An IPS-Butler collaboration creates a different kind of school
Aug. 21, 2011

Written by
Scott Elliott
scott.elliott@indystar.com  

Amy Goldsmith has always noticed that her middle child — 5-year-old Sascha — learned a little differently than her two older brothers.

Maybe it started with her first word, when she strolled up to a stranger in Chick-fil-A and said, “Hi!” Or perhaps it was the way she would climb up to a cabinet, open it and find things to pour out to examine.

“She was just always so curious to figure things out,” Goldsmith said. “If she had to sit at a desk with books and do worksheets, she would probably zone out and not participate.”

Sascha didn’t want to go to kindergarten. She flatly refused. But then her mom took her to an open house at the new Laboratory School housed at School 60, at 3330 N. Pennsylvania St. — a collaboration between Indianapolis Public Schools and Butler University.

The school, serving kindergarten and first grade — the plan is to expand to fifth grade over four years — is modeled after Reggio Emilia, an internationally renowned school design that surrounds children with materials and allows them great leeway to choose the direction for their learning.

“It’s Montessori on steroids,” IPS Superintendent Eugene White said. “It’s like no other school you’ll find.”

The partnership is unique, too. IPS and Butler jointly picked the principal, Ron Smith, and each pay half his salary. St. Mary’s Child Center, a private preschool supported by a six-figure gift from PNC Bank and a large contribution from an anonymous donor, offers a separate Reggio Emilia-style program at the site.

As part of the deal, Smith joins the Butler faculty, and all the teachers are Butler-trained. The university has an adult classroom at the school, where a course in teaching methods will be held. The course allows Butler undergraduates to help teach small groups in Lab School classrooms as part of the course.

It’s also the latest step by IPS to expand its magnet program, which now consists of 21 specialty schools and includes most of the district’s highest performers.

New specialty schools are central to White’s strategy to revitalize IPS and improve the city’s schools. About a third of the district’s schools now are magnets, and White has designs on adding more.

“This is everything I believe about teaching and children and the possibilities,” said Butler Education Dean Ena Shelley, an early childhood specialist and a national expert on Reggio Emilia, which she has studied for two decades. “It has become my passion.”

In 1998, Shelley visited every Reggio Emilia school in the U.S. during a sabbatical. She later visited Italy five times and became close friends with Louise Cadwell, the author of three books about the model and its best-known American champion.

Butler began instructing teachers in the method a few years later, and Shelley started advising St. Mary’s, as well as publicly run preschools in Lawrence and Warren townships. They later joined forces as the Indianapolis Reggio Collaborative.

The Warren Township center was led for a decade by the Butler-trained Smith, who was enticed to take the reins at the Lab School.

While preschools are increasingly common, Reggio Emilia-inspired elementary schools are rare. White, who is on Butler’s board of trustees, learned about Reggio Emilia from Shelley and proposed the idea of the jointly run school.

In practice, the approach shares with Montessori an emphasis on the physical environment for learning and a belief that young children are capable of directing their own learning through their individual interests.

But Reggio Emilia is much less structured than Montessori. Teachers slide in lessons, such as pointing out shapes or numbers or fostering storytelling to encourage writing, as kids work on projects of their choosing.

On Wednesday, for example, Sascha Goldsmith brought from home a plastic container filled with all sorts of container lids she had collected over the summer. Teacher Marissa Argus had asked her 20 students to collect something to share with the class.

“All of these have something in common,” Argus said. “How are all these the same?”

“There’s a silver lid on the bottom,” Regan Kary offered.

“They’re recyclable,” suggested Ruth Beery.

“They’re all circles,” Angela Gonzalez said.

At that, Argus jumped to her feet to begin a circle song and dance as the class followed.

“What could we make out of them?” she asked.

There were lots of ideas — a collage, a jar, a book, a person, a dog.

“During ‘free time and explore,’ I will put these out so you can examine them,” the teacher said.

Argus, who taught for three years in Franklin Township, calls the opportunity to teach in a Reggio Emilia-style elementary school “my dream.”

“It’s my job,” she said, “to build the curriculum around their interests.”

Collecting lids seemed odd to Amy Goldsmith, but that’s what Sascha wanted, and she relentlessly built her collection with the tops of all sorts of containers. She was thrilled to share it with the class.

“Yesterday she came home from school and said, ‘I don’t want to be home-schooled anymore,” Goldsmith said.

Sascha wasn’t the only one who had to be convinced about the Lab School. Goldsmith said she was wary of switching to IPS’ magnet school programs. The Irvington resident was a true believer in neighborhood schools and was happy with School 57 down the street from her home.

Her older sons were top students there and had been invited to apply for Sidener, a magnet elementary school for gifted kids, but the first year she declined the offer.

After serving on a districtwide committee, White himself pitched the magnet programs to her. Sidener and the Lab School are both about a 25-minute drive from her home.

“He did win me over, eventually,” she said. “My heart was with my children getting the education they need two blocks from my house. But that doesn’t work for every child.”

David Harris, president of the Mind Trust, said the Reggio Emilia School is a “terrific model” for IPS.

“The more they do that, the more I think it’s exciting, but there has to be a human capital strategy,” he said of magnet schools. “Where are they going to find the great teachers and great leaders?”

The Mind Trust is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that aims to foster education innovation, and Harris has criticized IPS in recent months for not moving fast enough toward reform. The partnership with Butler is ideal, he said, because it provides a pipeline of talent into the school to serve as teachers and school leaders.

“If you have a great model but not great talent,” he said, “it wouldn’t be a great solution.”

Butler provides both talent and support. In addition to the undergraduate students working in classrooms, Smith said, Butler faculty will provide training and help with curriculum.

In Argus’ class, her training was evident. Consider this lesson in storytelling:

Argus showed the children a story in pictures from the popular, richly illustrated book Harold and the Purple Crayon. After demonstrating that the class could follow a story without any words she issued a challenge — could the kids tell their own stories with just pictures?

Kindergartner Tajanaye Cash took a blank booklet and two markers to a tall table and started drawing. On the first four pages she drew Argus, her aunt, her sisters and a school bus.

Then something clicked in her brain.

On the next page, she drew a bus and several people. Then she drew a house and, on the next page, her school.

“All of my sisters and my cousins got off the bus,” she explained. “We’re going to eat lunch at my house. Then my cousins are going to bring me on the bus back to school.”

A more traditional kindergarten lesson might have asked her to first write a story, then illustrate it. But that’s not developmentally appropriate for all kids, Argus said.

“It’s a good thing that she is forming a story on her own. If I had pushed her to write words first, she might not have been ready for that,” Argus said. “She might have shut down.”

Call Star reporter Scott Elliott at (317) 444-6494.

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