Bright Ideas

 In Culture, Guide

Ten city schools expanding our thinking with innovative approaches to education.


St. Louis Public Schools Gateway STEM High School & Carver Elementary School

Leading the transformation from both ends of the spectrum.

WHEN PARENTS ARE LOOKING into high schools, their end goals—namely, colleges and careers— are in the near future. For parents choosing preschools and elementaries on criteria like a warm and caring atmosphere, those long-term goals may not even register yet. But they do for educators, who know that getting children off to a strong start matters. St. Louis Public Schools is addressing families’ needs at both ends of the spectrum—and making the community more aware of this progress is one of the objectives of the Transformation Plan developed by Superintendent Kelvin Adams and presented to the district’s Special Administrative Board in May.

One example, opening this month, is Carver Elementary, a neighborhood school which Adams describes as “a smaller learning community in a renovated facility.” A curriculum developed just for the school will incorporate science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Carver will also offer the Early Childhood Program, a popular full-day preschool with an academic focus and certified teachers.

As its name makes clear, Gateway STEM High School is also focused on preparing students in math, science and technology. It has a college-preparatory curriculum as well as “a variety of in-demand career and technical education programs,” according to Principal Elizabeth Bender. Examples range from emergency medical services to fire science and safety, aviation maintenance, computer connectivity and business entrepreneurship. The name might have been new in 2012, but even when it opened in 1956 as O’Fallon Technical High School, the focus was on hands-on learning—which never goes out of demand. Over the last six years, the staff has reorganized under the STEM model, reworked majors, changed programming and added more unique opportunities. More students are applying to the magnet school, enabling it to be more selective—and encouraging the students to focus and engage all the way to graduation.

3325 Bell Ave.,
5101 McRee Ave.,


Marian Middle School

Giving female students an individual edge.

GOING INTO ITS 15TH YEAR in operation, this all-girls school has every right to celebrate how far it’s come as an institution. But when the leaders talk about Marian’s achievements, the conversation always loops back to the girls themselves—specifically, how they’ve fared in and out of the classroom after their eighth-grade graduation. “We are developing the whole person, not just bringing them up to an academic standard,” says School President Mary Elizabeth Grimes.

This focus on the future plays out in a big way, thanks to extended instructional hours, high expectations for parental involvement and 16 after-school enrichment options in everything from nutrition to a running club to robotics. But it’s the extra attention focused on high school and beyond that really sets Marian apart. A full-time graduate support director cultivates relationships with the girls as they go into some of the region’s highest-performing secondary education settings. Through home visits, Saturday classes, scholarship assistance and more, Marian helps the girls achieve in high school and transition into post-secondary plans like college or the armed services.

Principal Christy Toben says the fact that Marian is an all-girls middle school allows the students to focus on academics, gain confidence and take leadership roles. It also removes the pressure to conform to expectations, she says. “Girls don’t feel they will be [disliked] for loving reading or being the spelling bee champ,” she explains about the school’s single-gender environment. Lessons about female leadership become even more tangible when the girls—many of whom come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds—learn the school’s history: It was founded in 1999 by women from seven religious organizations as well as laywomen, some of them still actively running and advising the school of their dreams. “We think there’s a real power behind women dreaming what we can be,” Toben says.

4130 Wyoming St.,

Grand Center Arts Academy

Taking arts education to the next level.

WHEN THEATER STUDENTS at Grand Center Arts Academy head to the stage, they leave the main school, cross a courtyard and enter an $11 million renovation that combines historic character and modern technology. The Sun Theater, built in 1913, reopened in May as the school’s Performing Arts Center. “Few places in the country have a legitimate theater like this,” says Theater and Dance Department Chair Keith Williams, who has worked on Broadway and around the world.

When the school’s students enter as sixth-graders, they explore all of its arts disciplines, including music, theater, visual arts and dance. In ninth grade, they choose a path with sequential courses toward an eventual major in 12th grade—always with a balance of artistic and academic hours. After adding a grade each year since its 2010 founding, GCAA will graduate its first class of seniors in 2016. As the school grows, William says, teachers are finding exciting ways to collaborate. The theater’s opening, for example, was an intersection of visual art, theater, music, dance and poetry. Finding common ground is a theme for students as well. Though not all will go on to study art at a university or conservatory, they’ll know how to unite around a shared learning experience, making them better global citizens.

