Permeable Schools- A Case Study

The concept of allowing students to truly learn outside of the boundaries of the classroom, while allowing the community to grow and learn from being within the ecosystem of the school seemed natural for a school built on the metaphor of School as Expedition. Each day the best learners, both adult and student, are on a learning expedition, experiencing their learning through a total commitment of energy, senses, and brain power to the opportunities to grow that are in front of them.

To replicate this in a school, it requires a culture of learning based on the idea that schools are living, breathing systems that requires delicate tending to all of the parts. It also requires a deep passion for innovation, taking positive risks for kids, and looking at the structures, protocols and requirements of "big education" as only a starting point upon which true excellence is built. The example below is of a permeable school in action. It provides a glimpse into the deep learning that is possible when all of the adults in a learning space are missional to grand learning that possible through experiences and high levels of engagement.

It was the summer of 2011, and I received an e-mail from a teacher that contained a link to a local news story about a design competition that was set to take place during the fall of the next school year. He said it would be an incredible way to expand the mission of our work with honeybees throughout the St. Louis area. (We had approximately 100,000 honeybees in our hives, and he was looking to grow our community involvement as well as the interest in the community on raising bees.) As a leader, my initial response was, "YES", this could have a great impact on our work. The wheels were set in motion.

All good ideas have a great starting place from which everyone involved can get excited, but the best ideas are tended to by a group of thinkers that sideline egos to grow the ideas into something even better. This is what happened for the project surrounding the design competition for the Pruitt Igoe Site.

In the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe was the largest federal housing project in the United States. It was designed to eliminate the swath of horizontal ghetto in Saint Louis and manage poverty in a brand new way. By the 1970s, this experiment had failed, and the housing project was imploded. The site has become an urban forest in Saint Louis for 40+ years, a symbolic cemetery for so many of the social justice issues in our urban centers throughout the country.

In August, I approached our teacher of the gifted and talented about taking on a huge learning idea in the fall surrounding this project. She was new to the position, and she was looking to reshape the way that her students constructed their learning and made meaning. This seemed like a perfect way for her to begin the experiment. At the same time that the design competition was launched, a documentary was being produced surrounding the history of Pruitt-Igoe. This movie, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, became the launching point for the learning surrounding this project. The interviews and visuals from the documentary hooked the students into the project that they would embark on over the next six months. They had the opportunity to meet the artist that created the documentary, ask him questions, and use him as a resource during the learning. In addition, the students were given a tour of the Pruitt-Igoe site by the individuals behind the design competition. They walked through the spaces where the stories of the movie had been told, got to experience how nature reclaims spaces, and began envisioning what could be.

Upon returning to the classroom, the students formed learning groups that explored elements of Pruitt-Igoe. These eight groups looked at issues like: urban planning, poverty, architecture, and sustainable building and began to build a knowledge base that they could connect with the project. There mission was to write  an essay that would encapsulate their learning to other students, parents, and community as well as build a video story that could express the synthesis of their learning from this experience.

The next aspect of this project brought fresh ideas and resources into the learning. Eight of the students involved with the project traveled to Milwaukee to visit the Urban Ecology Center. Our friends at the Urban Ecology Center told the story about urban renewal in Riverside Park, a space similar to our project site. Students began to wonder and think about whether the concept of an Urban Ecology Center in Saint Louis was the right fit for the Pruitt Igoe site. The beauty of this work was that the teacher allowed ideas and discussion to flow. The students talked about whether this was the right piece of renewal for this space in this time. They also talked about how to remember the history of the space without reopening wounds. They talked about what the right amount of sustainable practices for the site were, and they grew passionate about their favorite parts of the concept. Over the winter months, the background learning and the site visit to Milwaukee were now influencing the design of the new site.

It was time to introduce our local architecture firm into the project. Chiodini and Associates volunteered to work with our students. They helped them learn the design process of going from ideas to competition submission. It was incredible to watch this firm listen to our students, value their opinions, and help them capture the heart of their work in drawings and displays. The March deadline was approaching, and it seemed like there was too much left to complete, but with the passion of the teacher, the energy of the students, and great partners, the submission to the design competition was made.

The students used their learning to start the sharing process. First they talked to students, then to parents at the school, and finally, they posted their work for all to see. The project beautifully captured the elements that maximize engagement. Students had choice in how they expressed their learning. Students had voice in the project, crafting ideas and stepping into difficult conversations about social justice and poverty. The students had multiple authentic audiences, and the students knew that the project was for a good cause.

There was no magical happy ending. They didn't win the design competition. They didn't change the fact that a big developer bought the site before the competition was even over, and they didn't have their learning go viral via video.

The students though completed an incredible learning experience that they will return to in their learning journey; they did feel the passion of learning, and they did have a good time. The students were able to move beyond the walls of the classroom, and their learning multiplied.  The community partners from the Urban Ecology Center, to the documentary creators, to the architecture partners, to our friends that toured us at the Pruitt-Igoe Site all experienced education at its best. Their mental models about what kids can do were stretched, and they experienced a counter-narrative about education that exposed the simplistic falsehood  that our education system is failing.

One project. One year. Many changed forever.