Cool Schools: This St. Louis Prep School Utilizes Parent-Centric Practices, Project-Based Learning
Head of School at Lafayette Preparatory Academy chats with Mike McShane in the latest Cool Schools podcast
In this episode of Cool Schools, Sarah Ranney discusses the unique founding of Lafayette Preparatory Academy. She touches on expanding and creating a high school program, unpacks how schools measure success, and more.
Click to listen, or read the full transcript below.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Mike McShane: Hello. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice, and I am coming to you with a new episode of Cool Schools: the podcast where I sit down with interesting and innovative school leaders and talk about their schools. We talk about lessons that they’ve learned, mistakes that they’ve made, advice that they might have for someone in a similar situation, and try and dig into the nitty gritty details of how their schools operate and why they look that way.
Today on the podcast we have Sarah Ranney of Lafayette Prep in St. Louis, Missouri. As many of you know, I am a resident of the great state of Missouri and so I’d heard about Lafayette Prep and particularly heard about how they got started. They really started with a group of parents and then brought the school to them, as opposed to sometimes schools coming into areas and trying to convince parents that they should send their kids there. The process of Lafayette Prep was actually sort of in reverse. We dig into that conversation, how that all worked, and what the implications for that would be. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Sarah Ranney of Lafayette Prep.
So, maybe the best place to start is at the beginning. How did Lafayette Prep get started?
Sarah Ranney: Well, Lafayette Preparatory Academy got started because there were people in St. Louis City, a variety of parents and other community members, who were noticing that kids were moving out of the city, with their families of course, after they got to school age. For this group of people they were having conversations that I think most of us city parents have, which is where are you going to send your kid to school? And not necessarily feeling like there was something that met what they were looking for. They, I guess, were a little crazy is what I often say, knowing them, and decided to see what if they start a school. So, it was really started to meet that mission of a small town school but in the middle of St. Louis City that really reflected the diversity that exists within our city.
Mike McShane: So, now did the parents recruit you? What did that process look like?
Sarah Ranney: Great question. So, I actually was not here during our first year. Our current Executive Director, Susan Marino, was our founder. She interacted with somebody who was on the committee that was getting started with the planning process and met them over in Lafayette Square Park, which is actually right across the street from what our school is now, so it’s a little bit of kismet there. Her daughter was two or three at the time, and they started talking. Again, this seems to happen here in St. Louis City where parents are having these conversations. She got really interested. She’s an educator herself and so joined the committee and because she is an educator, they asked her specifically to help them find their founding head of school. So, she participated in a bunch of interviews and they were really struggling to figure out who could take this on, because starting a school is very different than being a typical principal. You’re really having to be a builder, and that’s quite different than coming into an existing program. They weren’t finding anybody that they were particularly interested in. The committee asked Susan if she would consider applying. So, she ended up withdrawing from the committee and applied herself, and they did hire her. So, she was our founder and did the planning year in 2012.
I came on to LPA in 2014, right after we’d finished our first year of school, as our director of curriculum and instruction. I originally got connected with the school because two teachers that I had known from a previous employer were two of our founding teachers, and asked me to come visit and give them some coaching and some advice, and then hooked me, and said, “We have a job that you’d be great for. You should apply.” So ,I did, and here we are; it’s been five years.
Mike McShane: Well that’s really interesting and I think it’s a bit of a different story than we often hear with charter schools. It wasn’t an outside organization that came into St. Louis seeing the opportunity or underserved kids, it wasn’t necessarily a civic leader, so a mayor or a community leader, it was actually a really organic group of parents who got together. This is not something that you hear about every day. Could you tell me a little bit about your parent community that you have at the school?
Sarah Ranney: Our parents are very much a part of building LPA, and it is an organic process and it is really this idea of how do we work as a community to raise children? That whole thing of it takes a village to raise a child. It started with parents, and our parents are still very active and involved. They’re part of our decision makers, and with 300 students at this point, we have a wide range of opinions about what is best for kids. But I think because we engage with each other and we have these debates as a community that ultimately we’re able to do what’s best for kids.
One of the choices we make as a school is we don’t offer public transportation. That means that our parents are at our school twice a day. It also means that they are utilizing each other for carpools, and that type of community is formed in really respectful and organic ways because of some of the choices we’ve made as a school. Being able to see a child’s parent is really valuable, and so our parents are part of the decision makers in our school. I’ve never worked anywhere like it where there’s really this kind of partnership.
