Designing a New School for the 21st. Century

Designing a New School for the 21st Century

To an educator is there anything more exciting (or daunting) than starting a new school?  I don’t think so.  I’ve done it twice (if you count the complete renovation of The St. Michael School, both the building and the curricula).  And now, I’m privileged to be a consultant to another new school in the making, Bennett Day School in Chicago.

After six months of working with the creators of Bennett, I realize that, in their process they are using the very 21st Century skills that they plan to engender at Bennett.  In brief, here are a few.

The excitement is palpable in the innovators who are designing Bennett, Shuchi Sharma and Kate Cicchelli.  They are a great team, working in a collaborative way from the start, modeling a practice essential to their objective: to create an innovative school for the 21st Century.

Shuchi and Kate are also a bit of an odd couple, in a really good way, sort of yin and yang.  Shuchi, the Director of Operations, comes from the business world and she picked up the gauntlet on this project thrown down by Cameron Smith, a Chicago financier.  Kate, the Head of School, is a veteran educator, presently a fourth grade teacher.  They model another key to 21st Century education, understanding multiple perspectives.  They are open to each other and to many new ideas.

In their research phase, Shuchi and Kate have discovered several innovative sources for inspiration, including: the Reggio Emilia Approach, Peter Senge, Grant Wiggins, Ron Berger, and Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound.  In addition to adapting the big ideas from these sources, Kate is completing the puzzle of fundamental skills curricula.  This is problem solving and systems thinking in action.

They have also begun to grapple with the more intangible aspects of school design, for example, creating school culture.  Kate spent a couple of days with me in St. Louis, visiting four schools where Louise and I consult: The College School; Maplewood Richmond Heights School District; The St. Michael School; and Clayton School District.   She reflected later, Understanding school climate, and more, the development of school climate, is difficult work.  It's like trying to grasp air.  Having the chance to observe four different examples of creative and collaborative school cultures was powerful.  Creating a vibrant school culture can be like trying to grasp air and yet, there are many fundamental ways to ground and build successful school cultures.  And, creating school as a community is an essential ingredient for the 21st Century the air we breathe.