Official Blog of the Education Exchange Corps

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

School Profile: New City School

This is the second school profile in a series. I'm visiting schools in St. Louis to find ideas that can make education better for all of our kids.

Our first school profile was on the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls.

Episode Two: A New Way at New City

You can tell you're in a special place from the moment you walk into New City School. Nestled in a pretty neighborhood, New City's campus is gorgeous. I'm almost 29-years-old, and I could barely hold back from playing on their playground. (To be fair, I really like playgrounds.)

Etched in the steps of the school are five phrases:
Active Listening
Personal Best
No Put-Downs.

They represent five of the organizing behaviors expected of students.

The school was alive. Its halls are wide, vibrant spaces. Walls are adorned with the work kids have done, with general descriptions written by staff.

I came on a particularly fun day. A bunch of kids were in costume, having taken on the characters of historic figures who had changed the world. I met Rachel Carson, who was proud of her work exposing the dangers of DDT and leading to environmental protection efforts in the United States. I also spoke with Winston Churchill for a bit. He seemed amused that his bust was back in the Oval Office.

The floors at New City are organized by grade level, with the school serving Pre-K through 6th grade. The oldest kids are on the top floor, the youngest at the lowest level.

I visited the elementary school classrooms first. The work they were doing centered a lot on character, making choices about how to treat others, and thinking about how to deal with injustice.

The school's library was big and bustling. Kids were singing in the auditorium. I saw another kid jumping on a mini-trampoline in a special room with a lot of fun playthings. Music and art obviously play big roles at New City.

And then I walked downstairs to the world of Pre-Primary.

The walls and doors were medieval-themed. There were two painted knights guarding a door. Different types of trees were painted on the hallway walls.

The learning spaces flowed with each other. Each very large room used cabinets to organize a labyrinth, with big openings for gathering spaces occupied by different groups of kids.

I met with one of these groups of kids, this one calling themselves the Hippos. They demanded that I visit, and we talked about so much!

I felt like I was in a different world. The classroom environment was so different. I don't think a single room I visited had desks set up in rows. Most had pods or tables. One set up their seats in a circle.

I even had a chance to see the discipline system in action. A few little kids were messing around in the medieval hallway in Pre-K world. Their teacher caught them red-handed.

This teacher's tone got low, but not once did the teacher's voice get loud. There was no yelling, shouting, commanding. Instead, the conversation consisted of short, direct questions and statements.

"Friends, some of us were acting silly in the hallway."
"We're not supposed to act silly in the hallway, are we?"

Even the discipline system is a lesson in communication and self-understanding. Kids are supposed to consider their own behavior and whether it's appropriate. Shouting and commanding denies the opportunity for deeper learning in exchange for a quick resolution, but that trade is not made here.

After maybe 40 minutes of touring the school, I went back to speak with school staff about everything I had seen. I had so many questions.

New City places an emphasis on "Multiple Intelligences." I'm still reading about it, but, at its core, the Multiple Intelligences philosophy understands that children learn and express their talents in different ways. Some kids are great at math. Some kids are wonderfully coordinated. Some are skilled orators. Some are artistic talents. School is supposed to be a place that appreciates the differences in children and allows them to succeed in their own way.

This requires kids and their teachers to be very aware of the self. That's why much of the school curriculum involves self-discovery and introspection. From the time they start at New City, kids consider who they are and how they feel. Self-understanding develops over the years. In Pre-K, a student might draw a picture of herself and try to write her name below it. By the time she reaches 6th grade, the student is hanging a photo of herself in the hallway with words drawn on her arms representing an essential personal belief.

Little philosophers, these kids!

Now, obviously, New City has a lot of resources. Could any of this work in less-resourced schools?

Staff estimated that it could take a year or so for a kid to become comfortable with the type of expression and introspection expected in the program. And many public schools are limited in how flexible they can be with the curriculum due to standardized testing requirements. But the social skills and self-awareness education could do wonders in many places.

New City has created a great educational environment for their kids and staff. Based on the parental involvement I saw, it appears that many kids also have a ton of support at home. It just seemed like such a happy place that was so focused on kids.

Many schools don't have the resources of New City. Still, I can't help but wonder if a lot of behavioral issues in classrooms - one of the biggest stressors for teachers - could be drastically reduced by teaching kids from a young age to be self-aware and by making sure to engage kids in ways they naturally understand.

New City gave me a lot to think about. And I left with a reading list!

Succeeding with Multiple Intelligences: Teaching through the Personal Intelligences by the folks at New City School

Celebrating Every Learner: Activities and Strategies for Creating a Multiple Intelligences Classroom by the folks at New City School

No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel

Elad Gross, J.D.
President and CEO
Education Exchange Corps