“The culture at the school is contagious,” Williams says. “Students are affirmed. You can be quirky—it’s welcomed here. It’s an energy that’s really healthy.” He maintains that inclusion is especially important for students who gravitate toward the arts because “finding your artistic voice is an uneasy time. [GCAA] allows them to spread their wings.”

711 N. Grand Blvd.,

KIPP Victory Academy

Expanding the footprint of “Knowledge is Power.”

WEEKS FROM OPENING a new charter elementary school, KIPP St. Louis Executive Director Kelly Garrett clearly had the bigger picture in mind. While the new KIPP Victory is the second endeavor (KIPP Inspire Academy middle school was established in 2009), plans are already in place to add two elementary and two middle schools. By 2017, KIPP will enroll 2,600 students, kindergarten through eighth grade. Through a unique arrangement with St. Louis Public Schools, KIPP Victory will use a former SLPS building and partner on amenities like food service and will also share student data with the district.

Garrett is excited about the new school; he’s also aware that positive results don’t guarantee future outcomes. However, KIPP—an acronym for the Knowledge Is Power Program—is part of a national network of more than 140 schools with a track record for success. Over the past 20 years, KIPP has more than quadrupled the percentage of low-income children at its schools who earn college degrees, from 9 percent to more than 40 percent. “In St. Louis, we’re trying to beat that,” he says. “We think that by growing down [to kindergarten], we’ll have a bigger impact.” Though KIPP doesn’t limit enrollment, it’s designed to serve students who are behind academically but motivated to catch up, and it typically locates in neighborhoods with residents below the poverty line. The schools place a premium on parental involvement—including home visits by teachers and full-time family liaisons. And the KIPP Through College program keeps tabs on Inspire Academy grads at 26 STL high schools.

The goal at KIPP Victory is for second-grade students to academically outperform the average fifth-grader who’ll be enrolling in the city of St. Louis, Garrett explains. But the real results are measured child by child. “Just watching the growth and development that happens in a matter of months is so empowering,” he says.

955 Arcade Ave.,

Crossroads College Preparatory School

Co-creating knowledge for a new mantra of success.

THE NEW HEAD OF SCHOOL at Crossroads knows a good story when he hears one—and going into the school’s 40th year, Jason Heisserer expects to hear plenty of them. His background as an English teacher puts him in a good position to gather a living anthology from alumni, parents and especially current students in grades seven through 12. “Two hundred students is a huge opportunity in terms of knowing the child and knowing the family,” he says. “Whatever is good and unique about a student is accepted here, whether it’s quirky or not.”

Heisserer believes that six years of this “implicit permission to be who you are” contributes to Crossroads students’ success in college and university applications. “When it comes to the time of the essay,” he says, “they’ve been cultivating their own uniqueness.” They’ve also experienced a competitive multidisciplinary learning environment, so their academic credentials are solid as well. After all, the school holds the distinction as the only secondary independent school in St. Louis City, and it’s a first-year recipient of the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools award.

But Heisserer won’t be resting on those laurels. Part of his focus for the future will be: “Where do we find the crossroads in the disciplines that we’re teaching?” This includes connections between topics (for example, American literature and history), in addition to links in what’s interesting to students (perhaps by connecting leadership, writing and social media). But it’s more than an abstract curriculum discussion for this head of school. This year, Heisserer plans to teach an elective on reading and writing the short story. Students will be delving into good fiction in a quest to answer the question, “How do we know it’s good?” Heisserer won’t give away the answer, but it’s clear that he thinks Crossroads has all the elements.

500 DeBaliviere Ave.,

The International School

Pushing the boundaries of language immersion.

