“I’m going to ask us now for a mindful breath,” a teacher announces to a group of seventh-grade students who are humming with nervous anticipation before their final exam at Springfield Renaissance School. “What do we need? Calming? Awakening? Let’s do a Spider-Man breath!”
Students flip their hands palm side up and “shoot their webs out” as they breathe in and out deeply. The pump-up session ends with a 10-second foot stomping and a reminder to persevere before students tromp out to face their first final of the school year.
Such confidence-boosting sessions are common at this grade 6–12 Expeditionary Learning (EL) magnet school in Springfield, Massachusetts, where teachers and students regularly meet in small, familial groups called “crews,” which provide students with close ties to at least one adult and 12 peers who advocate for them—and challenge them to try again when they falter.
“The reason we call it ‘crew’ is because we are crew, not passengers,” said Casey Fletcher, a ninth-grade environmental studies teacher, who emphasized that a strong school culture helps students feel confident to take the lead in their learning. “We’re on the journey together; we’re all rowing the same boat.”
Opened in the fall of 2006, Springfield Renaissance serves 700 students from all over the city, the majority of whom—81 percent—are students of color, and more than half of whom are economically disadvantaged. At the school, students and staff share the responsibility for creating a culture of respect and safety, pushing themselves to discuss pressing societal issues that affect their daily lives and working hard to break down misconceptions that can stand in the way of progress.
The strong bonds born of that hard emotional work drive student success and are “changing the narrative for urban students, in particular for students of color,” says Principal Arria Coburn, who grew up locally and taught special education before becoming an administrator. “It exposes what is possible when you have a community that is committed to ensuring equitable access to education.”
Enrollment713 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
Free / Reduced Lunch58%
For the past decade, 100 percent of students in each graduating class at Springfield Renaissance have earned acceptance to at least one college. The school posts consistently higher-than-average results within the district for graduation rates and state test scores, and it has been named a top-performing school by the EL Education Network, Magnet Schools of America, and the Partnership for 21st Century Schools.
A Culture of Mutual Respect
Nestled on the banks of the Connecticut River about 90 miles west of Boston, Springfield is known as the birthplace of basketball, but little else these days. Like some other towns and cities in the Northeast, the former manufacturing hub now struggles with high poverty, unemployment, and opioid abuse rates.
More than a decade ago, school leaders became interested in opening an Expeditionary Learning school in Springfield, believing that the model, which places a dual emphasis on students’ mastery of academic content and on character development, would be a good fit for their students.
Walking down the halls today, a visitor is greeted by colorful banners hanging from the ceilings that call out seven “community commitments” or character traits—friendship, perseverance, responsibility, respect, self-discipline, cultural sensitivity, and courage—which students pledge to adhere to. Teachers regularly refer to the commitments in class and consistently link them to learning targets—emphasizing that the traits will help students develop into “their best self,” and as strong adults and citizens.
The commitments also encourage students to think deeply about their actions and their impact on others, says high school student Maurice, who feels he finally has a school where he belongs. His elementary school approached discipline severely and he was often suspended, but when he arrived at Springfield Renaissance, the school’s focus on mutual respect and relationship building helped him to rein in his behavior.
“I stopped doing it as much because I noticed the family aspect of the school and not the disciplinary,” he said.
Connecting the Textbook to the Real World
The confidence that students develop through their relationships with school faculty and peers gives them the agency to be independent learners and take more academic risks, say staff.
On a tour of the school, ninth-grade student and high school ambassador Sophia points out posters of Mars dotting the halls of the sixth-grade wing and a giant solar system decal lining the floor. “In sixth grade, we do this big expedition about Mars,” explains Sophia, who describes conditions on the planet.
There’s also a related class in English-language arts where students analyzed whether an astronaut’s mission to Mars aligned with stages from the hero’s journey in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and a culminating event where students present their learning to the public.
The units on Mars are just one learning “expedition,” though. A hallmark of EL schools, expeditions, or cross-curricular projects with real-world relevance, are expected at every grade level and give students opportunities to take their learning outside the school.
This self-directed learning approach is used throughout Springfield Renaissance—when you step into classrooms, it’s rare to see a teacher lecturing in front. Instead, students are co-participants in discussions and help drive the lesson with teachers, who ask probing questions to provoke student curiosity and deeper-level thinking. Whenever possible, teachers connect textbook content to current events or societal or global challenges to make learning more relevant.
“I think kids are motivated when they see that their work matters,” says Lindsay Slabich, an EL lead teacher, of the autonomy and independence that the school gives students. “They see that they can make a difference, and they want to make their work the best they can be.”
The Courage of Your Convictions
Sometimes these connections to real-world issues can turn into class-long discussions about society’s deepest challenges—and staff and students don’t shy away from them. “There are events happening outside of our building that trickle into our building that we can’t ignore,” explains Coburn.
In classrooms, students are given dedicated time for open dialogue during which they talk about difficult issues of race and equity, gender roles, and bias, among other hard topics. Thought-provoking questions provide helpful structure, and the emphasis on emotional safety makes students comfortable to share opinions and brainstorm solutions.
Staff aren’t left out of these conversations either. Teachers often share their own experiences with students, and all staff are assigned to adult crews, which meet monthly, to learn how to model courageous conversations. Staff members say that the close relationships they form with colleagues through crew help them hold each other accountable to the high standards they set in their department and grade-level teaching teams.
In Jon Galanis’ high school U.S. history class, students come to class prepared to discuss modern-day feminism after reading excerpts from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Galanis joins the students’ conversation by talking about inequity in his home life.
With the space and openness that have been created for the conversation, students similarly feel more free and comfortable to talk. Adia, an 11th-grade student in the course, says the class “creates a culture where we don’t have the option to opt out” and shows her “that you are close to this history—you still have to interact with this daily based on the structures that we see in our nation.”