Mission Hill has come to Jamaica Plain. The pilot school founded by Deborah Meier in 1997 is now located in the former Agassiz Elementary School building. Classes are project-based, multi-grade (except for math), and served by a lead teacher plus one or more assistants, including parent/community volunteers. All 200+ students gather for a weekly community meeting on Friday mornings. Graduating students must show their readiness for high school by presenting and defending their work in five areas: Literacy, Mathematics, Science, Theme Studies, and Art. This is a school with a focus on habits of mind, practicing democratic processes rather than test-taking skills.

I met K1/K2 teacher Kathy D’Andrea and Principal Ayla Gavins last fall at a Progressive Educators Network conference, and they invited me to visit. Kathy was especially enthusiastic about their school’s professional development program, which is led by teachers and brings everyone together on Tuesday afternoons. Topics this year have included meeting the needs of students with special needs, conflict resolution, and inquiry science. This month teachers who participated in a Fund for Teachers trip to Puerto Rico shared a series of photo/story books they’ve produced about the Taino, now available for colleagues to use with students.

One way that Mission Hill builds a strong, cohesive community is through whole-school thematic studies. Each year (in a four-year rotation) they focus on a Science, an Ancient Civilization, and a Social Justice topic. When I visited at the beginning of January, they had just completed Life Science studies and a few of the students’ projects were still on display; I especially enjoyed reading about a Kindergarten investigation into where caterpillars come from! All classes were beginning their study of the Taino, the ancestors of many of our Latino students. Third and fourth graders in Josh Kraus‘ class were making maps of the Caribbean, while primary children were painting Taino symbols with art teacher Jeanne Rachko.

Kathy’s kindergarteners worked on a variety of activities while she made scrambled eggs and cheese for snack! They had built a giant, sprawling “city” of blocks in the middle of the room that stays up all week for constructive play. Sarah DeCruz was teaching math to sixth graders, who were struggling to make sense of word problems that required them to divide a small number by a larger number – resulting in a decimal, of course, but confusing to many. Later I visited when they were selecting personal “smart” goals. This is a school that keeps an archive of student work over time and encourages children to participate actively in the process: first and second graders in Emma Fialka-Feldman’s class were looking through their work to select a piece of writing to be included in their portfolios on the day I visited.

Although BPS teachers give much of themselves every day to their students, very few have any input into the curriculum, assessment, or general policies they are expected to implement. At Mission Hill, they do. I am impressed by the way this school lives its values, and I wish there were more opportunities for conversations among teachers across the district about how and why we do this most important work. “We’re Learning Here” is one way to share what’s happening in our schools; please invite me to visit yours!


Amika Kemmler-Ernst, Ed.D.