THE INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL will explore uncharted territory when it opens this month in South City. For one thing, its hallways will ring with a diversity of languages. The charter middle school will meld sixth-graders from The Spanish School and The French School—two elementaries within the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools—with incoming students who don’t have classroom experience in a foreign language. It will share campus space with The Chinese School, another SLLIS elementary. New Head of School Jeff Lash brings educational experience from Colombia to Virginia to South Korea and Morocco— and alternates easily between English, Spanish, French and Arabic.

He’ll be paving the way for TIS, which is unique locally for its use of the International Baccalaureate’s Middle Years Programme, a globally recognized educational approach that encourages students to look at big ideas across subject areas through a curriculum each IB school develops itself. The plan is to add a grade a year, eventually implementing IB’s Diploma Programme for high school. The goal is to continue to expose the Spanish- and French- speaking students to their target languages while expanding their English-language skills and knowledge base in math, essay writing, scientific exploration and other subjects via project-based learning, including a STEM lab funded by Monsanto. Meanwhile, students without prior immersion experience will ramp up in their target languages—and in so doing, expand their horizons internationally. To ease the social transition, SLLIS implemented a new program for fifth-graders called Leadership Academy. “One priority for Leadership Academy was to build relationships with students across the two elementary schools in preparation for a more unified community in sixth-grade at [TIS],” says founder and President Rhonda Broussard.

With all these moving parts, TIS is fortunate to tap into the established SLLIS elementaries and a powerful network outside St. Louis. Teachers will be bilingual and have certification in a core subject. “When you get those types of people, they’re a very big asset,” Lash says.

3740 Marine Ave.,

Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls

Defining a new culture of transformation.

THIS SUMMER, Missouri approved its first single-sex charter school: Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls will open in 2015. Although 17 organizations currently operate St. Louis city charter schools, not many of them serve the older grades; Hawthorn's intense focus on leadership in a single gender setting is also a distinguishing factor. (As of press time, its location had not yet been announced.) Another unique feature is Hawthorn’s focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Founder Mary Danforth Stillman got the idea for the school after listening to a speech by Washington University alum Ann Tisch, founder of the Young Women’s Leadership Network. The organization offers guidance to its affiliate schools—Hawthorn will be the 11th—but it’s not a charter management organization. That means Stillman and newly hired Principal Robyn Viloria Wiens will work on all aspects, from curriculum to assessments to student support services. And they’ll be enlisting the first wave of students and parents to help define the school’s culture. Stillman acknowledges parents will be taking a leap of faith, but she adds the school isn’t starting entirely from scratch. “The Young Women’s Leadership Network has a college-going culture even for the girls in sixth grade,” she says. The goal is to enroll 80 girls per grade, starting with sixth and seventh for the 2015-16 school year. Stillman, an attorney by training who has taught at the university level and held various nonprofit roles (including working on College Bound’s summer internship program), says she loves everything about schools, particularly their transformative power. Although right now she’s “in the weeds” with details, she motivates herself by envisioning a particular moment: “That first day of school and the sound of girls coming in and being excited.” Longer term, she’s looking ahead seven years to the first graduation ceremony. “I’ll be a mess,” she laughs, “and I cannot wait!”

Loyola Academy

Fueling creative thinking with innovative problem-solving.

PLENTY OF SCHOOLS have classrooms or buildings to hone students’ abilities in science, technology, engineering and math—the subjects often known by the acronym STEM (or STEAM, with the addition of art). Loyola Academy is taking an even bolder approach. Founded in 1999 by the Jesuits of Missouri Province and local business leaders, the academically rigorous middle school for boys will implement STEAM into its entire curriculum this year. The school’s science program has flourished through a generous partnership with Monsanto Fund, and most recently, a school-wide computer upgrade via the Innovative Technology Education Fund will put a laptop onto the desk of each student, driving the implementation of the STEAM curriculum and allowing teachers to fully integrate all subjects.

Dedicated staffers have already been teaching with the STEAM philosophy, even while previously sharing a single computer cart. Case in point: A team of four Loyola students won the engineering challenge at Six Flags Math and Science Day this year—not to mention, Loyola’s 2014 FOCUS St. Louis What’s Right with the Region Award recognized what can happen when people work together to solve a problem. The school has become known for preparing boys of modest means, usually from unaccredited or partially accredited school districts, to succeed in area college preparatory high schools. The formula for success? Ten-hour days, an extended school year and a partnership throughout high school and into college, which adds up to a big commitment from middle schoolers and their families, but one that’s proven to be well worth the investment.

