Westward Ho! The Westward Expansion of Sturgis (Fall 2011)

By Marion Weeks
“You don’t need to venture into the Old West or shuttle into space to be a pioneer.”[1]  In fact, you don’t need to go very far at all.  Many educational pioneers begin their work at home in their own communities. They come from various walks of life: parents, grandparents, teachers and students. While working in their local communities for more school choice, they become part of the national conversation on reforming public education. By striving to improve educational opportunities for all children, they are helping American schools achieve excellence.

The Sturgis Experiment in Education

In the mid-1990s, a small group of local citizens dreamed of offering a new kind of high school for their children and other Cape Cod students.  They started meeting for coffee at two local eateries that would later become Sturgis favorites: Caffé E Dolce and Common Ground.

I spoke recently with Dr. Harvey Auerbach, one the original founders of Sturgis.  He told me how the  group of concerned citizens brainstormed a variety of ideas during those early meetings. They researched  high school curriculums and took classes offered by the MA Department of Education on procedures for creating charter schools.  In the process, Dr. Auerbach described how he came across an interesting curriculum  he was unfamiliar with called the International Baccalaureate (IB).  He was so impressed by it that he and other members of the group decided to attend an IB Forum being held in Boston. Afterwards, they decided to attempt  a great experiment in education.  They planned to create a public school that would offer a world-class education through the International Baccalaureate curriculum to all students free of charge.

“They took their inspiration from some of the most elite private schools in the country, and then gave it a populist twist. They opened a public charter school offering the International Baccalaureate program to any student interested in pursuing it, an approach that’s called IB for All.” [2]

International Baccalaureate (IB) For All

In 2004, Sturgis became the first school in the world to offer IB for All.  Unlike other Advanced Placement (AP) and IB schools where only the highest achievers are selected to take advanced classes, Sturgis students take all of their coursework in IB classes in the junior and senior years, regardless of their previous academic record or individual challenges.  Sturgis believes High Standards + High Expectations = High Achievement.

To help students meet this challenge, Sturgis begins preparing ninth graders to build arguments, defend points of view, make sense of data, write persuasively, and think critically. Students are encouraged to develop empathy, raise social awareness, build tolerance, and take on personal responsibility. Similarly, the Sturgis community works toward building positive and productive habits, attitudes, and values in its students in order to optimally prepare them for a rigorous program in grades 11 and 12 which is designed to insure success at university.  

Growing and Staying Small

Over the last few years, Sturgis has earned state and national recognition as evidenced by The Washington Post ranking Sturgis #1 in Massachusetts, #4 in the Northeast, and #41 in the United States out of more than 12,000 high schools.  In addition, the 2011 MCAS results ranked Sturgis #1 in English, #5 in Math, and #11 in Science among 289 Massachusetts schools.

As more families on Cape Cod want their children to experience the world-class education and community that Sturgis offers, we are challenged to meet the demand by growing our program and yet staying small.  We have found that big isn’t always beautiful.  One of the reasons our students are so successful is that they feel safe and supported by a small but vibrant school culture. Our efforts to replicate the program with the creation of Sturgis West are well under way and the response from our new students and families has been very positive.

How Can a School Like Sturgis Be Replicated?

Sturgis West – Rendering by Studio G

The strategic plan of the Sturgis Board of Trustees includes a phased increase in the current enrollment of 400 grade 9-12 students to a maximum enrollment of 800 high school students, thus doubling the number of students who can access the Sturgis IB for All experience. The Sturgis Trustees are developing a second campus called Sturgis West at 125 West Main Street in Hyannis that will replicate the Sturgis mission of IB for All and the vibrant school culture. The school also hopes to meet the growing requests of other educational institutions and professionals interested in offering IB for All and ensuring college readiness.

Sturgis will maintain the two separate school campuses – Sturgis East and Sturgis West. The new 42,000-square-foot Sturgis West will be a 14-minute walk from the East Campus.

To accommodate the extra 200 students this year, Sturgis hired 35 new teachers and plans to add 20 more staff members by 2013.  Sturgis West is temporarily located in rented space at the former Artifacts furniture store located across the street from Sturgis East.

In keeping with the our singular focus on academic achievement, Sturgis West will be a permanent modular building and will use community facilities such as Hyannis Youth and Community Center, Cape Cod Community College gym and theatre, Cotuit Center for the Arts, Cape Cod Cultural Center and Cotuit Kettleers’ Lowell Park Baseball field for sports and arts activities.

How is Sturgis West Helping Students Replicate the School Culture?

