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A school that shows what is possible for children

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Good Morning Mission Hill: The Power to Teach, The Power to Learn,” is a film about a year in the life of the Mission Hill School,  established in 1997 as a public pilot school in Boston by education innovator Deborah Meier and a team of enthusiastic teachers. One of those teachers was Emily Gasoi, now a mentor and course instructor for teaching fellows enrolled in the Inspired Teaching Teacher Training Program in Washington, D.C.  She taught at Mission Hill School from 1997-2004, and in 2012, she earned a doctorate  in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

In the following post, Gasoi uses Teacher Appreciation Week as an occasion to write about Mission Hill and its unusual structure. She is co-hosting a screening of the film at 6:30pm on Wednesday, May 6, at the Shaw Library in Washington D.C., and will provide a brief introduction and facilitate a discussion following the film.

By Emily Gasoi

When I was growing up my mom always discouraged my brother and me from celebrating Mother’s Day, arguing that special appreciation days are for those members of society who are taken for granted the other 363 days of the year. As I contemplate how to respond to Teacher Appreciation Week (May 4-8), it occurs to me that mothers and teachers are held in similar esteem in American society, both placed on a proverbial pedestal while simultaneously being blamed for everything from failing the children in their care to threatening the fortitude of the nation state.

This insidious dichotomy in how teachers are perceived has never been quite so stark as it has become under the high-stakes accountability climate that has been relentlessly ramping over the past 15 years since the initiation of No Child Left Behind legislation. While there has been a loud and steady battle cry around attracting excellent candidates to the profession and inducing them through extrinsic rewards to stay, too many teachers feel, to varying degrees, disrespected, fearful, and overwhelmed by demands for endless testing and the production of data, along with the usual stresses that accompany this notoriously difficult job.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and whether or not teachers are feeling the love this week will depend a lot on the school culture in which they work. There are schools in the District and across the country that have rejected the high-stakes culture of fear that has come to define American education in favor of core values that emphasize more holistic goals such as intellectual and creative growth and building so called “21st Century skills” (I say these skills are timeless!) such as communication, collaboration, problem solving, reasoning, etc.

Some are well established, such as School Within a School (now in its 20th year), Capital City and Two Rivers Public Charter Schools (in their 15th and 12th years respectively). Others are newer, Inspired Teaching School, Mundo Verde, and Creative Minds among them. There are many more district schools that could be included and this is not intended to be anything close to an exhaustive list of schools that have attempted to keep or create a mission that encompasses much more than can be measured by test scores. And, of course, it is easier for charter schools to develop alternative learning environments and working conditions than it is for public schools within the system. But I mention this sampling of specific sites because I believe it’s important to acknowledge that an alternative way of viewing school improvement is not only possible, but is already being modeled in a myriad of innovative sites in the district and around the country, many of them thriving despite the challenges posed by having to row against the current.

So in the name of recognizing powerful alternatives and in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, I, along with the Inspired Teaching Fellows Advisory Board, have organized a screening of the documentary, “Good Morning Mission Hill: The Power to Teach, The Power to Learn.” (Here’s a trailer.)  The film documents a year in the life of the Mission Hill School , which was established in 1997 by education innovator Deborah Meier, along with a team of enthusiastic teachers (I among them). Mission Hill was the last in a string of progressive public schools that Meier started, and it benefited from 30 years of prior experience in starting democratically governed schools.

All important decisions at Mission Hill, from issues related to curriculum and assessment to staffing and scheduling, are made collaboratively by the core staff. Eschewing the mile wide, inch deep nature of standards and test driven curriculum, academics at Mission Hill are embedded in theme-based units, engaging the entire school in three in-depth research projects each providing 9-10 weeks of integrated learning. Student growth is demonstrated through culminating projects, public performances, and portfolios, among other measures.

As with most successful schools, Mission Hill has developed a mission that creates a sense of shared vision and purpose among staff. Following Meier’s entreaty that public education should be first and foremost in the service of educating democratic citizens, the mission begins:

The task of public education is to help parents raise youngsters who will maintain and nurture the best habits of a democratic society be smart, caring, strong, resilient, imaginative and thoughtful. It aims at producing youngsters who can live productive, socially useful and personally satisfying lives, while also respecting the rights of all others. The school, as we see it, will help strengthen our commitment to diversity, equity and mutual respect. (Read the mission in its entirety here.)

Against a backdrop of accountability-obsessed policies and test-stressed schools that unfortunately characterize the American educational landscape, “Good Morning Mission Hill” offers a more evolved vision of what’s possible for all children. While reform trends have bent toward addressing educational inequality by leveraging increasingly punitive accountability measures against schools and incentivizing the creation of “No Excuses” school environments that focus on “fixing” what is perceived of as weak character and a lack of “grit” in our nation’s most vulnerable students, schools like Mission Hill that honor and cultivate the creativity and intellect of both students and teaches, have become under utilized as a model for closing the education opportunity gap.

Further, in a time of unprecedented teacher and principal burnout, with the “veterans” in many schools sticking around no more than 3-5 years, Mission Hill school has had only one principal turn over and 50 percent of the staff has been there for 10 years or more. Policy makers, reformers, teachers and school leaders would do well to draw more from the lessons inherent in the depth of learning and the longevity of Mission Hill and its sister progressive schools around the country.

The screening will take place at 6:30pm on Wednesday, May 6 at the Shaw Library, 1630 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20001. A founding teacher at the school, I will provide a brief introduction and facilitate a discussion following the film.