Small and ‘Democratic:’ Springfield’s U.School Partners with Community to Advance Creative Learning

Oct 2, 2017

Inside a leased-out space on West McDaniel St., typical of any retail outlet or office, are 40 students in grades 6-12. There’s no reception desk, no security guard and no ringing school bell. They’re spread out, with some drawing, others reading, one is uploading a post to her personal blog, and toward the back you can hear a group cheering their victory at the board game “Cube Quest.”

This is u.school; a small, private and self-declared “democratic” learning environment that started in August 2016. Its open concept facility is dripping with creativity. One section includes a colorful art decorating space. Artwork hanging in the front room provides inspiration, while scattered bare space invites more. Plenty of natural light shines through the school’s floor to ceiling windows which, combined with its comfortable furniture, encourages collaboration.

Four adults are present, but not necessarily to teach as much as they are to guide the students.

Pat Misterovich is one of u.school’s founders. He said the students vote every week at a meeting called “Communitas,” on items from the school’s budget to everyday rules — and even hold each other accountable for wrongdoing.

“You know, we’ve seen progress in those who have walked in the door,” Misterovich said. “(They would say) ‘what are you teaching us today?’ Where now they come (in) and say ‘Hey, here’s what I want to do.’”

This democratic philosophy of the faculty furthers their mission of “self-directed learning.” At u.school, daily activities are determined by what the students feel they need to learn. That could include core subjects like math, English, science, or less traditional concepts.

The founders — Misterovich, Sandy Frye and Laura Stroup — all worked at local Springfield schools, but were frustrated by what they felt was a lack of flexibility in the classroom.

A u.school student independently works during "Math Hour."
Credit Ryan Welch / KSMU

Misterovich said the students at first struggled with the autonomous environment, but they soon learned to manage their time.

“If you wanted to spend your time doing one thing, that’s fine — you can do that,” he said. “At a certain point, when you realize what your long-term goals are, you might say ‘well, I should probably do X, Y or Z.’”

Mya Washam, 15, who’s been attending u.school since it opened last fall, calls her experience rewarding.

“I think (u.school) is really challenging for me, but it’s really fun at the same time,” Washam said. “In a way it’s a lot more difficult than normal school, because I’ve had to learn how to be responsible for my education. If I wanted to, I could just sit here all day, but I know that I have to get stuff done so I can go to college and accomplish everything I want.”

Washam explained she loves art, and wants to be a graphic designer. She said to gain this skill she’s been working for community members, designing flyers for a CrossFit fundraiser and for a local band’s gig. She also holds a drawing class for her peers.

“We have our weekly meetings and I get to tell everyone what’s on my mind, or if I have an idea,” she said. “Everyone comes and listens to it and we vote on it, and we discuss it. I never feel like I don’t have a voice (or) I don’t have a say in anything that’s happening.”

Joshua Morrissey, 17, spoke on his passion for foreign literature and writing. He enjoys separating his day into studying his interests in the morning and studying core subjects, like math and science, in the afternoon.

“(My teachers) don’t really limit how I spend my time,” Josh said. “I usually spend two or three hours in the morning reading and writing and they only restrict me to doing any other subjects I don’t want to (in the afternoon.) I usually spend the afternoon doing math, and other basic classes I know I have to take, but I don’t necessarily enjoy as much. So it gives me a lot of flexibility throughout the day.”

The school is also a part of Springfield’s First Friday Art Walk, during which the public can view some of the students’ projects.

Misterovch shared, “We had a student do an art project where people wrote their shame on a piece of paper and then burned (those) into ash,” he said. “(Now) he is going to take the ashes and make an art project with the ashes. He came up with the idea and they’re supposed to walk through the door and it’s like a confessional.”

The students, by the time they graduate, are expected to have compiled a complete portfolio, with proof of what they’ve learned. In addition, students will walk out with a transcript that summarizes that portfolio.

“Our graduates won’t have a GPA, because we don’t do grades,” Misterovich said. “They won’t have credits in any traditional way, so that’s kind of tricky.”

A graduation committee of faculty and students, however, write the transcripts that become executive summaries of the portfolios, he said.

Ellie Morrissey, u.school student, independently works on her drawing skills.
Credit Ryan Welch / KSMU

But how effective is a portfolio when requesting admittance to a university? Misterovich said he’s been researching that.

“I always talk to college counselors — admissions people — and say, ‘What do you think?’” he said. “(They say) ‘Great. We really enjoy (the portfolio) because we always just look at GPA and the transcript and we never get this fuller picture.”

KSMU reached out to enrollment officials at several southwest Missouri colleges and universities asking how they evaluate students from nontraditional high schools such as u.school. Our requests were either declined or messages left seeking comment were not returned.

Misterovich said if the demand grows for u.school they would encourage the community to open another small, democratic branch. They plan to keep the number of students at its current location around 40 to maintain a small and collaborative environment.

What u.school is looking to expand is its partnerships with local business, which have enabled students like Mya Washam to put their studies into practice. Other students have been hired for internships, used downtown green space for physical education and local art studios for lessons. The Moxie Cinema has even shown a student-produced film from u.school.

With these partnerships, u.school students are using the city as their classroom.