Mike McShane: When we think about the actual school and how it operates, or your typical school day, maybe from the perspective of a student, can you maybe talk through, if you have a kind of pedagogical philosophy, or what the school actually looks like from the user perspective?
Sarah Ranney: Sure. We utilize a project-based learning model and we also think about the education of the whole child. So, we think work hard and play hard, and being able to develop strong schema for kids and so giving them the information that they need. Kids memorizing multiplication facts ultimately allows you to access much more complicated math. We want to provide the opportunity for kids to do that because of what it opens up, but then we want to give kids the opportunity to really explore and understand what it is that they’re learning.
When we’re thinking about creating learning opportunities for kids, as a public school there are state standards. A kindergartner is going to need to learn these things, a second grader is going to need to learn these things, and so forth. But memorizing a bunch of facts is not going to stick with a kid, and so if kids in second grade are learning about the regions of the United States and they are understanding how [inaudible 00:07:12] form and how, in an ecosystem, the food chain works. So, giving them the base understanding of the system of the food chain, but then also allowing them the opportunity to see it in real life. Letting them go out to—we utilize a partnership with the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center—and so our kids will go there three times a year and see the food chain in action, in an environment that is replicating what the Midwest actually looks like, and then actually being able to design their own experiments with that.
One of the questions some of our parents asked are, “Do you have gardens and allow kids to plant food?” The food to table, the “planting to table” thing is something that a lot of schools are doing now. I always say, “Well, we do allow our kids to explore with it’s planting, etc., but they’re not necessarily going to eat what they grow,” because sometimes the kids have the question of, “Why do plants actually grow the way that they do?” And so first grade studies the plant cycle, and so some of our kids will plant things, but they think that they can get it to grow if they plant it in rocks and water with Kool-Aid instead. They actually engage in these kinds of experiments, and rather than being told, “Well actually, that probably isn’t going to work and here’s why,” we give them the information about this is how the plant cycle works, and then give them the time and space to be able to experiment with it. Kids are naturally creative, and you want to be able to allow them to have those opportunities to develop deep knowledge, but also provide them the skills that they need in terms of, “We’re going to memorize our multiplication facts because you’re going to be able to math a lot faster and a lot more complicated steps.”
Mike McShane: So, how do you measure success? How do you know what you’re doing is working?
Sarah Ranney: That’s actually something that we’re really struggling with as a community because there are so many ways to measure success. We looked at standardized tests, which is one piece. You think about a big bubble of what you’re looking at for kids’ success, and I think, really nationally, we have really struggled as a community—I always go back to community. As a country, we have struggle with how we are showing what kids are learning.
We have some internal things that we do in terms of observation and rubrics. We also developed, we call the LPA Way, so on our website we have them listed as the core competencies, so we have these goals for what we want kids to embody when they leave us. We want them to be leaders and teammates and artists; and how do we develop program that sets kids up to be these things? Our team has worked really hard to sort of develop this matrix where if we are seeing leadership in kindergarten, it might look like this in this setting, or this in this setting, and then really trying to have both internal and external people in to look for those things and see if we’re living up to our mission.
Mike McShane: A lot of people who listen to this podcast are interested in public policy. Obviously, operating as a public charter school, you have to intersect with the world of public policy perhaps more than some of our private schools do or some of the home schoolers that we’ve talked to. So, I would be interested to know your read on some of the public policies that oversee your school.
Are there policy barriers? Are there rules and regulations that get in the way of what you want to do? Are you able to kind of work easily with your authorizer? Are there things that you say like, “Man, if the state of Missouri could change one law, we would love for them to change ‘X?’”
Just your general look into public policy.
Sarah Ranney: My background is definitely not in public policy, but of course I interact with it as our school leader. I think the things that hinder our ability to operate in the way that we would want to, and I’ve worked for private schools as well, and some ways, it’s freeing to not have state and federal regulations mandating what kids should be learning, how and when, and be able to develop that as an educator yourself.
