School leadership, autonomy, flexibility and accountability were on the minds of four members of the Indianapolis Peer Group, when they visited the Indianapolis Public Schools/Butler University Laboratory School Sept. 5.
The peer group represents central Indiana corporations and foundation that want to better understand and support each other’s local philanthropic efforts.
Lab School visitors included John Elliott, manager of governmental relations, community relations and public affairs, Kroger; Greg Fennig, vice president for public affairs, Indianapolis Power and Light; Rob Smith, president, Eli Lilly and Company Foundation; and Jeff Kucer, senior vice president, client and community relations director, PNC Bank.
They met with Lab School Principal Ron Smith, College of Education Dean Ena Shelley, Director of St. Mary’s Child Center Connie Sherman, Lab School parent and Butler Chief of Staff Ben Hunter, and student teacher Chris Henderson.
PNC provides financial support for St. Mary’s preschool programming at the Lab School, and Kucer has previously joined Shelley, Smith and Sherman in testifying before the Indiana Senate in support of state-supported public preschool.
“The beauty of the peer group,” Kucer said, “is that we all support different aspects of the educational spectrum.”
“We’re always trying to sort out,” Elliott said. “Is there a solution [for problems in education]? Can it be replicated?”
Principal Smith said he did not believe that there was only “one solution” to educational improvement, but that Lab School and its Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum have been very effective. By the end of the school’s first year of operation, 75-80 percent of students (kindergarten and Grade 1) were assessed as proficient or higher in text and reading comprehension for their grade levels. “Fifty percent of those students were in the highest category, or the 95th percentile nationally,” he said.
Reggio practices start with teachers believing that children are creative, competent and responsible for their own learning, Smith explained. Lab School classes consist of short instructional periods, followed by longer “work time” during which teacher mentor students one-on-one. Teachers extensively document artifacts of the children’s learning and their own teaching practices, then share them with other faculty to find ways to refine teaching.
“There’s a real sense of community, of colleagues working together,” Henderson said.
The school does not use textbooks, choosing to spend resources on a variety of art and science equipment. This provides children a variety of ways to “express what they know,” Smith said.
Hunter told the visitors that Lab School teachers constantly challenge his daughter. “She’s learning at the highest level,” he said. “Teachers make sure that we parents are involved.”
Hunter and his wife looked at other area schools and models before choosing the Lab School. “We’re sold on the Reggio model,” he said.
Reggio’s focus on project learning — extended study of broad ideas that interest students —allows teachers to instruct in numerous content areas, Shelley said. “They cover and often exceed state curriculum standards.”
She noted a Lab School student project on the puppet theatre last year that included a field trip to Clowes Memorial Hall. The kindergarteners and first graders were as fascinated by the professional theatre’s box office operations and printed programs as they were by its massive stage. Back in their classroom, the students used math and science skills to measure, cut and build their own wooden puppet stage for a performance they invited their families to see.
“Making tickets reinforced the 1-to-1 math concept,” Shelley said. “Writing their bios for the program used reading and literature skills.” The students even got creative in scripting their play, a new twist on the “Three Little Pigs.”
“Their play had a fourth pig, who built his house out of steel,” Shelley said.
Project learning and other Reggio principles work at Lab School “because we have prepared teachers,” Ron Smith said, referring to IPS’ commitment to allow Lab School to hire only faculty with Reggio training through Butler College of Education. These teachers and the Butler education students who spend time in Lab School classrooms share his “vision, philosophy and language” for the school, he said.
Smith said IPS supports his leadership further by allowing him and his faculty flexibility and autonomy within their own school building, and not micromanaging daily details. Of the three school districts in which Smith has been an administrator, he said, IPS has afforded him the most flexibility.
Fennig said members of the peer group agreed with the idea of letting principals “do their job, but be accountable.”
“We need school leaders,” he said. “It doesn’t matter so much what models schools follow; they all need to have exceptional leaders. How do you do that?”
Shelley said the College of Education’s Experiential Program in Preparing School Principals has many successful graduates working in Indiana education. The COE is working with Butler’s College of Business to develop an MBA program specifically for K-12 educators, she said. And, COE is contemplating offering a doctoral degree in educational leadership.
“But, administrators need to be given autonomy and flexibility to use their talents and make changes in their schools, like Ron has been,” she said.
Truly transformative educational improvement needs total community involvement, Shelley said. “In developing and operating the Lab School and Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy, Butler University and Indianapolis Public Schools have worked with many partners.
“Corporate, foundation and individual donors; politicians and teachers’ unions; professional organizations and community residents are making significant contributions to our private university/public school district partnership, to ensure that local children have an opportunity for educational success from preschool through college completion.”
Mary Ellen Stephenson