From the outside in
Eminence innovations more than surface-deep
October - 2011


By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff Writer

Elementary-grade students at Eminence School don’t have to leave the building to walk down Main Street.

The elementary hallways have undergone a unique renovation modeled after a real town, complete with tree-lined streets, a park and storefronts. Much of the “town” is in the form of realistic and detailed hallway murals. Each teacher has a different storefront – pet shop, flower shop, restaurant – with an awning over the door, painted-on windows and actual wood siding and shutters on the walls.

“It’s amazing. It’s more homey for the kids,” said Eminence High School senior Alexis Lentini, an elementary mentor whose little brother, she added, “absolutely loves it.”

PHOTO: Abigail Philpot looks up at the lamppost that pointsthe way down “Main Street” – an elementary hallway atEminence Elementary School designed to resemblea city street.

The project architect, Studio Kremer, Inc., turned to the same firm that created the Great Wolf Lodge in Cincinnati and worked on exhibits for the Louisville Zoo for the hallway design.

The board signed off on the plans, but Chairwoman Brenda Chism said she was still surprised when it was unveiled to the public during an open house.

“We knew what was coming but I was so shocked at how great it turned out – all the little details I would not have thought about,” she said. “I think the students felt they were coming into a new atmosphere – they were excited to be a part of it.”

Chism wasn’t the only person who was excited. The open house drew a crowd of 825 residents of the small town to view the changes.

“It was 25 minutes of shoulder-to-shoulder people,” Superintendent Buddy Berry said.

The $280,000 overhaul of the building began last year with work on the hallways, renovation of common spaces and upgrade of rest rooms, along with paint, new flooring, sound system and energy-efficient lighting for the gym. The latter, done with the help of the local school energy manager, will pay for itself within months. And while Berry said the novel hallways cost 25-30 percent more than routine renovation would have cost, the district saved an estimated 30 percent on the overall project by acting as its own general contractor and doing some of the work in-house.

The prior year, the building, parts of which date back to the 1930s, got a new roof, new windows and new HVAC system. The cafeteria is up next.

Symbolic

What the district calls Innovation Renovation goes deeper than building improvements.

“To renovate the building was one thing – it looks fantastic, but that really doesn’t mean anything if the instruction on the inside of it isn’t just as special as the outside,” Berry said. “I feel like the hall kind of summarizes and captures what we’re doing in the classroom.”

The elementary school has seen a 14 percent enrollment gain – and that was before the public saw the physical renovations, Berry pointed out.

“I think the growth was from the renovation inside the classroom,” he said. “That would not have happened without our board. Different is hard to do, and what we did there is very, very different.”

The instructional changes began several years ago, became focused last year and are continuing this year. A similar plan is in the works for the high school and middle school.

The district hired an instructional supervisor with federal edujobs money. Teachers were trained systematically, in-house, last year and during this summer. “We really tried to change the mindset and how we taught. How to teach rather than what is the focus,” Berry said.

Kindergarten teacher Jennifer McMillan said she doesn’t view the changes as radical. “They put a vocabulary term to what we had always been doing,” she said.

Principal Michael Doran said teachers were stakeholders in all the changes, so “There was zero resistance to anything.”

The 280-student preschool through fourth grade school uses a three-pronged approach to its instructional innovations:

• Mindset of Mastery, which encompasses standards-based grading, flexible grouping of skills regardless of grades, interventions and enrichment, and student data tracking.

• College and career readiness, including certificates of mastery and panel reviews for promotion, in which fourth graders (along with sixth, eighth and 12th graders) make their case for why they should be promoted. The mastery certificates also require community service, good behavior and attendance.

• Surprise and delight – borrowed from an Apple Inc. byword – is defined by student engagement, customer service, room parent program, after-school enrichment and random acts of “surprise and delight.”

The district as a whole also has a push for what Berry called the X-Factor, aimed at creating experiences for students to be successful in college and careers, he said.

The school board itself is part of the innovations, beyond the approval process. It has begun using KSBA’s Advancing Student Achievement to Proficiency program and improved communication with the administration, school councils and the community.

At their meetings, board members watch three-minute videos showcasing Eminence teachers using instructional practices that they paid for or approved.

“The board has taken so much ownership because they’re seeing what they paid for,” Berry said.

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