Mehlville’s new school of innovation, Mosaic, opens to students this week

School to empower students to take ownership of learning

Mosaic Elementary, the Mehlville School District's new school of innovation, opens its doors to pupils Wednesday.

Mosaic Elementary, the Mehlville School District’s new school of innovation, opens its doors to pupils Wednesday.

By Gloria Lloyd

The first day back to school always marks a new beginning and a new start for every school and student, but this year is a unique one in the history of the Mehlville School District as the district opens the St. Louis region’s first school of innovation.

The 250 K-4 students stepping through the doors of Mosaic Elementary, 3701 Will Ave., for the first day of school Wednesday — after the Call went to press – will find a cutting-edge school in one of the district’s oldest buildings, the former St. John’s Elementary that originally opened in 1922.

The students at Mosaic, Mehlville’s 11th elementary school, were chosen from every other district school by lottery.

The school will focus on personalized and project-based learning, with students learning at their own pace and path and designing their own education by following their passions rather than a series of lessons dictated by a textbook.

Every student will have a laptop and much of the learning will take place digitally. But it is the style and philosophical mindset of the teaching, rather than the technology, that sets apart the learning happening at Mosaic from that of more traditional desks-in-rows classrooms.

Students at the school will learn the same curriculum as every other Mehlville school, Superintendent Chris Gaines said.

“The thing that’s unique is the instructional model, and we’re just making that instructional model work in the space that we have,” Gaines said. “You still have the same standards, it’s just that the delivery method is different.”

Parents and the public were set to get their first look at the school’s grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday night — after the Call went to press.

“I think there’s this overwhelming excitement to be a part of something new and different that parents think is going to be a better fit for their kid,” Gaines said.

Principal Scott Clark, who previously served as principal of Forder Elementary, has been working with the school’s teachers for more than a year to plan for the moment when the students pour in.

“It’s shifting from teaching to learning, and it is empowering students to take ownership of their learning,” Clark said. “Based off of what they love, but also delivered at a pace that is appropriate for them. If the student needs more time to learn and understand a concept, they have it. If a student has grasped the concept and wants to move on, they can.

“It’s very personalized in that sense — you still have the content standards, but you are allowing the child to have a voice and say, ‘I want to discover more about this.’… That feels and looks different than what most classrooms look like. You go into most classrooms, the content is delivered by the teacher, and the student is expected to learn it.”

Similar schools and initiatives are cropping up all over the country, but Mosaic is only the fourth such school in Missouri, following EPiC Elementary and Lewis and Clark Elementary in the Liberty School District and Fremont Elementary in Springfield Public Schools.

Mosaic was called the Choice School of Innovation for more than a year before its name was unveiled in February. The moniker stands for “Mehlville Oakville Students Achieve Inspire Create” and was the brainchild of an Oakville Elementary teacher who entered a naming contest.

Rather than only focusing on science or mathematics, the school takes an innovative approach to teaching all subjects, including music and physical education.

Clark believes the style of learning will spread throughout the country, and he’s already seen it spread in Mehlville since the Board of Education signed on to Mosaic in January.

“If we keep using traditional approaches, we’ll be outsourced by Google in no time,” he said.

The Mosaic building most recently housed the district’s alternative academy for suspended students, SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education. That program is moving across the street to the Witzel Learning Center.

But before that, it was an elementary school, albeit a much more primitive one: A Mosaic student’s grandfather attended St. John’s from 1930 to 1938, when the cafeteria still had a dirt floor.

Gaines warned in advance of the grand opening that only so much could be done to modernize the nearly 100-year-old St. John’s building. But the large, bright classrooms in one of the oldest school buildings in south county at Mosaic are strikingly similar to the brand-new ones at the newest school in south county, the nearly $22 million Dressel Elementary in Lindbergh Schools, at a fraction of the cost.

Mehlville spent roughly $450,000 in one-time startup costs on Mosaic, most of it going to rehab the kitchen to make it possible to feed hundreds of children each day.

“You can build a brand new building and have a very traditional approach,” Gaines said. “We’re taking an old building and putting a new function in it. We had to make what tweaks we could on a relatively small budget to make that work.”

And even with the largest or best facility, “That’s not going to move student achievement,” Clark said. “It’s all about teaching practices.”

Furniture was mostly wrangled from other schools in the district, since the new school is siphoning students from every other school. The new furniture budget can be measured in the low thousands of dollars.

But the flexible seating and tables in the classrooms mirror those at Dressel, down to the whiteboard tables and yoga ball seats.

Clark, a former art teacher who shows his paintings at art fairs, collaborated with Mehlville’s facilities team to knock down walls, convert old lockers in rooms to wooden cubbies and cabinets and paint walls to bring life to the drab classrooms, some of which sat empty for decades before Mosaic moved in. The playground was erected in four hours by a group of 25 parent volunteers.

Gone are desks for students and even teachers. Teachers won’t sit apart from students while students do work, but move around helping children as they learn.

“We’re not stationary, we’re moving,” Clark said. “Moving and shaking.”

The school has two classes at each grade level, but walls between most of those classes are knocked out so that two teachers will teach a combined 50 students in two classrooms. The colorful classrooms themselves are large, open and filled with a surprising amount of natural light, including skylights lining one hallway.

But at Mosaic, even classrooms are not called classrooms anymore. Students will “go to studio” rather than go to class, Clark said: Studio K for kindergarten, Studio 1 for first grade and on up, with the library called Studio E for Exploration.