Learning by Heart: Developing Student Agency at Springfield Renaissance School

by Kathleen Cushman ____


In a city where 40 percent of children live in poverty, Springfield Renaissance School in Springfiled, MA, a magnet middle and high school, sets a high bar: college acceptance acceptance for everyone.

Last June's graduating class, the first in the school's six-year history, hit the mark: one hundred percent acceptance.


SPRINGFIELD, MA—It was one of those days at Springfield Renaissance School when everyone was either crying or laughing. People were pouring through the halls, streaming into the big auditorium Renaissance shares with another district school housed in this sprawling 1990s brick building. It was May 16, the annual Senior Decision Day, and every single twelfth-grade student was about to stand up before this assembly to announce a postgraduate plan: to each other, to their fellow students in grades 6 through 12, and to the teachers and families whose beaming faces lit the darkened hall.

Seniors could wear whatever they liked on this day. But so many students in the audience wore brightly colored college sweatshirts that you wouldn’t have known they were also in school uniform, a typical khaki-white-red-black combination that any student may vary by choosing apparel bearing a college’s name. Some parents also had on college t-shirts, in a city where one out of five families—and 40 percent of children—live in poverty. This school has explicitly committed to change those numbers. Its expectation is “college acceptance for every graduate,” said principal Steven Mahoney, who founded Renaissance in 2006 as a district magnet school, part of the national Expeditionary Learning network of schools.

Springfield is a good place for optimists like Mahoney. Within fifteen miles of this high school lie 25 universities and colleges. Despite a stagnant unemployment rate of over 10 percent, its high-tech, medical, and business communities make Springfield the economic center of Western Massachusetts. Though its reputation for crime rose dramatically in the past two decades, violence is now declining in a city made famous by its manufacture of guns. Fame and history generate pride in other areas as well: everyone knows that this is Hoop City, where basketball was invented.

For John, an eleventh grader in the audience on this Decision Day, basketball was everything. Everything else about school was difficult for him, he said. The English he spoke in Africa before his family immigrated here did him little good in fast-talking American classrooms and hallways. “If I don’t play a sport,” John said, “I feel like I’m not part of the world.”

Group after group were now coming up to the stage in turn, introduced by the teachers who had seen them through years of “crew,” an Expeditionary Learning advisory structure. Most of this senior class entered as sixth graders in 2006, when the school opened with two grades, sixth and ninth; after seven years immersed in this school’s approach to learning, they were regarded by many as a proof point.

Emotions ran high as each student took the mic to share their plans: community college, technical colleges, state colleges and universities, the military, the Seven Sisters, the Ivy League. “We all know the hard part is yet to come,” teacher-advisor Hilary Ducharme reminded the seniors.

Watching in the audience, John knew what it was like to be pulled up by the collar to hear “the reality of things.” His Renaissance classmates and teachers—steeped in their community commitments and habits of work—had brought him into a posse and helped him find his path. One year after transferring to Renaissance from a larger high school in the city where he was failing, “I feel like I belong in this school,” John said. “Everything is a lot different now.”

On this Decision Day, John had arrived at a clear sense that he would be among the seniors on the stage next year, announcing his college plans. On his crew's exploratory trip to colleges earlier in the year, he had set his sights on the University of Connecticut because of its top basketball team. He was working hard to raise his grades; if not accepted at UConn, he intended to build them up at a community college and apply again. If that didn't work out, he envisioned a career in sports training, or management, or media. “Something cool I could concern my life with,” he said. His voice registered the confidence of someone who knew that he could learn.

A path of development and discovery

As its student achievement profile confirms, Springfield Renaissance School largely functions as a well-oiled system of working parts. Its structures follow the Expeditionary Learning pattern: a 6–12 grade span, a curriculum of connection, advisement in “crew,” continuous formative assessments, schoolwide rituals of reflection, and the exhibition of student work before authentic audiences. Its other practices also give evidence of its core values: building strong youth-adult relationships, providing timely counseling, setting clear behavioral norms and consequences, bringing families into the school in important ways, and supporting student service to the community. Despite the familiar challenges of a district school—budget cuts, teacher time, and the like—the gears seem to be turning in this school’s system.

