EPiC Elementary: A Conversation with Dr. Michelle Schmitz

Q&A  10 November 2016
By Dr. Michelle Schmitz

 

I was driven to find a way where we could truly become learner-centered—where every child was set up for success.

Dr. Michelle Schmitz
Founding Principal

Q. As an educator, what had you step toward transforming the system?

A. When I started in education, classrooms of learners were being taught in the same way at the same time frame every day. Sheer boredom filled the eyes of the learners, and I knew this had to change. I was driven to find a way where we could truly become learner-centered—where every child was set up for success. Questions filled my mind. What would happen if the walls of the classroom became tall trees and the carpet became layers of dry crunchy leaves all surrounded by a stream with birds chirping, and nature was the backdrop for learning? What if the world could become the classroom for our learners; filled with real-life experiences brought to them by people of all ages?

It has always been my drive to help young people discover their talents. From my earliest days, I have wanted to help others be the best in life. I have had a determination to reimagine education for our learners in a way that is exciting and matches the world around them. There are endless opportunities to make learning wildly contagious. We just have to think big enough to make it happen.

Q. There was a massive initiative EPiC and the Liberty PS Board of Education undertook in 2013 in order to explore education transformation. What did that process look like?

A. Our success as a school is built upon the foundation of shared leadership, both within and outside the organization, and the authentic process that constructed the components of our building and learning environment. Our vision to transform education began in 2013 with the shared leadership of the Liberty Public Schools Board of Education, superintendent, central office staff, teachers, parents, patrons, and students. This journey began with the question, “What would you do if you could create the ideal learning environment to prepare students for a world that continues to evolve?”

Ideas developed around a 1:1 learning model with mobile technology, flexible learning spaces, creativity, team-based teaching, engaging and authentic learning, and a continuous learning calendar. As a part of this journey, the team visited several noteworthy school districts across the United States that had successfully launched at least one or more of these ideas. After the visits, we were confident that we could create a school that encompassed the environment our team had envisioned.

With research, confidence, and determination, EPiC Elementary became a reality. The team developed the vision and mission for EPiC Elementary and worked closely with the architectural firm Hollis-Miller to design a flexible learning environment. We partnered with Apple who helped us design a mobile technology infrastructure. We also partnered with William Jewell College, the city of Liberty, and other local businesses. Because success depends on the foundation that is built in the beginning, EPiC Elementary has been constructed with a strong professional development infrastructure and school-wide implementation of an engaging and authentic learning environment. Through this process, we learned that the birth of a vision requires the support of all stakeholders and the passion to make a difference for our learners. 

Q. What an incredible process. In these first few years, what has this meant for your learners?

A. Wonder, curiosity, and excitement fill the air at EPiC Elementary. Our learners come to us as active participants in their learning environment. We believe our job is to facilitate and grow that learner agency throughout their time at EPiC. Our learners have an opportunity to tap into their passions and interests by exploring learning through a variety of avenues.

Our youngest learners begin coding upon entering kindergarten. I, along with the teachers, have also been learning coding side-by-side with our learners. Our first graders produce a weekly weather report that they post on YouTube and have also taken on the challenge to make our community healthy. In the spring, they put on a health fair for the community, which included an interactive online exercise calendar, a Google health website, and videos with the correct way to do specific exercises.

At every age, learners have ownership in their learning which allows for the transformation of the learning environment to reach into our community and beyond. In our 5th grade studio, the learners partnered with the department of conservation, and several times during the year, their learning takes place in a stream. We dream big. School is a launching pad to the world for our learners. There might be walls in our building, but there are no bricks or mortar surrounding our learning.

 

There might be walls in our building, but there are no bricks or mortar surrounding our learning.

Dr. Michelle Schmitz
Founding Principal

Q. It is clear learning is different at EPiC. How has EPiC’s innovative learning environment been received by the community in Liberty, MO? How do learners apply their learning in the community?

A. EPiC believes that learning goes beyond the walls of the building,so EPiC learners are active participants in the greater community as they work to solve real-world problems that exist in society. This provides them with access to the world beyond the classroom to learn relevance and usefulness of content both in and out of school. The ongoing community and business partnerships create opportunities for students and teachers alike to be a part of authentic learning as they create, collaborate, and develop critical thinking skills. A few examples include:

  • The fifth grade launched a hunger awareness campaign culminating in an Empty Bowls event where students shared their learning, hosted a silent auction and soup dinner, and raised over $2,500 for two local organizations that help the hungry in Clay County.

  • The third grade researched the global water crisis and raised over $800 for water.org by selling creative art pieces they made for the cause.

  • The second grade worked with butterfly experts and local businesses to transform a dilapidated district memorial garden into a flourishing butterfly memory garden.

  • Through a Lowe’s for Education Toolbox grant and a partnership with Kansas City Community Gardens, all EPiC learners participate yearly in garden-based learning experiences.

  • Through a growing partnership with the Liberty High School science department, each grade level experiences at least one full immersion STEM day facilitated by the high school science students.

In addition to community partnerships, EPiC encourages family involvement and service through required volunteer hours, which increases partnership in learner education and success. Instead of traditional parent/teacher conferences, EPiC hosts two showcase nights during the year where students share their learning with parents and the community. EPiC has moved from presentations of products to presentations of learning. We have an active PTA that provides additional funds for field trips and other needs in the school. We have developed partnerships with Hyvee, our local grocery store; Lowes; Martha LaFitte Nature Sanctuary; Missouri Department of Conservation; and our sister school across the street, Liberty High School.

Q. What do you see going forward as EPiC continues to evolve? Do you see this transformation occurring through the district in the near future?

A. As the world continues to evolve, EPiC will continue to adapt and match the world around us to best meet the needs of today’s learner. Going forward, we will continue to explore possibilities for community partnerships and real work within our community. We have permeated the very fabric of our community—changing the way many think about about education and what they believe learners can do. When our learners walk into school, they are walking into community because we believe that school is no longer a building but a launching pad for learning in our city, in our state, and in our world. We want our learners to develop real-world skills and the belief that their ideas, voice, and thinking matters to create a better tomorrow.

EPiC Elementary serves as an incubator school for our district. Many ideas are born and tested in this environment with a scaled, system-wide implementation. Our district leaders have seen the importance of real-world learning and have taken steps with a phased-in training model to make sure all educators are equipped to best prepare learners. For example, as a result of our work with project-based learning, teachers and administrators in our district are now being trained by the Buck Institute for Education. In addition to our district, we serve as a lighthouse for people across the state to inspire and help others change.

EPiC will continue to be an incubator school for Liberty Public Schools. We are truly pioneering a path in education for our learners and for others to see our learning environment. Many people can only see that a new narrative will work when they see the manifestation of it. Oftentimes people have to see change to implement change. Our environment has served as a place that redefines what, when, and where learning can happen.

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