Mission Hill School’s fame is focus of new book

January 18, 2013
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The Mission Hill K-8 School, which controversially moved to Jamaica Plain last year, is the subject of a new book that reveals its global fame among educators.

“The name ‘Mission Hill’ is an important name” in the field of education, said Matthew Knoester, the author of the scholarly book “Democratic Education in Practice: Inside the Mission Hill School.” Knoester is a professor of education at Indiana’s University of Evansville and taught at Mission Hill K-8 from 1998 to 2005.

His book also covers the intense controversy over the school’s move from Mission Hill to 20 Child St. and concerns that it will change its groundbreaking education model and the unusual diversity of its student body.

Mission Hill K-8 was founded in 1997 as a highly independent pilot school within the Boston Public Schools system by prominent educator Deborah Meier. Meier’s educational model leans away from standardized testing and formulas to let students learn in their own ways. Classes mix grade levels, and all major internal decisions are made democratically by staff, parents and in many cases students.

The Gazette previously wrote about one of its unusual programs, “Friday Share,” where students share their recent projects with each other as well as parents and community visitors.

Mission Hill K-8 Principal Ayla Gavins was unavailable for comment.

“The location of the school is significant,” Knoester said in the book, which was finished shortly after the move was announced. He noted that its original location was within walking distance for many black and Hispanic students, and close to many colleges and museums that the school connected with.

The massive, impersonal former Agassiz Elementary School building that the school moved into is a challenge for the school’s identity, Knoester said. The split-level layout inside removes a trademark of the original Mission Hill K-8 building—a single hallway where all the students regularly gathered, played, showed off work and experimented together as a community, he said.

Knoester and Meier, who calls the school’s BPS-forced move “absurd” in the book’s foreward, both express cautious optimism that Mission Hill K-8 will adapt to its new JP surroundings and stay true to its ethos.

“How can a Mission Hill School be in Jamaica Plain?” Knoester said to the Gazette, summing up the dilemma. But, he added lightly, “It’s kind of Bostonian, you have to admit. How many different Boylston Streets are there?”

One reason the school kept its Mission Hill name is due to its lasting fame as a model for progressive education. International experts continue to visit the school regularly, Knoester said.

“There’s a huge group of educators in the Netherlands who are fascinated by the Mission Hill School,” he told the Gazette.

Knoester continues to document the school as well and just visited it again in December. He, Meier and several teachers are working on a new book about the best lesson plans taught at the school. That book likely will be published in 2014 or 2015, he said.

“Democratic Education in Practice” is available at online booksellers.

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