Moline Elementary School has two friendly greeters at the entrance of its building. They crawl around each other in a blue plastic baby pool lined with mulch and eat lettuce. Never mind that they’re turtles; it’s clear that everyone considers them part of the family.
Just like Ru, the black lab that wags his tail at all his friends in the hallways, and Jake the ball python who stays in the all-boys classroom.
Moline, in the Riverview Gardens School District, has about 350 students and 98 percent of them are African-American. When Principal Lisa Thompson came to Moline four years ago, she and the school community decided that the school needed to establish a more inviting culture. They also explored ways to help the students become more responsible and respectful.
“We figured the best way to do that was to give kids the opportunities to practice it,” Thompson said, “through taking care of the pets, through taking care of the gardens.”
Now they have pets in many of the classrooms and some that travel around the building. They also have several garden beds located around the school. Once they started to work on the culture, Thompson said they started to see a bump in attendance.
“Kids were coming to school more because they had responsibilities,” Thompson said. “And we all know that once kids are coming to school and they’re staying in class, then achievement is going to happen because they are spending more time actively engaging in the classroom.”
In the last four years, Moline Elementary’s overall score on its state-issued report card has gone from 16.4 in 2013, which is in the unaccredited range, to 62.9 in 2017. They have also cut their suspensions down by half.
On September 29, Moline Elementary School will receive the 2018 Bayer School of Excellence at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education.
Proceeds from the foundation’s four annual Salute to Excellence events benefit community grants as well as scholarships for local minority students. In 2018 alone, the St. Louis American Foundation and its educational, corporate and individual supporters will foster a record-breaking $1 million in minority scholarships and community grants.
“Our students started to see themselves as a part of the school,” Thompson said. “They started taking more risks in the classroom. If we are going to ask them to put themselves out there and to really try and be vulnerable, then there has to be something making them want to do that. Those are the animals; those are the programs.”
Thompson said the biggest gains were in math and reading. Looking at the scores the school’s students received on the state standardized tests, they earned 216.8 in English language arts in 2015. In 2017, that jumped to 269.4, which is a 52.6 point-increase.
In math, they made an almost 100-point jump, going from 167.8 in 2015 to 265.9 in 2017.
When she arrived, there were 150 out-of-school suspensions, which dropped to 60 after the first year of the “cultural shift.”
More than half of Moline’s student population has experienced some kind of trauma in their lives, and every staff member goes through training on trauma-informed practices.
In order to curb discipline issues, Thompson said they have a classroom that is dedicated to offering alternative outlets for emotional outbursts from children. They have punching bags, clay, putty, sand and several other therapeutic activities to help students cope with their emotions in a positive way. They also have an in-school suspension room.
“We try to do everything we can before we have to do an out-of-school suspension,” Thompson said. “And 99.9 percent of the time if I’m keeping a kid home, it’s because they did something to make the environment unsafe.”
St. Louis leads the nation in school suspensions for African-American children. Young students who are expelled or suspended are 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure, hold negative school attitudes and face incarceration.
In regards to these studies, Thompson said, “The research makes sense. We know if we suspend a student out of school, they may be home watching TV or doing video games. It’s not really a consequence. Sometimes we have to keep them home because you are repairing the environment for the kids who are still there. We are not going to allow them to make it an unsafe place.”
She said they are constantly trying to catch the behavior before it gets out of control. Many of the classrooms have bike-pedaling stations under the desks for students who need to release some energy. She plans on getting a bike-powered blender, where students can make Smoothies by pedaling. The gardens are also another great place for students to find solace.
“I love this school, but we know that they come with those issues,” Thompson said. “We have to choose to be ready to educate the whole children and make them into whole people before we send them onto middle school.”
Jacquelyn Sharp, teaching methods coach, said teachers are proud of the progress that the school has made over the last four years.
“We’ve worked really hard,” said Sharp, who has been at Moline for seven years. “Our teachers come in early and stay late. Our teachers really believe in our students. Our students’ success is our teachers’ success. We’re all in this together.”
The 2018 Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 29, 2018 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $85 each/$850 table, and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit tinyurl.com/Salute-tix or call 314-533-8000.