A St. Louis Private School Prepares Students For Lives Of Purpose And Service
“There’s never been a more exciting time to be an educator,” says Lisa Lyle, head of school at MICDS (Mary Institute and Country Day School) in St. Louis.
As the leader of a K-12 school with class sizes ranging from twelve to eighteen students, Lyle offers a fascinating look at the current world of education and student development. Gone are the days of perfunctory learning solely between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Eschewing a “one-size-fits-all” educational model, MICDS leads by example, with a holistic approach to educational development, preparing students for lives of purpose and service.
Keep reading for our Q&A with Lyle as she shares her educational manifesto and provides an update on the student learning experience, which she posits will continually force schools to evolve past what they once were.
What is your ultimate vision for this institution?
At MICDS, our mission calls us to educate children to meet the challenges of this world with confidence; embrace all its people with compassion; think critically; and resolve to stand for what’s good and right. Our Strategic Plan 2015-2022 provides a clear road map for our efforts and resource allocation over the next five years. Families can know with confidence that we are intently focused on transformative learning experiences for our students, exceptional teaching and learning, and a vibrant school future.
We work diligently to be careful stewards of the School’s resources for today and in perpetuity; we are committed to providing facilities that optimize learning in and out of the classroom; and, finally, we are firmly committed to ensuring full access to those students who can best benefit from and contribute to our learning environment, without regard for family financial means.
What is it that sets the student experience here apart from others?
We value deeply what happens in the classroom, and we know each and every student as an individual, which is the foundation of a strong learning environment. At MICDS, those relationships are strengthened outside the classroom as teachers work with thespians on the stage, robot enthusiasts in the maker-space and athletes on the field.
Every discipline offers ways to extend and deepen learning both through a range of advanced electives, project choices within each course and co-curricular experiences. That could mean a field trip to a local place of worship for a sixth-grade unit on world religions, practice college visits to Washington University in St. Louis and Saint Louis University for our juniors, or even study and service travel trips, like a theatre trip to England, language immersion in Peru, Habitat for Humanity in Texas or a science-research trip to the Tetons.
What about your approach is particularly unique when it comes to education and developing kids?
We recognize that students thrive when we create an environment of high challenge and low threat. Challenging students does not mean burdening them with excessive, rote memorization and busywork. Real challenge is the deep engagement that comes from arousing curiosity and motivation through student choice, real-world problems and tasks that are at the right level of difficulty for each student.
In practice, that means for a gifted math student, for example, that she will be assessed and placed in the right level based on her conceptual understanding, knowledge and skills. If that means she needs a course that is typically populated by students two grades ahead, then so be it. Likewise, if a student is struggling with a skill or concept, he will find a wealth of support from classroom teachers, extra help during the school day and after school with faculty from across the disciplines. Within each grade level and course, students will find they have many choices, from book titles to how they want to demonstrate their learning. At the Upper School, students may select from a plethora of advanced electives in each discipline. This combination of challenge and support lessens anxiety and ensures students thrive.
What would you like parents to know about MICDS?
Parents should know that we take our partnership with them seriously. Parents know their individual child intimately and in ways we never will, though we have lots of experience with children their age, and experts in child development right on our staff. It’s the partnership that is only possible when parents and educators work in tandem that best ensures the optimal growth and development of each young person. We want parents to know that we are deeply committed to each child and to their unique journey as they strive to become their best selves. We recognize that journey is not always easy, and we anticipate challenges and offer a great deal of support and guidance as we navigate through the years in partnership with parents.
What does MICDS do to prepare students for success after graduation?
At the most basic level, we prepare students to be exceptionally ready for college, though our real goal extends far beyond that. We want to ensure they are prepared to lead lives of purpose and service, as stated in our mission.
During the 2015-16 school year, Kevin Graham of LookOut Management surveyed our young alumni and benchmarked that data against a large data set gathered from some 200 independent school alumni communities across the U.S. and Canada. Our graduates reported satisfaction with the quality of teaching, athletics and breadth of course offerings, advisory, AP courses and performing arts at a level greater than a standard deviation above comparable data at other strong schools across the U.S. Interestingly, our graduates report strong preparation in essay writing, time management, communications skills and, increasingly, the ability to work effectively in diverse and global environments.
When we look ahead to the world our students will live in and lead once they enter the workplace, we must ensure not just academic preparation but also strong technology and programming skills, interpersonal and collaboration skills, resilience, critical thinking and cross-cultural competency. The job for schools today is much larger than it was in the past. We are energized by this challenge and have the data to prove we are on the right track.
How do you see education shifting in the future and how will MICDS meet those changes?
Increasingly, we see that what constitutes the learning environment needs to be more porous and flexible. The traditional notion of school—8am to 3pm Monday through Friday, September through May, on campus, same classes for everyone in a given grade—does not meet the needs of students. Children learn at different rates; they are drawn to different disciplines, which demands taking advanced courses and that they not be let off the hook for developing adequate knowledge and skills across the board. They need to complement what happens in class with appropriate reinforcement and enrichment outside of class in the shape of co-curricular offerings, independent study and summer enrichment. They need to be in contact with others from across town and around the globe who share interests and have expertise in areas that matter to them. They need teachers who are great at coaching cognitive growth. Students today often do a deep dive into a narrow slice of a discipline and come out knowing more about that one thing than their teachers, so teachers have to be agile and eager to ask questions that probe for understanding and help the student continue to pursue their inspiration.
Our curriculum today balances required courses and elective options. We wonder if someday soon we will find ourselves needing to credential students in some way for the work they do on their own outside of school, for example. One thing we do know for sure, that will not change, however, is that learning is the construction of meaning, and it happens best in a social environment.
At MICDS, students are surrounded by peers who share their commitment to excellence and achievement, who think it’s cool to have a strong interest in Shakespeare or Python. And our teachers—they are the best I’ve ever seen. They, too, are evolving in their practice, their use of technology, their understanding of differentiated and culturally responsive instruction, and in making their passion for their discipline contagious.
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All photography courtesy of MICDS.