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Inspiration Becomes Reality at Inspire Academy

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    April Hattori

Inspire Academy opened in 2013 against the odds.  Five years earlier, the only public school in the underserved neighborhood in Muncie, Indiana was shut down. 

Committed to bringing opportunity to the community, Principal Leslie Draper submitted a charter application for grades K-5 in 2011 that was approved in 2012.   The school opening was delayed a year because they couldn’t find a building.  But ironically, Leslie and her team in 2013 received approval to open the school in the same building that was closed five years earlier.

Through their research of school models serving at risk students, Leslie and her team determined Expeditionary Learning (EL) was the right model for the community.  The school serves a diverse student body, 78% of which receive free and reduced lunch. Visiting EL Mentor Schools Genesee Charter School and World of Inquiry #58 (WOI) in Rochester renewed her hope that she and her team could open a school that would give students and the community the best opportunity for success.

Of her WOI visit she said, “I saw kids highly engaged and teachers going above and beyond the call of duty, including home visits.  They are willing to go into the community and do whatever it takes to make the students successful.”

She went the extra mile and read the book “Roots” that documented EL’s history and visited Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn’s school Gordonstoun in Scotland where EL’s model originated.  “I was excited because I saw threads of EL’s model,” including a culture of trust and authentic student projects and products, she said.

Doing everything for the first time was a challenge. “Starting from scratch is a daunting place to be. It took so much time and energy from my staff and me. Every schedule, every decision, anything about the building was new,” Leslie said. 

Leslie noted that the struggle has been worth it.  “We did amazing things this year. I love walking around my school and coming from the mouths of my students I hear words that I heard at World of Inquiry and Gordonstoun,” Leslie said. “Students became mini experts in content knowledge over the course of the year and responded to the culture of high expectations. It’s becoming a school where people say ‘there is something special about this place.’”

Leslie believed that a culture of high expectations was the root of their success.  “We could have the best ideas, but without students buying into achieving great things and becoming more than they thought possible, all else would be for naught.  I also knew that focusing on expeditions and products was key to let the community know we were different and committed to the approach.  EL gave us the tools to accomplish these things,” she said, adding that her staff “loves the EL model.”

“It’s more professional development than they have had in their previous experiences. They like the depth and breadth of the PD, which has a clear focus and specific, concrete tools. At National Conference last year, they had the ability to choose what could help them in their classroom,” Leslie said.

Third grade teacher Ari Hurwitz agreed. “It’s the most support I’ve ever had.  EL has the best professional development teachers can get,” he said, noting that it builds on the open, positive culture that Leslie has fostered.

In the first year, the school focused on Habits of Scholarship and community building, which were integrated into all of their work.  For example, the students learned to use the Habits of Scholarship in their daily conversations.  With the help of School Designer Enid Dodson, the staff created the habits, which are included in report cards. Students receive grades on specific learning targets under each habit. 

The staff also worked on embracing all EL structures in the first year. “We did not do EL 101 - we did EL 101, 201, and 301. We may not have had perfect passages, but we had passages.  We may not have had perfect standards-based report cards, but we attempted standards-based grading.  We may not have had the ideal authentic audience for every single product, but we were generating high quality products with the intent to appeal to an authentic audience. We dabbled in it all this year, so now all we have to do is improve on what we began,” Leslie said.

Ari added the EL model passes muster with the most important judges – the students. “EL is a great thing for kids. It energizes them and gives them a reason to love education and high expectations.  It teaches them you have to think critically every second.  There were tears along the way, but they were followed by the knowledge that there is no other way to interact,” he said.

Parents are also pleased. “Parents love it. They talk about how their kids love learning now and how they love the school and the hands-on approach,” Leslie said.

Ari noted that in the last year, his “biggest point of pride” was the final products that the students created.  Each of the four products his class created connected their learning to improving the community.

The first two case studies focused on governance and community and resulted in a book of profiles on five local civil rights leaders and a school song that was aligned with history standards. The remaining two products, which aligned with science standards, focused on an endangered species of the Indiana bat: greeting cards that featured information on various bat species and a music video that has gone viral and received more than 5,300 views since June 9th.  The video has been shared widely on social media and posted on numerous national and international bat organization websites, including the Organization for Bat Conservation

Leslie is excited about the year ahead, which includes expanding into 6th grade. (The school will expand one grade each year until 8th grade.) Building on their progress, in the fall, Leslie and her team will concentrate on developing a data-driven culture and increasing student-engaged assessment.  To achieve that goal, they will use “Leaders of Their Own Learning” as their anchor text.