Meeting of the Minds
The school rules at Meriwether Lewis Elementary are simple: Be respectful; Be responsible; Be ready to learn. Under the direction of principal Mike Irani, a school-wide student council seeks ways to model the rules for others and to develop school pride while they’re at it. “We started the council last year when our theme was ‘lifting student voice,’” said Irani, “so we wanted to give students the opportunity to advise the school administration on key issues affecting the whole school.”
Unique among elementary schools in the western district, the student council takes one representative from each class, kindergarten through fifth grade, and this year that means 19 students will serve. “We thought carefully about how to select students,” said Irani. “We wanted to avoid a popularity contest and the competitive piece of that.”
Instead of being elected, interested students self-nominate, writing about why they’d like to be on the council, and a school culture committee (consisting of teachers, administrators, and the counselor) evaluates the applications. This year “there were tons,” said Irani. Students must attest that they meet the criteria for serving on the council: a good listener, a hard worker, speaks well in front of others, fair and honest, follows school and class rules, kind and respectful, and loves their school.
This year the application process included an interview with Irani and the assistant principal. “We know that some students may present themselves orally better than in written form, so the interview offered that opportunity,” said Irani. “But, also, we can explain to the kids what an interview is, and how job interviews work.” He also stressed the importance of demonstrating the value of diversity in organizations to students by selecting a group based on socio-economic, gender, religious, and geographic variety.
To give lots of kids a chance to serve, membership on the MLS student council is a “once-in-K-to-5 experience,” which can soften the blow for those who aren’t selected on their first try. “This is one of the first times for the students where a bunch of people want something, but only one gets chosen,” said Irani. “So, we talk about that sometimes that’s what happens, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t do a good job, but there might be opportunities for good conversations about how the student can improve next time out.”
During the council’s meetings, the mandate is to focus on how to make school a better place for learning. Last year’s inaugural council coalesced around two big ideas. The first was to identify three places where students needed to do a better job of following school rules—in bathrooms, the cafeteria, and the hallways. They brainstormed what following school rules would look like in those areas, and created signage to encourage that effort. They also invented a school spirit day, called Blue Day, where everyone wore blue and classes revolved around blue-tinged themes, whether in art, science (sky, ocean), or social studies (peace).
The first meeting of this year’s council was respectful and productive, a model of the school rules. Irani and the students discussed how to interact in a meeting, and engaged in greeting activities to learn each other’s names and styles. Breaking into groups, the students developed interpretive wordless “human sculptures” to represent each element of the school rules, and then wrote their ideas about how those rules might be put into action on sheets of poster board.
“This is absolutely one of the best parts of my job,” said Irani. “I love it when I get to work directly with kids.”
Reduce and Reuse
“Since last year and the year before, the teachers have had a lounge,” explained Murray Elementary second grader Aiden, “but the kids are the ones who are learning, so they should have a lounge to hang out in too.” This was the inspiration behind an after-school enrichment class dubbed “Trash to Treasure” and taught by P.E. teacher Kathy Tillar-Hughes, who brainstormed with the dozen or so students to create an eco-friendly hang-out space.
Using only materials that were headed for the trash heap, the students constructed a couch, side table, mirror, lamp, and artwork, all currently displayed in the hallway just outside the gym and library. To accessorize the couch, made of a wooden pallet covered with a mattress topper and blue fabric, second graders Jett and Aiden described how they made throw pillows out of old t-shirts stuffed with plastic grocery bags. The side table is papered with images cut from old picture books, and the surface is covered with colorful spray-painted water bottle tops.
“We put out a basket, kind of a bin really, and asked people to please put empty water bottles in there,” said Jett, “and we actually got a big pile.” The students cut off the bottoms of those bottles and colored them with markers to make a flower design decorating the large hanging lamp, itself a discarded water cooler bottle. An old mirror got a bright, shiny candy-wrapper frame and now hangs on the wall above the couch.
The students took pride in both providing a lounge space for their fellow kids at the school and in re-using materials to do it. “We are helping the environment so all of this doesn’t dispose and hurt the environment,” said Aiden. For a touch of personalized artwork to jazz up the space, each student created a unique piece of art by gluing broken crayons onto a canvas and then applying heat from a blow-dryer to melt them in swirling patterns.
Tillar-Hughes is pleased with how the elective class turned out. “The kids have always talked about making a student space, and now it’s so cool to see them sitting there outside the library reading,” she said. “We’re going to make a sign that says it was designed by them.”
From the classrooms to the athletic fields, Miller School of Albemarle’s diverse student body brings a global perspective to the school’s pursuits. “Our soccer team has eight nationalities among the team’s starting eleven players,” said John Morelos, history teacher and soccer coach at MSA. “We have students from Brazil, Guatemala, even one whose dad played on the 2002 World Cup team from Papua New Guinea. Coaching them has been a really cool experience.”
In all, MSA’s 192 students hail from 19 states in the U.S. and 17 different countries. The student body is 25% international and has 41% students of color, with a 60/40 ratio of boys to girls. “We’re an international boarding school so we proactively open our doors to kids from all over the world,” said Kane Kashouty, director of admission. “We have several partnerships with schools, such as an Indonesian program where they send multiple students to come get an education here in the U.S., who then go back and help teach in Indonesia.”
Similar relationships with schools in China and the Cayman Islands have helped expand MSA’s heterogeneous community, benefitting all students. “While the international students come here for an immersive experience in the U.S., the American students come here to be able to be exposed to lots of different cultures,” said Peter Hufnagel, director of innovation and marketing. “Everyone’s looking to help each other with their languages and absorb the culture.”
Founded by Samuel Miller as a school for poor Albemarle county Civil War orphans in 1878, Miller School has changed with the times over its 142-year history. After becoming a co-ed institution in 1892, one of the first boarding schools on the east coast to do so, MSA survived the Great Depression and hosted a military program from the 1950s to the 80s as well as a civil air patrol squadron, eventually evolving into the grade 8-12 college preparatory school it is today.
Key to supporting the integration and academic progress of all MSA students is the Student Success Center, and international students in particular benefit from a dedicated English as a Second Language (ESL) program. “I myself was an ESL student, having grown up in Thailand, and English was my third language,” said Morelos, “so I can easily imagine myself in [the students’] position. The Success Center helps them, for example, take exams after school so they have a little extra time, and we also have ESL classes with a teacher who has a strong ESL background, which is great for the students as well.”
Hufnagel, who coaches the award-winning school cycling team, has also observed the cultural exchange process between students in real time, as when Japanese and French-Canadian cyclists found ways to communicate on a recent team trip. He calls the interactions “sweet to hear.”
“From the outside, Miller School may look extremely traditional based on the buildings and setting,” said Hufnagel, “but actually we’ve been very progressive from our founding, and our diverse community is a big part of that now. We had 72 people at our open house in September, and interest in the school locally and globally is higher than it’s ever been.”