I asked Peter Steedman, Associate Director of Sturgis West, to explain how the new school has gone about “replicating the vibrant school culture” of Sturgis East. He told me that even before the construction of the new building begins, students and faculty  have already begun building a school culture. They began during orientation and student advisory programs to develop activities to help students bond. They also provided opportunities for students to discuss the challenges of starting a new school.  They used a Critical Friends Group protocol known as “Back to the Future” where students imagine what the school will be like in several years.  Sturgis West is using a student empowerment model which is different from the traditional student council.  Each advisory group has one representative and as a result, all Sturgis West students have a direct link to school government.

Student ambassadors from Sturgis East have come to visit advisories at West to help new students learn more about the rich culture of Sturgis. Several Sturgis alumni have also come to visit the new school to discuss their experiences during high school and college.

Parents have also played an important role.  In order to help catch potential problems early, the first parent teacher conferences were held earlier than usual.  Faculty provided written comments that were very specific on the first progress reports.  They wanted to give parents and students helpful talking points for the conferences. There was a huge turnout for the first parent student conference. Parents, students and teachers are very committed to making Sturgis West a success.

How are Faculty Helping Students and Each Other During this Time of Transition?

I asked Paul Marble, Associate Director of Sturgis East, to comment on faculty efforts to help students have a smooth transition. I also asked him how departments are working together to assure students at East and West have similar academic experiences.  He provided the following response:

“Our students have long proclaimed that the IB is hard, but it’s worth it.  Perhaps our faculty would now say the same about expansion.

Fortunately, the timing of our expansion was perfect, as Sturgis just completed its official IB Five Year Review, which found the faculty involved in shared self-reflection, analysis, and evaluation of our strengths and weaknesses.  Two principal strengths that the staff identified are that teachers and administrators promote a positive environment that supports students’ sense of responsibility, and the school is committed to continuous improvement.  Two principle practices in need of strengthening were planning at the school enables all teachers to gain an overview of the students’ whole learning experience, and planning at the school takes place collaboratively.  What a perfect opportunity, then, for us to examine as a staff this year – returning faculty and our eleven new arrivals – how we have developed our principal strengths, and how we can improve in our areas in need of strengthening.

Thus, during our week-long faculty orientation before the start of school, new teachers met with lead teachers, their department members, and teachers from across departments to reflect on IB For All, our mission, our beliefs, our pedagogy and how we can improve as a school.   Also, a large percentage of our faculty have participated in our new, monthly Peer Observation Days, where six teachers are provided with a substitute teacher for one class in order to observe their peers teach.  Additionally, we have a newly formed IB Team, consisting of six faculty members who support our IB program, that seeks to help our students and each other during this period of change and growth.  Furthermore, teachers from East and West have met in joint department meetings and faculty meetings in order to development common midyear assessments and curriculum guides, and to examine important issues of community and culture, as a step towards ensuring equity for students across both campuses.

While our expansion efforts have just begun, I am proud and honored to be working with caring and open-minded adults who are willing to invent and reinvent in order to ensure more students gain access to IB for All.”

Buildings Don’t Make Schools

Eric Hieser meets with Paul Marble and Peter Steedman

I spoke with Eric Hieser, Executive Director, about how both Sturgis East and Sturgis West had very modest beginnings in old furniture stores.  He replied, “Buildings don’t make schools.  It’s the people and the program that make a successful school.”

The success of Sturgis certainly did not happen overnight. The road has been pretty rough at times.  In April 2000, the school almost folded but students and parents rallied to save it. In 2005, the school had an enrollment of 326 students with no students on the wait lists.  Interest in the vibrant school culture and “IB for All” experience grew over the next several years to the point in January 2011 when Sturgis had an enrollment of 414 students with more than 460 students on the wait lists.

Mr. Hieser described how the atmosphere at Sturgis school lotteries has changed over the last several years. Students and their families now wait anxiously to see if their names will be drawn.  He said it is very poignant to see the difference between reactions of students who are selected or not selected. The kids in the first hundred chosen sometimes cheer and cry tears of happiness. As the draw continues, the atmosphere becomes markedly more somber with some of the kids selected at 150+ crying tears of disappointment.

Mr. Hieser said, “With the construction of Sturgis West at 125 West Main Street, we are pleased that more students on Cape Cod will be able to experience the world-class education and community that Sturgis offers.  We have been very fortunate to have great support of many people who have been involved in the project: Studio G Architects; Baxter Nye, Civil Engineers; and all the Barnstable Town Departments who have supported the project through various phases of planning. We’ve had so many people call us expressing support for the project and interest in their children attending the new school.”

Plans are for Sturgis West construction to begin by the end of November and be completed by the end of July 2012.

[2] “A Global Test Gains Ground,” Newsweek, May 28, 2007, p.28.

Graphic credits: http://www.goldrush1849.com/thewaywest.html


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