With a very diverse enrollment, Renaissance has thus far steadily met its paramount goal: that every student gain acceptance to college. When students here talk about their school experiences, however, they reveal more (and subtler) effects of those “working parts.” Somewhere in the journey from sixth grade to high school graduation, students here are taking ownership of their learning. In a developmental process that research calls crucial to their later lives, they are learning to find their own voice, consider their own values, make their own choices, chart their own course. Student after student contributed to that picture of how social and emotional factors supported their academic success, and glimpses of classroom practice at Renaissance bore their stories out.

A sense of belonging

“I’m not from what you would call maybe the best neighborhood,” Jason said at 14, adding that he often chooses to stick around at the end of the day rather than get on the bus home. The mutual trust built up in his crew advisory group gave him a safe base of belonging from which he soon began to branch out. “There’s people here that they’re easy to talk to,” he said. “It’s not like a setting where you have to limit yourself.”

Luis, 16, recalled what it was like for him as a new sixth grader and an English language learner. In his previous school, he had adopted a “protective mode,” and when he arrived at Renaissance, “I did not even know how to introduce myself.” Using team-building games and other activities, he said, his new school taught him “how to do this friendship bond thing.” Now Luis makes a point of talking to new students and helping them out. “Here is more of a safe environment, and you feel like you’re at home more,” he said. “I can walk around and it don’t matter who’s around me.”

Working on the yearbook in ninth grade, Adrianna and a friend gathered evidence of student and teacher life both in and out of school: sports, field trips, baby pictures, traditions, the multivarious elements that created community from a very diverse group. “The yearbook, it just brings everyone together,” Adrianna said. “It symbolizes the school as one.”

Describing their interdependency in such ways, these young people reveal the crucial sense of belonging that a large body of research establishes as a key social and emotional foundation for learning. The attachments they describe are fertilizing the soil for their developing sense of identity, competence, autonomy, and agency.

Finding a voice

Bridget Camara teaches the drama course that all Renaissance students take for a semester in grades 9, 10, and 12. (Eleventh graders must take a semester of health instead.) Its chief point, she said, is not to learn to act but rather “to find your voice.” Starting with scenes from their own lives, Ms. Camara aims to help even the most introverted of youth “at least get up there and say something,” she said. For the extroverts, “it’s about trying to learn to listen to other people and try to have some self-control,” she noted.

Steven wished he had even more opportunities for creative expression in his tenth-grade academic classes. Still, he had recently brought his passion for hip hop into an English class writing assignment called “I Am.” It took him five hours to write those one hundred lines, he said. “There’s a lot of things that people don’t know about me from school—even though they have been with me since sixth grade—that I’d like them to finally realize who I really am. So I took the time to, you know, make a big plot. Like, “This is who I am. This is what I want people to know about me.”

Griffin, an eighth grader, had also started to experiment with possible selves. “Some students feel very comfortable talking about their real self,” he said. “But students like me, I put on a very different mask when I’m at school.” Though others may consider him happy and outgoing, he declared, “I’m not like that, other places. I’m very quiet. I’m reserved, and I don’t, I don’t like to stand out.” In Griffin’s view, his school “gives you a place to not be something you’re not, but to be something better than you are . . . without being fake, essentially.” During a “Spirit Week” the previous year, he tried dressing for school completely in orange. “I won Spirit King that week,” he said with satisfaction.

Pushing past fear

Many other students spoke of pivotal school experiences that supported their search for identity. To a striking extent, these situations had also persuaded them that their own effort, not talent, was increasing their ability and competence.

