Real champions inspire us because we know they give everything to make a difference. Through this column, we are helping make known real champions in the lives of children and youth. At NCUST, we are thankful for all the many equity champions who are, each day, changing lives, changing schools, and changing communities.
All student groups at Maplewood Richmond Heights (MRH) High School in St. Louis, MO achieve outstanding academic results. In 2015, the school earned NCUST’s gold America’s Best Schools Award and the school continues to serve as a national model for equity and excellence. However, this was not always the case.
A veteran teacher explained, “Twenty-five years ago, this was a different place. We had lots of fights and lots of crazy things happening here.” Student discipline issues damaged the school’s reputation. Parents perceived MRH as a school that lacked rigor, lacked high expectations for either student behavior or student academic performance, and lacked a commitment to ensuring their children’s success in school and in life. Furthermore, MRH High, like many urban schools, appeared to have a revolving door on the principal’s office. One teacher reported that in his first six years at MRH, the school had six different principals.
In 2010, Dr. Kevin Grawer became principal and he quickly endeavored to improve student behavior and student academic success. He moved to create an orderly and supportive learning environment where teachers could teach and students could learn. Although the approach seemed logical to the new principal, the changes weren’t universally appreciated. Principal Grawer recalled a Black student telling him, “Dr. Grawer, this is a predominantly Black school. We are not supposed to be good students, and it’s supposed to be wild here.”
To change the narrative, Principal Grawer committed to building a foundation by dedicating time to visiting students’ homes and getting to know students and their families. Principal Grawer determined that students and parents would not trust his commitment if they did not see his presence in the community.
While presence was important, it was not sufficient. According to Principal Grawer, expectations that students would behave well and achieve well were necessary antecedents to changing the narrative and transforming the educational experience at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School. Just as the MRH principal and teachers wanted to get to know students and families, they also wanted students to feel valued, respected, and loved. Still, they recognized that students would only feel truly loved, to the degree educators established and maintained high expectations for their effort and their success. Principal Grawer explained:
We tell them [the students], ‘We love you’ every day. And that’s a loaded statement. It means we expect more from you. And you’ve got to come here, and you’ve got to behave, and you’ve got to perform. And we’ve got to do the same as adults. We didn’t create the school to give adults random jobs, and we didn’t create the school to give you a rec center where you could hang out. This is a place of work, and we’re going to help you and love you. We’re going to have fun too, but we’re going to take our work seriously and ourselves lightly, and we’re going to get after it every day.
Principal Grawer and many teacher leaders at MRH knew that students would not feel truly cared for and loved unless teaching led them to learn important concepts each day, grow academically over time, and succeed throughout and beyond high school. “It’s not about covering the content,” one social studies teacher explained. “What good is covering? We’re not making blankets here. We’re building students’ confidence in themselves.” Teachers worked in teams to figure out how they could break down challenging content in ways that would help MRH students develop deep understandings. By “chunking” the curriculum, teachers identified the subtle concepts, vocabulary, and sub-skills that might have been overlooked in textbooks or traditional teaching approaches. Teachers kept their students in mind as they designed instruction together.
Also, teachers strived to show students representations of outstanding academic work. Before students begin working on a task, teachers engage students in looking carefully at a work sample that might have been produced by a student or a group of students during the prior semester. Teachers lead students in substantive discussions about why the work is exemplary and what students need to do to produce work that represents similar quality.
Principal Grawer expected teachers to provide MRH students nothing less than what they wanted for their own children. He contended:
When we expect less from our students behaviorally, academically, or socially, they tend to think we don’t care about them. At times teachers do that with students who don’t look like them, and we make the mistake of thinking, “Well, this student cannot do that.” We’ve got to get in front of that. We can’t allow that.
Many teachers commented on Dr. Grawer’s leadership with statements such as, “He treats us like professionals,” “We have incredible latitude as instructors,” “He asks, ‘What do you need? What can I get you? What do you need to get the job done?” Dr. Grawer pushed teachers to see how attendance data, suspension data, and multiple sources of achievement data pointed to the need for real changes in climate and culture and in teaching and learning; however, he enlisted teachers to lead the way in designing and executing solutions that were responsive to the individual needs of MRH students.
Today, MRH is a very different place than it was in 2010. The frequent student arguments, fights, and disruptions have been practically eliminated. The school is calm and civil, with a home-like atmosphere. The students know they belong, taking care of the place and each other. Students are challenged intellectually and excited about the progress they see in themselves and their school. The new environment makes it easier for teachers to teach effectively and students to learn at high levels. In 2014, MRH was designated as a Met-Life National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Breakthrough High School for sustained academic growth for all students. In 2015, in addition to earning NCUST’s Gold Award, US News and World Report recognized MRH as a Bronze Award winner in their America’s Best High School Program. More recently, in 2017, ACT recognized MRH as an exemplary high school because of their continued growth in ACT performance. In 2018, NASSP recognized MRH again as a Breakthrough High School because of sustained growth over time for all student groups. Additionally, in 2021, US News and World Report granted MRH their Gold Star High School Award, the 19th best high school in Missouri.
Dr. Grawer believes MRH High students are performing well, because the students believe the adults at the school have deliberately tried to create an environment where the students have an excellent chance of succeeding. The students know they must work hard, but they put forth the effort because “they perceive that the whole game has been transformed into something where they have a chance to win.” NCUST is pleased to honor Dr. Grawer as a true equity champion!
Get notified about new articles, events, insights, and opportunities.