Doctoral students apply UMSL education to roles as charter school administrators

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Lafayette Prep: Sarah Ranney and Susan Marino

Sarah Ranney (left) and Susan Marino use their EdD coursework to help inform administration of the UMSL-sponsored public charter school Lafayette Preparatory Academy, where Marino is executive director and Ranney is head of school. (Photos by August Jennewein)

Once a week, Susan Marino and Sarah Ranney finish up their responsibilities at Lafayette Preparatory Academy, hop into a car and make the half-hour drive to the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus together.

Once there, Marino and Ranney join their EdD cohort for an evening of coursework, then make the drive back down to their school on the south side of the city and go their separate ways for the night.

The next morning, they’re back together at Lafayette Prep.

“We’ll see if we get tired of each other,” Marino said with a laugh. “Probably not. We’ve spent an awful lot of time together the last four years.”

Marino is the executive director of Lafayette Prep, a public charter school that began operating in 2013. Ranney started as the school’s director of curriculum and instruction in June 2014 and, nearly two years later, assumed her current role as head of school.

Lafayette Prep’s charter school sponsor is UMSL, which has provided crucial support and oversight during the school’s first six years. In Ranney’s case, mini-grants from UMSL provided the funding for Lafayette to bring Ranney on a month earlier than anticipated in 2014 and helped fund her path to an MEd, which she earned this past May.

So, when Marino and Ranney decided they wanted to go back to school for their doctorates, it only made sense that they chose UMSL.

“Sarah talked about the quality of the professors in her master’s program,” Marino said. “She talked about people that she had worked with and what an addition to her knowledge base they had been, as well as a support system beyond the classes. Also, there was flexibility there that really made it realistic for me to match it up with my pretty busy work life. I thought that was valuable as well.”

Lafayette Prep opened with 76 students in kindergarten through second grade. It has added a grade level every year since its opening and currently serves 306 students from kindergarten through seventh grade.

Marino said the plan is to add eighth grade for 2019-20. The school received a new five-year extension on its charter, through 2023, from the Missouri State Board of Education in June.

“We want all kids to have an opportunity to learn at the highest levels,” Marino said. “We recognize that in the city those options are very segregated, as is our city. Part of our mission was to provide an excellent education and bring together people from different backgrounds for that education, ensuring that each and every person in the city has access to it. This is a place where kids from all backgrounds learn and grow together and build this understanding, the development of a common humanity. We might be different, but what is it that we actually have in common?”

Lafayette Prep is one of seven public charter schools that UMSL sponsors. Representatives from the College of Education are responsible for ensuring that each school under UMSL’s umbrella is living up to the vision stated in its charter and providing academic instruction that is at least as rigorous as other schools in the area.

Bill Mendelsohn, the UMSL Director of Charter Schools and Partnerships, meets with Marino once a month and Ranney every two months. UMSL representatives sit in on board meetings, do site visits and, during the spring semester, will conduct a full-day evaluation that goes into the charter school’s annual review report.

“If we’re going to agree to sponsor a school, we believe strongly in its mission and want to provide as much support as we can to help a school reach its vision,” Mendelsohn said. “We are enthusiastic sponsors of our schools. We believe we are helping the city of St. Louis improve education, provide opportunities for children from impoverished areas of the city and that it aligns beautifully with UMSL’s mission. Sarah and Susan are strong leaders and are a big reason why I believe Lafayette is going to emerge as one of the strongest schools in the city over the next few years.”

UMSL-sponsored charter schools receive Department of Elementary and Secondary Education funds just like other public schools in Missouri, but a small percentage of that funding gets transferred to the UMSL Office of Research Administration which, in turn, puts it back into the schools through mini-grants, professional development and other funding opportunities.

The guidance from sponsor to school can be something as simple and practical as sprucing up the entryway to the building, which Assistant Teaching Professor Tom Hoerr suggested during an early site visit to Lafayette Prep.

Lafayette Prep student project

Lafayette Prep’s first-graders completed an annual project called “Golden World,” in which they are encouraged to design a model community that provides for citizens’ necessities while also incorporating novel elements that stem from the students’ creativity.

“It really has had an impact on how people feel when they walk in the building,” Marino said. “UMSL has really embraced the idea that higher ed and traditional schools are connected and shouldn’t be in silos. They have done a really good job of reaching out to do professional development for people in public schools in the younger grades. Through their sponsorship of schools, they make sure that school options are available in the city of St. Louis. Without sponsors, it’s possible those things wouldn’t be available to families.”

Ranney showcased some of what makes Lafayette Prep unique during a recent tour of the school building. To teach responsibility, each classroom gets a pet, ranging from the furry to the scaly. The middle schoolers take a class called “Investigations,” based off the Google concept of “20 percent time,” in which students spend one-fifth of their school day applying the key concepts from their other classes to capitalize on problem-solving and design-thinking. While the class is geared toward learning objectives from their other courses, students also have the chance to investigate based on interest.

The results of another unique activity, the first graders’ annual exercise in city planning, lined the walls on the first floor with fully formed street grids accented by paper building structures. At the outset, Ranney said, the businesses were heavy on cotton candy stores and amusement parks. The teachers have challenged the students to think about how, while a grocery store or hospital might be boring in comparison to those things, they are essential. The first graders cleverly have recreated their communities to encompass both the practical needs of a community and whimsical elements that represent the creativity evident with young children.

“I felt like the mission for the school is something I had been looking for as an educator, and I fell in love with the people,” said Ranney, whose son is a second-grader at Lafayette. “I really love this place. Something that’s really important for our community is that we put our heart into making this a great place for kids. I appreciate the ongoing partnership with UMSL, both as our sponsor and helping me grow my own brain. It’s also a teaching moment for the kids, to model that we are always learning and growing. That’s how we try to live here at LPA.”

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