Though unfunded mandates, dyslexia screenings—this is one of the newest things that the state has required us to do, but then does not provide the financial resources with which to do it. So, a school my size, what it has taken in order to meet this particular policy is we have taken six staff members at the beginning of the year, and then three staff members two more times in the year to run through the requirements of what we’re being asked to do, to screen for dyslexia. It’s not that I’m opposed to screening for dyslexia. I think that it is important for us to do what we can to support students and to catch learning concerns early on, but it’s these policies that put burden on educators who are then doing that instead of doing other things, which then maybe if we were doing those other things, would have caught it to begin with.
We have a lot of issues in our state and in our country like that. The way we fund special education is just absolutely ridiculous and completely at the disservice of students.
Mike McShane: It’s fascinating that you bring that up, thinking of, as a fellow Missourian, I was reminded of this. I wrote a piece a couple of years ago when there was a big hub-bub in Jefferson City about passing a law that required saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day. I said, “Listen, I am all for the Pledge of Allegiance, big supporter, want to be very clear, I am in the supporters column of the Pledge of Allegiance.” But, what I wish more policy makers understood is that just because you pass a law that says kids need to say the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t mean that it just magically starts happening. What it does is it creates a process by which the State Department of Education has to verify that this is happening, and a reporting mechanism, and a checking mechanism—so all of the bureaucracy that gets created in all of these systems.
I think that the point that you raised is an important one, which is: no raindrop thinks that it’s responsible for the flood. In isolation, each and every one of these things is perfectly reasonable, we should do it. We have to remember that school days are a limited amount of time. School years are a limited amount of time. There are only so many adults in the building that are able to do things. I think that is a really important thing to explain to policy makers, that no one ever goes in and repeals things. No one ever rolls back the previous generation of requirements, so these things all start to build up on one another, and you all have to take a lot of time away from actually educating kids to comply with them, which I think is a very important point, and I’m glad that you shared that.
If you were to look back—go back to 2014 when you were just starting as the director of curriculum and instruction and think about your time at Lafayette Prep from then until now—if you could go back and give yourself some advice, what advice would you give yourself?
Sarah Ranney: I have listened to some of your podcasts and I felt like you were going to ask me this question.
Mike McShane: You knew it!
Sarah Ranney: I still am struggling with how many pieces of advice I would like to give myself five years ago and trying to narrow it down to just one piece. I think, though, that one of the most important pieces of development for myself and how I’ve grown as a leader was to start asking more questions. I am a fairly robust person, I’m not sure if it’s coming across in this particular interview, but I think it’s really important as a leader to share your ideas, but it’s also really important to let others share their ideas with you. If we ask the right question, it helps guide us to a whole new path that maybe you wouldn’t have gone down to begin with. I have learned that the hard way, and I wish I could go back to Sarah five years ago and be like, “Sarah, you just need to start asking questions. Ask more questions.”
Mike McShane: Well, that’s great advice. Perhaps we’ll close by, we just looked backwards, so now we’ll look forwards. So, what does the next year, five years, ten years hold for Lafayette Prep?
Sarah Ranney: This is actually a really exciting week to do this interview with you because our board just voted the week before last to expand our program—we were going to be a K– 8. And we have just voted to expand through high school. We are currently in the works of making that happen as of next year. So, July 1 taking on a 9th–12th grade program.
There’s actually a lot of growth and expansion for us that we’re really excited about, and of course a little nervous because it is new, and change is exciting, but also can be challenging. I’m looking forward to seeing what that holds, both as an educator and a parent—my son is a second grader at our school. I love the idea of thinking about what this means for our city and what it means for all of our students.
Mike McShane: Well, thank you so much for taking the time. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, Sarah Ranney of Lafayette Prep. Thanks for coming on the Cool School’s podcast.
Sarah Ranney: Thanks so much for having me, it was really great to connect with you.
Mike McShane: Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. Again, looking at Lafayette Prep as this kind of parent-centric, really working with parents ; I don’t envy Sarah and her team—empowering parents with voice and with choice can sometimes be a headache for educators, I imagine, as when you ask people for their opinions, that tend to give them to you. But I really appreciate that they put in the time, and the effort, and have the what must be difficult conversations at times to make sure that the school’s reflect parent preferences. Really interesting conversation, I hope you all took away as much from it as I did.
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That’s all from us today, but I look forward to chatting with you all again when I sit down with another talented educator and talk about their cool school.