Reporter Stratton Lawrence spent some time at USL in August 2013 and immediately noted that here, “students actually look forward to a visit to the principal’s office!” That’s the kind of family culture that we’re proud to have fostered and look forward to continuing for years to come. Mr. Lawrence’s full story is below, and you can always check out his blog, too.
Learning Should Be Fun
A revolutionary school experience in Mount Pleasant
By Stratton Lawrence
Imagine a school with no bullies, where students eagerly look forward to a trip to the principal’s office. Pass a fourth grader in the hallway, and she will politely shake your hand, maintain eye contact and offer to show you around.
Is it possible for a grade school to embrace a culture of individualism amongst its children and preteens, where eccentricities are not only accepted, but encouraged, without leading to chaos and disorder?
At the University School of the Lowcountry, they’ve gone beyond testing that theory. They’ve brought it to life.
Where the Bright and Motivated Can Thrive
‘They’ doesn’t refer only to the adults. Although founder Jason Kreutner, along with teachers like Donna Logan (Humanities) and Ann Rowland (Spanish), formulated a vision for USL, it’s the students themselves who shape the school’s exuberant atmosphere. The minds of these children are not solely repositories for a standard set of information, passing through a system designed to generate passing test scores and thus, ‘results.’
Rather, USL’s model relies upon strategies like weekly experiential education and ‘linking’ knowledge between subjects. The results are alive: students who don’t solely occupy their school, but embody it.
In short, USL belongs to its students. That’s evident on graduation day, when departing eighth graders confidently stand at the podium and address their classmates and gathered parents and friends with wit, wisdom and tearful admonishments to the teachers who
have shaped them into budding young adults.
These students don’t necessarily arrive at USL with the mettle that public speaking requires. Many of the children come from larger schools throughout Charleston, where they felt outcast by their peers and unchallenged by their teachers. At most schools, both public and private, the teacher must cater first to the students ‘in the middle.’ Those who fall behind receive extra care, while those at the top may be ignored, because their grades are sufficient and they are otherwise ‘excelling.’
Cancer Genomics Lab at MUSC (December2012)
“At USL, the brightest students are embraced and pushed to another level,” says Lee Manigault, whose daughter, India, graduated this year. “Before coming here, India wasn’t as motivated or engaged. USL has made a huge improvement in all of our lives, and my daughter is a happier person.”
USL math teacher Nicole Brockman elaborates: “A lot of our students don’t fit into a public system because they’re so bright. They’re bored to tears in a regular school, where they have to wait for the majority.”
The differences between USL and a traditional school are plentiful. Among the most obvious deviations are the weekly Learning Outside the Classroom (LOTC) trips. Every Wednesday, the entire school (grades third through eighth) loads onto a bus and heads out into the world to explore.
And these are not your typical field trips. In May, the students visited the Bees Ferry Landfill and Charleston County’s recycling processing plant, witnessing firsthand how our waste streams continue after leaving the home or school. Earlier in the spring, the school harvested over 1,000 pounds of kale on Wadmalaw Island, before delivering it to the Lowcountry Food Bank. That trip linked with a visit to
GrowFood Carolina, the downtown ‘food hub’ that facilitates the connection between Lowcountry farmers and restaurants.
“Usually, if we are talking about something in class, then we try to link the LOTC back to that or to a current event in the news,” explains Daniel Kalus, a rising USL sixth
On another week, the school is just as likely to visit North Charleston’s Honeywell facility to learn first-hand about America’s Prepositioned Stocks Afloat program at Joint Base Charleston, or to travel to Parris Island for a co-ed graduation ceremony of U.S. Marines. On a group trip to Washington, D.C. last year, they even visited the ‘national mosque’ at the Islamic Center of Washington —
not to encourage Islam or any other faith, but to understand how, following World War II, citizens of the newly free nations of the Middle East began to immigrate to the U.S. and assimilate into our melting pot culture.
Conducting exit polls on Election Day (November2012) — https://www.uslowcountry.org/exitpoll12.html
Likewise, visits to Charleston by notable speakers like human rights advocate and Pulitzer Prize- winning columnist Nicholas Kristof are accessible to the school, thanks to their mobile learning model. This isn’t ‘virtual’ learning or watching a speech on television — the children actually attend and experience life- shaping inspirational moments.
Whether students are tracking the presidential campaigns or having one-on-one conversations with active duty troops, USL’s adult leaders are careful not to instill political or personal opinions into the discussion. The idea is to let the students observe and grow their own perspectives from experiencing the world.
Although a field trip every week may sound like fun (and it is), they shouldn’t take away from the other four days in the classroom. At USL, each LOTC or outside experience is designed to complement an overall learning program.
“When we go on an LOTC trip, we want to be ready to ask good questions,” explains Anne Adragna, a 2013 graduate. That may involve researching the websites of the organizations they intend to visit (each USL student has their own school-provided laptop) or reading articles published about the place in local media. Essentially, the experience of ‘linking’ that begins in third grade at USL is akin to approach of a liberal arts college education — by teaching the students to be inquisitive, they are constantly and naturally learning, everywhere that they go.
Leadership and Life Skills
Experiential learning at USL goes far beyond field trips. Each year, students choose a local professional to shadow in their jobs, replacing the abstract idea of what it means to be an architect or an engineer with real life guidance. In student Olive Gardner’s case, that meant spending time at the Charleston City Paper office with editor Stephanie Barna one year, and shadowing bicyclists’ advocate and attorney Peter Wilborn the next.
