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Local school ranked best IB high school in Minnesota

Posted on 09 June 2015 by Calvin

Article and Photos by JILL BOOGREN

River-School-0032Photo right: sign in front of Great River School

Great River School in the Como-Midway neighborhood earned top marks from U.S. News & World Report this May when it received a Gold Medal Award and was ranked Minnesota’s #1 high school. It’s a high honor for a small, public charter school in the heart of a big city.
“It’s a very fun time here at the school,” said Lucy Suits, communication and outreach manager for the school and parent of a student enrolled there. “It’s an opportunity to show what’s working.”

The ranking was based on math and reading test scores and college readiness, which factored in the percentage of students taking college-readiness tests and how well they did. Evaluated against other International Baccalaureate (IB) schools (see “2015 Best High Schools in Minnesota,” pg. 5), Great River School outperformed the rest.

While staff appreciate the recognition, they are quick to point out that these scores don’t define who they are as a school.

River-School-0018Photo left: Head of school, Sam O’Brien

“The award doesn’t measure all the things we do to support students,” said Head of School Sam O’Brien. “It’s a conventional validation of how our students are doing.”

And by all accounts this is an unconventional school. Tucked among office buildings along Energy Park Drive, Great River School is a public Montessori school, one of three in the state serving high school students, according to the USA Montessori Census. It opened 11 years ago serving grades 7-12 and has since added grades 1-6.
Here there are guides, not teachers, and a head of school, not a principal. Students are taught in mixed grade levels. Recess is 45 minutes long, and the school is designed to allow students to move freely. There are no desks, only tables and chairs, accessible outdoor spaces, and a kitchen where students can cook for each other.

“You don’t see a school designed to take tests,” said O’Brien. They operate under a deep belief in the students and their opportunity to learn and grow. It’s their notion that all students have dignity, and it is the job of staff to support it.

“Every student has the potential to do whatever work they want to do,” said O’Brien. If a student is interested in something but finds the course work challenging, he explained, the message is “you just need to work at this,” not “it’s not in your capacity.”

Students at work
River-School-0005Photo right: (left to right) Great River School students Elena Biggs (7th grade), Gabi Vazquez-Thorpe (7th grade), and Anna Himango (8th grade) sort spices for their upcoming 100-mile bike trip in Wisconsin.

Outside during recess on a cloudy Friday morning, elementary-age students play together on a small hill. Another student digs in the mulch, while another is engrossed in a Harry Potter book.
Inside a large, adjacent building called the West Campus, a rock band rehearses while middle-grade students prepare for an upcoming 100-mile bike trip in Wisconsin. Seventh graders Elena Biggs and Gabi Vazquez-Thorpe, and Eighth Grader Anna Himango, organize spices for cooking.

Students are arranged into different crews for cooking and cleanup on the trip, Biggs explained. Himango said they take a lot of trips during the school year. “It makes our school special,” she added. Depending on grade level, students may spend time in Horton Park or the Como Woodlands. Or they may visit a farm, go camping or canoeing, or take part in an archeological dig.

“There are more options than a lot of schools,” said Biggs. “It feels like more of a community.”
All of this is very intentional. At Great River School, social development is considered just as important as academics. At recess and on these exploratory trips, students are learning how to live with, and help, one another.

River-School-0047Photo left: Andres Badillo Moorman, 12th grade, pitches in at Great River School.

Outside the school’s front entrance, high school students shoot hoops and play Frisbee (the school has an Ultimate Frisbee team) while Senior Andres Badillo Moorman digs dandelions out of a plant bed.

“I learn best at this school,” he said. “They do a lot of hands-on things. Service, for one.” On Wednesday afternoons, he explained, students are given time to develop their CAS (Creative, Activity, and Service) work. It’s part of the core of the IB Diploma and may involve anything from tending a garden to learning to play the violin. Badillo Moorman enjoys reading with the elementary students.

“We can help a lot of the kids,” he said. After graduation Badillo Moorman hopes to either get a five-year apprenticeship at an electrician program or try for an associate’s degree.
Cooperation is highly valued over competition at the school. Students have a lot of responsibilities but are given a lot of freedom to make choices about how to do their work. Unlike at many IB schools, everyone at Great River participates in the IB program; they’re all in it together.

The aim, according to O’Brien, is to develop executive thinkers in cooperative, creative, supportive academic systems—making them the problem solvers of tomorrow. They’re in the business of building character, community, human dignity— not usually the first things that come to mind when thinking of standardized tests.

It’s more important, suggested O’Brien, to “trust in students’ capacity to succeed, not measure their ability to succeed.”

There are hints beyond conventional indicators that students are succeeding at the school: the student exhibiting confidence in a subject matter that was previously out of reach; the graduates reporting a smooth transition to college; the alumnus serving on the school’s Board. Still, when 83% of students take at least one IB test—a number that far exceeds the rate for other ranked schools in the state—you know something is working.

River-School-0022Photo right: Teresa Hichens-Olson (left), a Bush Fellow and parent of both a current student and an alumnus of the school, and Lucy Suits, the school’s  communication manager and parent of a student at the school.

“It’s really a validation of how powerful the students are,” said Teresa Hichens-Olson, a Bush Fellow and parent of both a current student and an alumnus of the school. “If you remove fences and boundaries, the bars aren’t there. They see beyond the bars.”

A painting on the surface of the front parking lot, student-conceived and -stenciled, perhaps says it best: “You can do anything you want to do. This is your world.”

Great River School (1326 Energy Park Dr.) is a tuition-free, public charter school that serves grades 1-12. It is a Montessori IB school, with no requirement to have been in a Montessori program to enroll there. Students are selected by lottery. The school also hosts summer camps, open to everyone ages 4-14. You can contact them by phone, 651-305-2780, or by email at www.greatriverschool.org

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