Hooray! For Jack Jouett Middle School

Every year I treat myself to conversations with seventh and eighth grade students at Jack Jouett Middle School in Charlottesville, VA. These students participate in the international AVID program. I’m drawn to the school’s unique culture, and my visit this past Friday moves me to celebrate this sparkling example of public education. JouettPhoto2RS

Since 1990 I’ve shared philosophy with children around the country. Mostly, I see teachers do their best, often in spite of seemingly insurmountable circumstances—overcrowding, lack of physical and human resources, language barriers. Media attention focuses on all that’s wrong with the public education system, but when does any “system” unfold as intended: The U.N. or US Congress or the USPS or Amtrak or religious hierarchies or FIFA or democracy (primaries and caucuses!)? I can’t begin to address the “educational system,” but I can point to an educational beacon and the people who make it succeed.

Entering Jack Jouett, you feel at home. Everyone speaks or nods. Unexpected quiet settles over long hallways—and when these same hallways fill as classes change, you hear the bustling of quick feet and talk in passing, yet no loud noise, no shouts or shoves. The library is bright and silent, packed with students and staff members. Small anti-bullying signs dot cinderblock walls. Adults treat children like dignitaries—holding doors, picking up dropped papers and backpacks, high-fiving with abandon. An outdoor mural displays the theme for the school year: “Powerful Voices,” a communal effort to make every voice heard.

This past Friday the child philosophers shined, as always, discussing the Art of Conversation in seventh grade and Gratitude for Simple Pleasures in eighth. But this salute goes out to their teachers, counselors, staff, and their top-shelf principal, Kathryn Baylor. It’s Kathryn who instilled and sustains the “student first” philosophy that accounts for Jouett’s dynamic.

AVID teacher Julie welcomed me into the seventh grade classroom, rearranging every piece of furniture to enhance conversation. We talked before and after class, and she articulated the shift that “student first” education requires of teachers: “I’m trained in social studies, it’s what I teach, but the content of my discipline does not drive my teaching. Each child does. I teach children.” I was reminded of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who, half a century ago, decried the oppressive “banking method” in which authoritative teachers make deposits in the heads of passive students whose job it is to return the deposits exactly. This approach doesn’t succeed, unless the goal is to maintain the status quo—the banking method gives students no tools for making their own ways, standing tall, welcoming differences. Of course rigorous academics mark classrooms and ongoing tutoring sessions at Jouett, but you can’t educate a child well whom you don’t know.

Counselors Steve and Sarah along with Assistant Principal Will joined our discussions, as did the Principal. Dressed in a yellow shirt and matching high tops, Kathryn proudly explained that she was on the “Gold” team. She fetched chairs for the children, gathered and distributed writing supplies, and sat on the floor behind the circle when we ran out of chairs. Teary-eyed at student remarks about gratitude, she agreed with one student who said he was grateful for his emotions. Between our sessions Kathryn discussed with the philosophizing staff members what the school theme might be for next year—she had second thoughts about the way she was tutoring a student in math—and they jumped in with ideas. What kind of place is this?! The end of the school year and teachers excitedly look forward to the next?! Eureka!

Is the work hard? Yes, absolutely. I don’t know about its “system,” but Jack Jouett’s bedrock philosophy of love serves everyone well. Single purpose commitment to each student elevates the humanity of all.

High Fives for Every Spoke in the Wheel!

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