on teacher autonomy. I have been inquiring about the possible impact this might have on program continuity. True to form, Ayla's take on this question was unique - she'd not have it any other way. The relatively high number of male teachers and teachers of color at Mission Hill can be directly tied to the phenomenon of teacher autonomy at the school. Because each member of the Mission Hill faculty must assume a leadership role in the school, a top-down administrative structure would never work. Ayla relies on the teacher autonomy factor to bring a work ethic to the school that would not be possible if teachers were always seeking direction. That said, Ayla is quick to point out that autonomy comes with accountability and responsibility. To be sure, it is a teacher's privilege to have the autonomy to build his/her program, but it is also his/her responsibility to be accountable to the cohort of teachers and the mission of the school. A rogue teacher would stand out like a sore thumb and never be successful; the faculty is far too collaborative.

Misson Hill answers the question, "Can progressive education work for all children?" As an inclusion school, not only do the classrooms include children from disadvantaged backgrounds, they also include the widest range of learning and behavioral profiles. By fixing its destiny to the mission of the school, Mission Hill brings care, attention, and joyful learning to all students. It's well-earned excellent reputation is no surprise - the school will continue to receive attention from any educator with a serious- minded intention to transform the broken educational system in our country. That the school is a self-avowed progressive institution is something about which we can be very proud, as its practices stretch back to the earliest days of the progressive education lineage.

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