Imagine you’re the principal of a learning environment and your superintendent comes to visit. You casually walk into a classroom only to find learners standing on desks and holding a DIY kite with a fan blowing in their direction. This probably wouldn’t be the ideal way to show your superintendent the great learning happening under your watch. Or, would it be?
At Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy (MVLA) in Las Cruces, NM, this is just another day at the mixed-age, project-based learning environment. And, the superintendent was ecstatic. When it comes to leading learner-centered transformation, there’s immense power in having support from central office leadership. Dr. Toni Hull, principal at MVLA, has that support and works daily to ensure it continues to grow.
Currently serving 100 learners, MVLA’s transformation has built up so much enthusiasm that the next plan is to integrate the design (and the kids) into one of the district’s larger middle schools, which serves 700+ learners. What’s happening here that makes it so intriguing?
As we’ve seen across many unique learner-centered environments, MVLA began their transformation with a focus on relationships. Their socially embedded lens has allowed learners to build trust with their educators, peers, and most importantly, themselves. Why does this one cultural shift make such a large impact? If you ask Dr. Hull, she’ll tell you that’s the big question they are trying to answer. They know it works—it makes intuitive sense—but they are digging for a clearer way to explain the results.
As a starting point, they are noticing the difference time in this trusting culture makes for young people.. When many begin at MVLA, attendance may be sporadic, engagement may be low, and invitations to build learner agency may often ignored. However, over the course of a year (or even two), when a learner finds himself steeped in this new learning community, he’ll begin showing signs of interest. He’ll perk up when shown how to navigate a previously mundane topic that has been shaped into an exploration that is personalized, relevant, and contextualized.
For the first time, he begins connecting the dots and discovers how his curiosity can be the driver to a future that never previously existed, even in his wildest dreams. This personal transformation gives him access to a newfound belief in himself and in a new view of what he sees as possible for his path toward success.
As they continue to push the envelope and make real what many thought was impossible, MVLA leaders hope to see their work spread across Las Cruces Public Schools. And, ultimately be the cause of dramatic changes within the standards-based policy created by New Mexico state leaders.