This past spring, I had the privilege of visiting two very different, very interesting educational institutions. The first was Hartford University School for Urban Exploration, a K-8 grade school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The second was Cretin-Durham Hall, a Catholic high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both observation days held surprising things in store for me…
The only other MPS school I had been in recently was 21st Street School, where I did 50 hours of preliminary fieldwork the year before. Whereas 21st Street seemed more or less dismal (burned out teachers, bored or destructive students, weak programs, invisible administration), Hartford wowed me. The teacher of the eighth grade classroom where I was observing was particularly impressive—she managed to keep her classroom under control, while at the same time acknowledging her students as individual human beings. The environment was spectacular. The classroom was half computer lab, half desk space, which managed to be both welcoming and professional. All the staff members I encountered were energetic and positive. Even the little details of the day were indicators of the good things going on there… Teachers stood in the middle of the hallways, greeting students as they arrived in the morning. The announcements (including birthdays) were delivered over the P.A. in a fantastically human, happy, conversational fashion. Student art mosaics graced the border of the campus. Art and music programs were healthy and visible. The diverse student body seemed to blend harmoniously with each other as well as with faculty. Classes were interesting. It was as a school should be, and its urban setting felt like an advantage. This school was a wonderful example of the good things that ARE going on in the Milwaukee Public Schools.
A family friend who teaches high school senior religion courses in St. Paul was kind enough to let me visit his school for a day. Having not seen the inside of a parochial school since my own seventh grade year at Sacred Heart of Jesus in St. Francis, WI, and having never been to St. Paul, I was unsure of what to expect. (Wow, so many saints—there seems to be a Catholic theme going on here!) I was impressed to say the least. The staff was extremely kind and accommodating to me, even escorting me from room to room as I observed the English classes. The rest of the school’s environment, too, reflected a sense of caring and community that was remarkable.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about being in a parochial high school was that the teachers aren’t required to teach to the Wisconsin state standards. They could form their curriculum according to their own goals, one of the most apparent being the presence of a social justice focus. I found this refreshing and fascinating. In spite of my own standards-oriented training, I couldn’t help but smile as I imagined being able to teach without the cloud of quantitative accountability hanging over my head. Then again, I realize that many teachers might flounder under such laissez-faire requirements. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, teachers seemed comfortable, inspired, and happy. The kids seemed pretty happy, too, even in their navy blue uniforms.
Besides being high-quality places of learning, there was an unlikely feature that both Hartford and Cretin-Derham shared, and that was historic architecture. Hardwood floors, carved wooden handrails on the staircases, narrow corridors, and well-worn classrooms with high windows created a sense of history and beauty that is rare in today’s schools. Aside from all the great professional development pointers I picked up, this was my favorite thing about both visits—admiring the beauty of the old buildings themselves. I love old architecture. It replaces the stark, industrial feeling that so many schools have with a sense of character and dignity. I love the idea of walking into a place that feels prestigious, old, and like so many things have happened there.