“Apprenticing is more efficient,” USL founder Kreutner puts it, simply. That spirit carries over into the school’s day-to-day operations. When it’s time to clean up the gymnasium after an event, the older children guide the younger ones through the necessary chores, without the teachers ever having to impart their authority. Just as naturally, senior students are willing to take cues from the third and fourth graders, who are just developing an understanding of the responsibility of leadership, free of any autocracy or system of ‘order by fear’ that often dominates when one teacher must keep the peace with thirty students in their classroom.
Many of these notions tie into the concept of ‘slanting,’ an idea encouraged by the school that incorporates eye contact, leaning forward during conversation and general consciousness of one’s surroundings and situation. Manners like handshaking and door opening are integrated as well — real life skills that some adults take for granted, but that many American children grow up without ever learning at home.
When 2013 graduate Allison Horan becomes the first high school student at USL in a pilot program this fall, the approach will be taken even further. In addition to taking college courses at local universities, she’ll learn life skills like signing a lease, preparing a meal for a group of people, and changing a flat tire.
Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum at Synagogue Emanu-El (December 2012) Rev. Clementa Pinckney at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church
“It’s a philosophy that wherever these students go, that they’re comfortable in any situation,” explains Michael Simpson, USL’s physical education teacher.
Simpson opens the school at 7 a.m. each morning and leads the students through their daily P.E. class. He cites research showing that students (like adults) perform better if they’ve exercised in the morning.
Through some combination of running out pent-up energy in the morning and allowing students to learn at their own pace, USL clearly works. After just six years, 85 percent of graduates have been accepted into Charleston’s Academic Magnet, consistently rated as one of the top high schools in the nation.
Good grades alone won’t get a bright student into a top college, and USL recognizes that building well-rounded university candidates begins in the early stages of education.
No Child is an Island
There’s a noticeably special element to the way that USL students interact with each other. Watch them during an unstructured free time and one gets the sense that if these children were left on a desert island, they would form a system of government, construct buildings and ration (or grow) their food supply. There would be no descent into Lord of the Flies-style bedlam.
Frankly, these children are just too nice to want to fight each other. In many regards, they’re more prepared for adulthood than most adults, yet they haven’t lost their sense of wonder in the world.
That’s thanks, in part, to a school that’s not solely a place they go each morning, where they count the minutes until the bell rings to send them home, but instead is an integral part of their lives. USL’s students genuinely love going to school.
Whitney Powers, mother of 2013 graduate Olive Gardner, recalls the ‘most amazing thing ever,’ when she walked into her daughter’s room at 8:30 p.m. to find her chatting online with three other students and their math teacher, Ms. Brockman, about a problem in their homework they’d each been struggling with that evening.
Because the teachers care about each student, no child goes unnoticed or falls behind.
“I believe that this model of learning is something that will continue to build in the future,” says Powers. “In this age of technology, the traditional classroom is not where education is heading, but it requires special teachers who can adapt to this model.”
Even at age seven and eight, USL’s youngest students are being prepared for a changing world. All students, at every grade level, concurrently learn three languages at the school: Mandarin, Spanish and Latin. Humanities not only teaches the history of events like the French Revolution, but links it to modern news like the Arab Spring, in real time. Math isn’t just an abstract subject done in a book — on each LOTC, students learn how geometry or algebra are integrated into the jobs they witness.
Writing and speech are heavily emphasized, as are research techniques. Rising sixth grader Alex Pawlik recently wrote and gave a speech to his class on the benefits of pursuing nuclear power as an energy source, a subject that requires sifting through strong opinions on either side, as well as incredible amounts of statistics. At USL, you don’t walk out of history class and forget about Charlemagne while you dive into multiplication tables. Each subject travels with you.
That’s possible, in part, due to small class sizes, where teachers can devote more time to one-on-one instruction than to lecturing the class as a whole.
“I tutor more than I teach,” explains math teacher Brockman. “It allows me to really see what one particular child may be doing wrong and where they have gaps. I can’t do that in a regular classroom — you don’t have time.”
Brockman expects that at least two of her current students will have completed Algebra 2 by the end of eighth grade (entering Trigonometry as high school freshmen with three high school credits), an impossible feat in a traditional middle school.
USL lets children progress at their natural pace as individuals, in an atmosphere that even the students recognize is special.
“Mr. Kreutner, you’ve created something amazing here,” acknowledged graduating eighth grader Rory Corcoran in his end- of-year speech. He also cited writing and public speaking teacher Jackie Scarafile for “teaching me that imagination is what makes writing special” and Ms. Logan for “transporting me to amazing places through literature,” including a “pilgrimage to Canterbury.”
One of eleven USL Day of Caring Projects at sites across the Lowcountry (September 2012)
Among the other recent graduates, John Eustis reminisced about how his fellow students immediately put him at ease on his first day at the new school by approaching him to introduce themselves and shake his hand. Sophie Bello expressed the confidence USL had given her to pursue being a writer for a living, while Jeanne-Marie Martin used an analogy to the rock band Blind Melon to explain that even though USL has a headmaster in Mr. Kreutner, that each of the students feels as if they are co-leading the school with him.
Graduate Allison Horan perhaps put it best, quoting poet Robert Graves comment that “the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”
“That encapsulates this school,” said Horan. “Only once you come here and meet the students do you truly realize just how great this place is.”
Cue the applause of a room of students and teachers in total agreement.