The first time I met Bruce Brown, he had to excuse himself when three middle-schoolers came into his office to ask if he could jump a father’s car with a dead battery out in the parking lot. He was happy to do it. I should mention Brown is the superintendent of the school system, but he has a small-town accessibility. When a family is moving into the district, their realtor is likely to connect them directly to Brown, who will personally show them around.
Brown is a popular superintendent, even though cuts in state aid and a shrinking population have hit the thrifty school system hard. He seems to let teachers and administrators try new and challenging things. Under Brown’s leadership, the Stockbridge schools have programs and achievements bigger, richer districts just don’t have.
“Our principals are principal-of-the-year material," says Brown. "And we’ve put a lot of careful attention into staff hiring. Very capable teachers, lots of them here. My job is to support them, facilitate their work.”
Brown is retiring at the end of the year. Some of the staff is worried a tight budget will make it hard for the new superintendent, Stockbridge High School principal Karl Heidrich, to foster the same amount of innovation.
One of the innovative projects just getting off the ground is the Exploratory Academy. It started in September at Heritage Elementary, the school for third, fourth and fifth graders.
The Academy has taken over one wing of the school. It’s a hybrid between an oversized garage workshop and a regular elementary school. Wires, huge sheets of plywood, tools and kids!
It’s a liability lawyer’s nightmare, but these educators are in heaven. When I asked teacher Josh Nichols if he enjoyed teaching in the academy he told me "I'm going to end my career here!"
Against the wall in one of the classrooms sit several bright blue five-gallon buckets. Inside them are underwater robot kits the kids have built and that a student-run business tries to lease to other schools. Albion schools just leased several of them so they could start experimenting with using technology like this in its school system.
In another Academy classroom some kids are busy working on a play about deer hunting. Others are taking notes about boats they built and are racing in a water trough. These girls and boys are between 8 and 11 years old. They don’t talk about a boat floating, they use the word buoyancy.
Caleb Rickets is a fifth grader in the Academy. He got a letter over the summer asking him and his parents if they’d be willing to try something new.
“I was like, what’s this all about? And then I got into it and it was all this building, and fun activities, and my mom and dad want me to be in it next year too.”
But Rickets’s is going to middle school next year, where there isn’t an academy. What he’ll miss is the project time. Because in addition to traditional learning like reading and writing, every day kids are able to get out of their desks and use their hands to do something like recreate the life cycle of a salmon or build a hovercraft to study physics.
“The main thing is that kids are excited about coming to school,” says Steve Trosin, one of the teachers.
Even when lots of kids are being sidelined by a bad flu season, they want to go to school.
“I had no less than five kids out every day last week," Trosin remarked. "And I was getting emails from kids saying I want to come to school but my mom won’t let me. What am I missing?”
As time goes on the plan is for one quarter of the kids in the school to be in the Academy each year. So far, outcomes for the kids are good. Standardized test scores show kids are on track, or better.
Parent participation is way up and outcomes are going beyond the classroom. Little girls like fifth grader Kennedy Dunlap are helping out their dads and are confident they have something to add.
“I helped my dad build the shed in the back and then I helped build my brother's crib.”
Thanks to volunteers and donated materials, right now the academy doesn’t cost any extra money. But Principal Jim Kelly says that can’t continue.
“In order to really improve things, we’re going to cost some funds. And we just need to look at creative ways to do that, I guess. Every time we’re trying to improve somewhere and they say there’s no money…but we’re going to be facing that across the board.”
You can learn more about the Heritage Exploratory Academy and its students' projects on their Facebook page.