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At Sturgis, buildings don't make schools, people do

"IB for all" creates culture of high academic performance plus high market demand


Peter Steedman, associate director for the new Sturgis West Campus, stands on the stairs of the former Artifacts furniture store building on Main Street Hyannis, while students change classes. The building houses the school while its permanent campus is under construction. Photo by Teresa Martin.

by Teresa Martin

Ninth and tenth graders spill into the halls, yank open their temporary lockers, cluster into clumps and then spread out again, a flowing stream of underclassmen molecules in downtown Hyannis.

So what if the halls look bit dingy, the lights tint the space with a yellowish fluorescence, and the well-worn carpets and break room ambience of the former Artifacts furniture store serve as decor?

Eric Hieser (r), executive director of the Sturgis Charter Public School, and Peter Steedman (l), associate director of Sturgis West Campus, chat in West's temporary home, a former furniture store in Hyannis. Photo by Teresa Martin.As Sturgis Charter Public School Executive Director Eric Hieser likes to say "buildings don't makes schools; people do."

The IB happened

Just six years ago, in 2005, the Sturgis Charter Public School on Main Street in Hyannis, enrolled a mere 325 high school students, with unfilled space for more.

Then, the IB happened.

Today there are two campuses, a long waiting list, and this week the school broke ground on a new permanent building off West Main St.

Global standards

IB stands for the International Baccalaureate program. By committing to become an IB school, Sturgis joined more than 3,000 schools worldwide who teach an arduous course of study, culminating in six written and oral exams graded by globally set standards and an IB examining board.

Sturgis students can choose to work toward both a high school diploma and an IB diploma. They must also perform community service.

The curriculum teaches student to be critical learners, analytic thinkers, and compassionate humanitarians. It focuses on six core areas: Two languages, experimental sciences, mathematics and computer science, individuals and societies, and arts.  The courses demand hard work and prepare students for academic success in college.

Too much for the average kid?

Turns out a lot of students crave the high bar set for them - more than anyone expected. By last spring, a full capacity student body of 400 students plus a waiting list of 430 more had voted for the IB with their feet.

School leaders had been watching the wait list grow every year and in September launched "Sturgis West," a completely separate campus housed in the just-vacated Artifacts building.

Despite the sparse building amenities, a full freshman and sophomore class opted for the tatty building with the demanding academics over swimming pools and playing fields.

This week, the school broke ground for a new modular building on West Main in Hyannis that will open for the 2012-2013 school year. The new building will be basic, said Hieser, with its financial energy put toward what happens inside.

IB for all

What happens inside is learning based on the "new 3-Rs": rigor, relationships, and relevance.  Everyone takes rigorous classes, the connections among the school community support that effort, and learning by its nature is shown to be relevant to the broader world.

Many IB schools are private institutions with a selective application process, but Sturgis took a different route to its 3-Rs.

As a public charter school, students get in by lottery. They all take the IB program, they are expected to succeed, and the school believes they all can and will.

IB for all, the school calls it.

Expectations and support

We support kids of all abilities doing rigorous work," said Hieser. "Everyone prepares, everyone works together," he said. 

Relationships - between students, within faculty, and between faculty and students, support the rigor of the classroom. 

"Recruiting is the most important thing I do," Hieser said. "Beyond subject knowledge, we hire for a passion to create passion in kids, and an ability to connect with kids,"

Showing the relevance in learning forms the third leg, in which students study the theory of knowledge. Through this lens everything becomes fodder for the new critical thinking skills students develop and learning become relevant to the world at large.

Back in furniture land

Back in Sturgis West, those three Rs are evident.

The classrooms - some resembling the former retail break rooms they once were - hum with Socratic questioning and in-depth discussions.  In one space two students meet with a teacher during his "free" period for extra tutoring.

Between classes, kids interact widely - not clinging to tight cliques - while teachers and students trade friendly comments and reminders. 

Here, in a well-worn retail space, it become clear that people really do make the schools. And no one even notices the tilt of the old temporary lockers or the worn spots on the floors.

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