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At Mills Lawn, inquiry is king

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The new buzzword in the Yellow Springs School District this school year is “inquiry-based learning,” and at Mills Lawn Elementary School the effort to guide learning around student interest and problem-solving is already under way.

Taking cues from the Class of 2020 plan approved last year, Mills Lawn Principal Matt Housh is using this year’s bi-annual, all-school play as an opportunity to put the new educational approach into practice.

“What we’re trying to do is wrap [the play] into project-based learning so it’s not just an added-on piece, it’s part of our learning,” Housh said, defining the new model as where students wrestle with academic questions rather than just listen to a “sage on a stage.”

A focus on inquiry-based learning is one of many changes students can expect during the new school year at Mills Lawn, which started two weeks ago. Updated technology, enhanced ways of helping gifted and special needs students, lunchroom changes and a third kindergarten class are new for 2012–13.

Meanwhile, enrollment is about the same as last school year, at 384 students, a good sign since last year Mills Lawn graduated a sixth-grade class that was one of its largest, Housh said. Open enrollment of students from outside the district remained steady at 23 students. Housh said it’s helpful to have “students knocking on the door” every year in order to fill classes.

With a large influx of beginning students, the district added a third kindergarten class at Mills Lawn and hired veteran kindergarten teacher Megan Bennett to teach it. In other personnel changes, longtime Yellow Springs educator John Gudgel moved to the position of half-time counselor, where he will meet with students to deal with emotional issues, interpersonal conflict and maintaining good school habits, according to Housh.

Another facet of the Class of 2020 plan — more advanced technology — will be rolled out this year in the form of a redesigned school website which teachers can use as a dynamic communication tool with students, and a batch of 20 iPads. The iPads, to be used for practicing reading and math skills among younger students, were purchased with federal funds.

To support students who are struggling or excelling, intervention and enrichment periods were added to the Mills Lawn schedule. For K–4 students, 30 minutes are now dedicated each day to help learners at both ends of the spectrum, while grades 5 and 6 benefit from the periods three to four times each week.

In the lunchroom a point-of-sale service has debuted to provide a cashless option for lunch payment. Eventually parents will be able to put money into student lunch accounts online, so no student ever goes hungry if they forget their lunch money. And a newly-launched farm-to-school group might source more local foods for the district this school year.

Beginning soon, students across grade levels will dive into the themes explored in the all-school play, The Albert Brown Show, directed by Jo Frannye Reichert. Students may develop their own radio shows, explore the technology of the 1940s, take swing dancing lessons, interview local elders who lived during the period, and more. Teachers are still developing projects around the show, which will be staged in December.

Such projects are the future of education in Yellow Springs and this school year is the major step in that direction, Housh said. The district has a goal of making 75 percent of all classroom work project-based with traditional skills instruction taking a smaller share of class time.

With the move towards an inquiry-based learning model, and other initiatives in the Class of 2020 plan, this year’s progress is exciting, Housh said, especially since community participation in the plan means “everyone’s on the same page and knows where the ship’s moving.”

“The goal is to be unique in the state and U.S. and be one of the most dynamic, progressive school districts anywhere,” Housh said.

Megan Bennett
Bennett, the new kindergarten teacher, said she took a “leap of faith” in leaving her job as a kindergarten teacher at the Huber Heights school district for a one-year contract at Mills Lawn. But Yellow Springs was where the teacher with nine years of experience wanted to be, and already in her second week she has noticed a difference here. “I really saw a difference in my students — they seem really excited to be here,” Bennett said in an interview last week. “And almost all parents came to open house, which is new for me.”

New MLS teacher Megan Bennett.

New MLS teacher Megan Bennett.

So far Bennett has found her fellow teachers “really friendly, open to new ideas and collaborating and very good about sharing ideas and helping out,” she said. And she has enjoyed working again for her first principal, Matt Housh, who previously worked in the Huber Heights district.

Bennett, who has a master’s degree in educational leadership from the University of Dayton and is certified in early childhood education, has long wanted to teach in Yellow Springs, a place where she hopes to soon move her family. She first applied here six years ago. When she was offered the position this summer, she said, “I knew in my heart it was the right decision.”

On her educational approach, Bennett said she aligns her instruction with her students’ interests and ideas, likes to keep kids moving and working with their hands and loves to develop science activities. Kindergarten students have unique needs she said, which require a focus on routines and a lot of patience.

“I like being their first teacher,” Bennett said of kindergarteners. “They still have that imagination and play and they’re always amazed to learn something new.”


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