When a student recently told School President Eric Clark that he would like his son to attend Loyola Academy, Clark’s response says it all: “If that happens, we have failed,” he explains. “It’s our expectation that upon reaching adulthood, our students will not qualify to send their children to the school—thus breaking the cycle of poverty that has gripped many of these families for generations.”

3851 Washington Blvd.,

Lafayette Preparatory Academy

Forging unbreakable bonds among families.

IT’S OFTEN SAID that St. Louis is a city of small towns. Principal Susan Marino would say her second-year charter school is a case in point. With a maximum of 48 children per grade (kindergarten through third) who are transported to school by their families rather than buses, the school is structured to help staff and parents get to know one another. And because it’s an extended-day model—students are in class from 8am to 4pm—the school offers extracurricular activities in-house to cut children’s travel time and ensure they have an opportunity to balance their academic skills with other interests.

Parental involvement is highly valued by everyone from the U.S. Department of Education on down to local school boards, but in many districts, it’s a challenge to get parents in the door. Not at Lafayette. “This school is born out of city residents,” says Marino, a career educator who came on board as a volunteer after a chance playground conversation with the school board’s president in 2012. “We built the school we hoped to have for our kids,” she says. “We really did all of the legwork ourselves.” Lafayette continues to draw its parent community together via direct, daily feedback from teachers as well as initiatives like a parenting support group using the Places for People’s Incredible Years program.

Among the founding parents’ priorities was a curriculum centered around inquiry-based learning and critical thinking with a strong literacy focus. They’ve seen it play out according to their wishes. For example, Marino says, Lafayette students spend more than two hours a day on literacy. This allows the teachers to address the varied academic levels and backgrounds of incoming students, especially kindergarteners. And Marino heard plenty of first-hand opinions about kindergarten from her own daughter, who loved it. “We’re the last ones out of here at 6:30, and she’s like, ‘Why do we have to leave?'”

1210 Locust St.,

Lift for Life Academy

Connecting classroom learning to real life.

WHEN SENIOR ALYSHA PAIMIN gets a compliment on the clothes she created in Lift for Life’s fashion design classes, school co-founder Marshall Cohen hears it as praise for her knowledge of geometry and other academic subjects, as well as her creativity and vision. The school partnered with local designer and “Project Runway” finalist Laura Kathleen Baker on the fashion elective as a way to engage students and give them the self-sufficiency needed to succeed later in life. Cohen says it and other classes, like driver’s education, financial literacy and public speaking, answer the question, “What do we need to give these children so they walk out the door ready?” The independent charter school opened in 2000 as a middle school, but later expanded through grade 12 when Cohen realized that students were going from a nurturing environment where small class sizes helped them make big academic gains into schools that might have 1,500 kids. In addition, “A lot of our students come in two or three years behind,” he says. “Now we have seven years to catch them up.” This spring, the school graduated its third class, and it’s proud of the strides it has made to give students a running start at their future—like the 15 dual credits offered in partnership with SLU and St. Louis Community College. Looking around, Cohen sees plenty of opportunity to add courses based on students’ interests and trends in the business world. Entrepreneurship and computer technology top the list. But whatever is added, the school’s focus on core skills like reading and math will remain, as will the individualized attention on at-risk students. “When you know a student more than likely wasn’t going to make it,” only to see them receive a diploma, he says, “that’s priceless.”

1731 S. Broadway,



Loyola Academy

School President Eric Clark


Lift for Life Academy

Theater and Dance Department Chair Keith Williams


Gateway STEM High School

Gateway STEM High School EMT student Tam Nguyen in uniform.


Grand Center Arts Academy

Theater and Dance Department Chair Keith Williams


Crossroads College Preparatory School

New Head of School Jason Heisserer


The International School

Founder and President Rhonda Broussard


Photo credit: Matt Kile

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