Step into the halls of St. Ann School in Bridgeport, Connecticut – one of the poorest cities in the country – and you immediately feel a special energy and spirit. Perhaps it’s the halls lined with evidence of student-led community projects and ventures (even the landscape design that greets you at the front lawn is a student-designed and constructed stone labyrinth, originating from a 6th grade math project). Or perhaps it’s the teachers who eagerly begin listing their favorite student inventions that come out of the yearly Invention Convention at the University of Connecticut – like the idea to include Braille bumps on soda cans to help diabetics who’ve lost their eyesight identify which cans are sugar-free. It soon becomes obvious that students at St. Ann’s are more than just students: they are young citizens of the world, aware of its diverse perspectives and challenges, and already confident that they can play a part in making it better.
Of course, this isn’t by accident. At St. Ann’s, youth empowerment and engagement are a central philosophy – driven by a deep faith in the creative and problem-solving potential in each of its students, and a resounding emphasis on empathy. We visited on a beautiful spring morning, sitting down with Principal Theresa Tillinger to hear about what they were doing differently and why they were doing it. Two principles in particular stood out, and could be helpful for educators who want to shape an engaged, passionate learning environment:
1. Follow students’ lead: Theresa framed the school’s strategy more in terms of what they weren’t doing: not over-structuring, over-guiding, over-prescribing. In fact, she describes the teacher’s role as providing a vision and a nudge but then remembering to “get out of the way” so that students can take responsibility. It’s not rocket science: get students to feel ownership over what they’re learning and doing in school, and they will learn passionately. Give them an opportunity to apply their talents in the real world, and they’ll still light up when they describe it months later. Encourage and reward empathy – for fellow students as well as for people halfway around the world – and empathy will thrive.
We happened to be there on Wear Blue for Water Wednesday. Students and teachers alike were sporting blue t-shirts as part of their campaign to raise money and awareness for East Africa as it struggles through its worst drought in 60 years. The effort is entirely student-led and comes from a partnership the school has with Free the Children – a global organization led by Ashoka Fellow Marc Kielburger, which he and his brother founded in 1995 at the age of 12. St Ann’s raised enough money in 2010 to help fund the construction of a new school in Kenya, and is today one of the most active Free the Children school chapters.
2. Create a “risk-free environment”: How did this school culture develop? Much of the credit is given to Dr. Margaret Dames, the Superintendent of the Diocese of Bridgeport since 2004. According to Dr. Dames, the key is creating a “risk-free environment” where teachers, students, and administrators are given maximum flexibility and support in shaping their curriculum and the educational environment. In fact, it’s only in this kind of environment where following students’ lead is possible. For example, earlier in the year, several students involved with Free the Children decided to take a 24-hour vow of silence in support of voiceless children around the world. Soon the entire school was on board, and teachers were faced with the challenge of instructing in silence for a whole day. So they adapted, because they knew they could. Students designed makeshift whiteboards for communication, and teachers like Dawn Pilotti revised their lesson plans to accommodate the student show of solidarity.
On another occasion, this time a week before the Invention Convention, Dawn’s 8th grade class entered their social studies classroom to find a 6th grader in tears because he was still without an invention. They immediately suggested to Dawn that they could help him. Aware of the essential learning happening in that moment, Dawn followed their lead. She had the students close their social studies books and adjusted her teaching calendar so that the class could work with the 6th grader, who later went home with a design and plans to build his invention. “We are just picking up on students’ natural tendencies to be empathetic,” she told us.
Dr. Dames wants her teachers to have the freedom to make such decisions – it’s exactly what she means by a risk-free environment. And as Dr. Dames pointed out, this example of teamwork and instant problem solving is about more than just being good classmates: it’s about practicing skills that are valuable in the world. “CEOs want people who take initiative and responsibility and who can work in teams, but most schools aren’t preparing students in that way – for real life.”
St. Ann’s culture of service and real-world engagement goes a long way toward cultivating these skills. For example, to come up with ideas for the Invention Convention, students frequently interview adults in the community – from firefighters to doctors to family members with health problems – to better understand the challenges they face and to stimulate their own thinking about creative solutions. The partnership with Free the Children and the students’ many other community activities keeps them alert to the world outside the school walls, and reminds them that there may be bigger problems than their math assignment due tomorrow. Even the small student-managed school store – which sells pens and stickers and notebooks – helps students learn about structuring a budget, making orders and keeping inventory, and profit margins.
Of course, none of this comes at the expense of traditional academics. In fact, St. Ann’s School is eligible to apply for the National Blue Ribbon this year because of its high test scores on a nationally normed test. But it’s the leadership and empathy and selflessness of the students that makes Dr. Dames most proud. “These kids are the future. If we can’t get them to understand that they can make a difference in the world, we’re not going to go forward,” she told us. And she believes that training her students to make a difference requires breaking out of the traditional educational mold.
St. Ann’s is just one of 38 schools in the Bridgeport Diocese, and Dr. Dames and her colleagues are working to develop the same youth-empowering culture across them all. What’s more, she is experimenting with a new model of sustainable Catholic school management – one that moves away from the traditional parish-based approach – that has garnered national attention for its quick success and future promise.