Mehlville panel eyes financial impact if district opens school of innovation

Theme of innovation school ‘Mission: Possible,’ Clark says

By Gloria Lloyd

The Mehlville Finance Committee is investigating the long-term financial impact if the Mehlville School District opens a school of innovation next year.

If it opens for the 2017-2018 school year, the lottery-based Choice School of Innovation, or CSOI, would be one of only a handful of schools of innovation in the country, one of a few in Missouri and the first in the St. Louis region.

Opening the school could make Mehlville a destination district, officials say. Instead of the “heads down and desks in rows” of traditional schools, children who enroll in the school will focus on personalized and problem-based learning.

If given final approval by the Board of Education in January, the school could open for K-4 for the 2017-2018 school year. Its principal would be Forder Elementary Principal Scott Clark, who has been planning the school this year while also running Forder.

In a recent presentation to the board, Clark outlined the educational steps he and the eight teachers he’s selected to staff the new school have taken to solve a challenge from Superintendent Chris Gaines: Design a school “more engaging, more exciting, more relevant.”

The new school’s theme is “Mission: Possible,” Clark said.

“This is the education that I wish I would have had,” he told the board.

To illustrate the possibilities, the district created a video on the innovation-inspired ideas Mehlville teachers are already bringing to their classrooms. Students in the fourth-grade classroom of Wohlwend Ele-mentary teacher Sarah Bradley worked on “novel engineering” — project-based learning to solve a problem from a book.

After reading “Room on the Broom,” in which a witch’s broomstick breaks, the students designed blueprints and then models of brooms that would hold up.

“Think big, and you can think out of the box and you can think out of the world,” art teacher Amy George said.

As Director of Communications and Public Relations John Wolff filmed, he asked, “The teacher’s not telling you what to do, how’s that?”

A girl replied, “Because you just get to make your ideas and make it your own.”

One boy said he preferred the project to the book itself.

“Me personally, I do not like reading, and in engineering you get to build stuff and tape stuff and just have fun,” he said.

Problem-based learning is for all ages, as shown by the Rogers Elementary kindergarteners of Lisa Meyers, a teacher tapped for CSOI. The class — including the daughter of board President Samantha Stormer — built, tested and evaluated catapults made out of plastic spoons, paper and pencils.

Parents tell Meyers that when her students first get off the bus, they’re bursting with excitement about the school day: “We’re building catapults tomorrow!”

The sixth-grade science students in Buerkle Middle School teacher Sarah Weedman’s class showed off their inventions designed to help someone in the future.

“It reaches all the disciplines, it reaches all the learning styles,” she said of problem-based learning. “I did not see one child who was not engaged.”

But although the entire board appears in favor of the new school, the cost could be a hurdle. A year ago, voters approved 49-cent Proposition R without any mention that the district might take on the opening of a new school. Some residents fear those funds will be used for the new school.

But that is not the case, officials say.

The final presentation before January was two-pronged, with Clark focusing on the possibilities and Deputy Superintendent Brian Lane driving home the realities.

“Now Dad’s got to come in and talk about the cost — the fun part,” Lane joked after Clark’s presentation.

The location is the driving factor in the cost. Gaines’ plan to open it in the former St. John’s Elementary across Lemay Ferry Road from Mehlville High School could cost as little as $570,000, but the board is considering renting or buying a building instead, which could escalate the cost by millions of dollars.

Although Gaines originally estimated that the school could open at a one-time startup cost of $500,000, using existing teachers, facilities and administrators, that estimate was downgraded to $220,000 based on lower-cost laptops. The board gave the go-ahead to a $350,000 kitchen, $32,000 more than shuttling food from another school.

Money for the kitchen will come from the food service fund, which is self-funded with a healthy surplus, Lane noted.

The rental plan, at a minimum $100,000 a year, is being considered after MHS parents objected to moving the school for students on extended suspensions, SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education — from St. John’s to the Witzel Learning Center on the MHS campus.

Also impacting the cost is whether the district can cut or shuffle teachers to make up for the 12 positions that would staff the CSOI. In a worst-case cost scenario in which no other positions are cut, the school would cost $600,000 to staff its first year and $700,000 after it adds fifth grade its second year.

The decisive factor in whether other positions can be cut will come when the board decides next month whether to change block scheduling at the high schools. A committee is currently debating how to change the schedule.

Board members react

Board members’ reaction on the costs and SCOPE move was mixed, with only a few agreeing on how to proceed. They all agreed they would like to tour SCOPE and Witzel, and Kevin Schartner suggested inviting the public along.

Although Jamey Murphy said he loves the idea of the school and its potential to change the way education is done, he estimated that the startup costs could now be closer to $1 million, double initial projections.

“Shouldn’t we even see if this is something the district can afford?” he asked.

Schartner suggested taking the idea to the Finance Committee, which met on the issue for the first time last week. Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher will work on a list of CSOI costs so the committee can weigh in on the long-term impact when it next meets.

“This is something transformational to the district,” Schartner said, but the long-term effects have to be explored.

As far as keeping SCOPE at St. John’s or moving it to Witzel, Murphy said he didn’t like any of the options.

“I don’t know how to make this work,” Murphy said.

Lisa Dorsey hoped to learn more about SCOPE and its operations before answering the location question.

Venki Palamand said he preferred to rent space for SCOPE while assessing the long-term viability of the aging Witzel, while Larry Felton preferred to buy.

“This is the confluence of strategy and tactics,” Felton said. “We have to know about the costs … but I haven’t heard anything so far that I’d say no to yet.”

Stormer and Jean Pretto favored moving SCOPE to Witzel.

“These are our kids anyway,” Stormer noted.