Official Blog of the Education Exchange Corps

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

School Profile: Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls

For the last several years, the Education Exchange Corps has been working in the Hyde Park neighborhood in North St. Louis City.

At the end of 2016, Clay Elementary - the public school that has been serving the area for a century - was targeted for closure. Instead of being closed, the school must show significant improvement in the next three years.

Advisory board members only have a few weeks to come up with a proposal to revamp Clay into a school that will attract more kids and improve academic performance. As part of that advisory board, I've decided to visit area schools with unique programs to see what ideas we could use to improve education for even more kids in our city.

So, Episode One: The Hawks of Hawthorn!

The Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls is a newer charter school. It started in 2015 with 6th and 7th graders. Each year, it will add a new grade until it eventually serves 6th-12th grade students. All girls.

I've passed by the school building many times in the nine years I've been working with kids in St. Louis City. The school is just off of North Kingshighway. I started my work just down the street at Lexington Elementary.

Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls
The entry lobby is a good gathering spot. To the left is the office, which, because it doesn't have any doors, feels very welcoming. To the right are glass-enclosed shelves that showcase the school community and its achievements. And the path straight ahead intersects with a narrow hallway that encircles the building, providing access to large central classrooms and others off to the opposite side. 

The tour was led by students. That's part of the college prep plan. Just like you'd see students leading tours in college, at Hawthorn, you're led by middle school kids. It's pretty great. You don't get a sterilized speech from an administrator. Instead, you hear from kids who obviously love their school, and love it enough that they aren't all too shy about saying what changes they'd like to see.

That was the most impressive part of Hawthorn for me: These kids take real ownership of their school space, and staff members support it. Students spend class time planning community engagement and ways to improve their school. The kids even got together and led a protest march around their school grounds to demonstrate their frustration about our national political climate, and their school supported their decision.

Hawthorn's leadership framework is organized around five core values: Joy, Support, Integrity, Courage, and Contribution. Kids can be nominated by other students or by staff for exhibiting these values, and they're celebrated in school-wide meetings.

These values flow through the school curriculum, which emphasizes college prep and STEM education. Students have two math periods including a "math lab" which is much more individualized to the needs of each student. Kids also participate in a lot of project-based learning, and they're given engineering problems they have to solve in teams.

Language Arts and History are combined, and the school is striving to link the topics covered back to leadership. One of the classes we visited was reading Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, which deals directly with the horrors of slavery and the slave trade.

Hawthorn has resources a lot of other schools don't. They have classrooms named for some of the major corporate and family donors in St. Louis. They receive support from Washington University. They have a social worker, a dean of students, and an assistant dean of students that help tremendously with their restorative justice discipline system. Students also are assigned a "buddy classroom" they can go to if they need to get out of their class environment and calm down, a flexibility that many schools don't have.

Hawthorn also does not provide transportation to their school. Transportation is very expensive. The lack of buses requires family members to come visit the school often, which helps build community. But it likely also limits who can attend the school. The school does offer after-school services.

I liked what I saw. 
But I LOVED what I heard.

First, the feeling of family.
At one point, our tour guide kiddos were asked what they would do if they felt they had a problem they needed to talk about. Would they just go to their teacher?
Answer: They could go to any staff member they wanted to. If they connected well with a particular teacher, then that's where they would go.
And that wasn't even a knock on other teachers. It was a realistic, natural, mature observation. It was a statement made by kids who are in an environment that trusts them to do the right thing and supports them in doing it.

Second, the buy-in.
I took an unofficial mini-tour. I was straggling toward the end of the official tour, reading stuff that was on the hallway walls. A fourth kid we had met in her classroom came out into the hallway and said hi. As a joke, I asked her if she drew all of the pictures on the wall. She said, "No, but I did make this one." She pointed to a rainbow "Black Lives Matter" poster.

I asked her why she made it. She told me about the protest march the kids led, how she wanted to be valued too. We got to talking, and we soon realized that when she was a little kid years ago, she was at one of the Education Exchange Corps' partner schools. She'd bounced around a lot from one school to the next when she was a kid.

I asked her if she really liked Hawthorn. She did. A lot. A lot a lot. She liked her teachers. She liked having a voice in how her school was run. She even liked the concept of having to wear a uniform.

Hawthorn is an impressive school that can do great things for St. Louis kids. Even schools with less resources can consider adopting some aspects of their curriculum and disciplinary approach. 

But the most important lessons Hawthorn teaches are why it's so important to work together, what cooperation looks like, and how to trust others to be in positions of responsibility.

That's how kids become leaders.

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


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