By the end of tenth grade, for example, Luis saw himself as someone who could “take on challenges that not everyone will take.” He said, “Courage means to confront your fears . . . [to] still keep it going even though it’s hard. And that’s what I’m basically known for here at my school.” Despite his apprehension about sports, Luis had tried out for the swim team to fulfill the physical challenge requirement for his Passage Portfolio. Success at that gave him the confidence to try baseball later in the year. “I can look at myself in the mirror now,” he said with satisfaction, “and definitely say who am I as a person.”

When her crew advisory planned a class meeting for the whole ninth grade, Adrianna also felt her courage tested. “It’s hard for me to get up on stage and talk to a group of 100 students, because it’s something that I never did before,” she said. But she felt that “I need to take part in this. I need to make sure this goes well with my crew. I was kind of like one of the main people planning. . . . I need to work hard on it.”

As she approached high school graduation, Brandi too reflected on her development from a hesitant sixth grader into a leader. “Going through seventh and eighth grade, I was still trying to come out of my shyness,” she said. Then the school’s annual Outward Bound wilderness expedition for rising ninth graders challenged her to try a different role (“like leading my group through the forest at one o’clock in the morning, just to get to our next campsite”). Brandi considers that experience one of the hardest in her life. She also believes it made her stronger. “I kinda call my transformation from sixth to twelfth grade like a butterfly kind of like coming out of its cocoon,” she said. “Like getting ready to fly and going on to college and having to spread my wings there.”

Reaching toward success

Advancing from the middle grades through high school, Renaissance students have steady support in coping with their emotions and regulating their actions. They gain ever more practice in monitoring their own learning processes: setting individual goals, evaluating their own progress, posing problems and designing ways to solve them. They exert more autonomy, making choices for themselves about what to reach for next. As they grow to believe that success is possible and within their control, they are developing the sense of agency that leads to a productive and satisfying life.

In eighth grade, Ajeya aspired to be a coroner like those she saw on “L.A. Law.” She pushed herself to do better in science classes, where she had often struggled. “I feel like I’m getting better as I study more and I do more work or I ask peers for help,” she said. “I wanna push myself to be better.” In a seventh-grade crew session on looking ahead to college, she discovered that New York University offered “a really big forensic science major, where coroners would come in, too.” Now she has put NYU on her dream list of colleges, and is also researching other institutions with forensics programs.

“We do put a lot of emphasis on planning here,” her classmate Griffin commented. His teachers “never let us just jump into work,” he said. “It’s always, ‘You need to plan out what steps you’re going to do. Make sure you have what you need to do to fill out those steps. And then complete the steps.’” After his science class studied the engineering design process, teachers of other subjects also adopted it—“because it fits!” Griffin explained. “Finding out the question, finding out possible solutions, doing the possible solutions, picking out the best one. And then redoing the process again to find the best answer until you find the best answer.”

Growing into something bigger

In their descriptions of school, all these students offer important evidence that social and emotional learning both informs and supports their academic learning at Springfield Renaissance School. Not just the design of the school but the everyday decisions and actions of its staff situate students at the center, and in doing so they illustrate the theory of action that underlies all five of our case studies:

When students feel a sense of belonging in a school and its classrooms, when they believe that their efforts will increase their ability and competence, when they believe success is possible and within their control, and when they value what they are learning, then they are much more likely to persist at academic tasks despite setbacks and to demonstrate the kinds of social, emotional, and academic behaviors that lead to a productive and satisfying life.

In May of his ninth-grade year, Griffin could have been speaking for many of his schoolmates as he reflected that his confidence, determination, and perseverance had all increased during his time at Renaissance. “It’s you talking, and you need to get comfortable with that,” he declared. “And I feel like [here] is where I learned it from. It allows you to grow into something bigger than yourself.”


This article is an excerpt from WKCD's full case study of Springfield Renaissance School, one of five schools featured in Learning by Heart: Five American High Schools Where Social and Emotional Learning Are Core. It was conducted by WKCD's research arm, the Center for Youth Voice in Policy and Practice.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL CASE STUDY, "A System of Working Parts: Springfield Renaissance School, Springfield, Massachusetts"