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2012 CVAs: The Project School 

click to enlarge Project School student Izzy Spriggs works on a vertical garden at the school. - REBECCA TOWNSEND
  • Project School student Izzy Spriggs works on a vertical garden at the school.
  • Rebecca Townsend

The Project School is a beacon of social justice operating along the Monon on 22nd Street.

Rather than pressuring the students to conform to a standardized, generic definition of success, The Project School offers a holistic vision of education committed to developing "heart, mind and voice." Labels associated with special education, poverty and test-score percentiles fade away as students experience membership in a community that celebrates diversity.

"I love it!" said Izzy Spriggs, 13, as she painted a hanging herb garden made from reclaimed plastic bottles in the school's front entry courtyard. Her mom's job moves her frequently, so Spriggs has attended a lot of schools during her educational career — mostly in Ohio — none like The Project School. Where other schools confined her learning to endless reams of paper, TPS, by contrast, offers three-dimensional education, the opportunity to work with her hands, to incorporate art, to do projects.

Spriggs was in an afternoon "passion" class focused on construction. Inside, other "passions" in which kids were engaged included computer programming, yearbook design, book making and one-on-one math work. Outside on the playground the chickens appeared nonplussed, but their arrival weeks ago inspired a community wide conversation ranging from food to the reproductive system.

Far removed from the neutral tones of sterile bureaucracy, the reclaimed National Motor Vehicle Co. factory offers a vibrant space designed to nurture creative thinking and problem solving. Traditional metrics, which would judge the school on its average test scores (among the lowest in the city), fail to do the school justice. In fact, the concept of linking test scores to "failure" is anathema to The Project School's goal to "to eliminate the predictive value of race, class, gender and special capacities on student success."

Rather than focus on test scores, school leaders emphasize the message that everyone can be successful in learning. This means providing a welcoming and encouraging environment to students like the fourth grader who has attended nine schools or the eighth grader who has attended 12 schools and been retained three times.

For many families sending their kids to The Project School, such acceptance is at first inconceivable.

When teachers call new families to discuss the challenges a student may be encountering, they often encounter suspicion that the call is a precursor to rejection, a judgment that the child is just "not a good fit," said School Leader Tarrey Banks.

He recounted a call in which a mother once told him that usually, by the point in the semester, most schools had "washed their hands" of her son. But no — in the four year's of the program's existence, the school reports that only one student has been expelled. Instead they are plugged into the school's community and charged with helping to make their world a better place.

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