Morgridge Academy Uses PBLs to Improve Student Engagement, Confidence and Relationships

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The Facts

Imagine missing so many days of school due to a chronic health issue that you feel like you can’t catch up with assignments. You’re not at school enough to make real connections with your peers. The students that apply for Morgridge Academy have faced these feelings and the school is passionate about changing that.

Morgridge Academy is the first and only elementary school located on a medical campus. The school currently serves 70 K-8 students with a wide range of chronic illnesses, like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Far from the challenges of a traditional school, 100% of the student community is high needs, while 85% is on Free and Reduced Lunch, and most students come from high-impacted, low-income environments.

Morgridge Academy has come so far in three years. We’re amazed with where the teachers and students have taken the PBL model and what they’ve accomplished with it. This wouldn’t have been possible without support from mindSpark Learning.
— Jennifer McCullough, Principal Morgridge Academy

While many come to Morgridge Academy shy, disengaged and with an attitude that they’re just not smart enough to attend a traditional school due to so many health-related absences, Morgridge Academy strives to 1) stabilize and improve the health status of the student, 2) improve the academic status of the student and 3) enter the student back into more traditional medical and school systems.

The staff of 17, which is made up of educators, nurses, social workers and support staff, has brought mindSpark Learning’s problem-based learning (PBL) model to Morgridge Academy to re-engage students, foster stronger communication skills and teach self-advocacy. Learning through authentic, real-world problem solving is intilling a deeper connection between students, staff and the Denver community.

The Method

Morgridge Academy has partnered with mindSpark Learning since 2009, when mindSpark was Share Fair Nation. Educators attended Share Fair Nation events each year that promoted cutting-edge professional learning, and offered ways to better engage students.

In 2015, Morgridge Academy Principal Jennifer McCullough set out to implement the PBL model in the school. With support from Katie Tilton, the special education and PBL coordinator, the duo introduced the idea to the Academy’s educators with guidance from Share Fair Nation, and eventually mindSpark Learning. While intimidated by the idea at first, staff embraced the model and hit the ground running to develop PBL projects.

The Solution

Share Fair Nation and mindSpark Learning has helped shape the PBL model with Morgridge Academy. mindSpark Learning shifted the educators’ focus from project-based learning to problem-based learning. Students embraced the model, as it helped them engage with their teachers, peers and community. Those that once felt they had trouble making friends because they missed so many days of class now had a sense of belonging.

Each year I keep asking myself, ‘Can this get any better?!’ And it does thanks to what the students and teachers are doing. We can’t wait to see the kids come back in 10 years to share how opportunities have opened up for them since attending Morgridge Academy.
— Katie Tilton, Special Education and PBL Coordinator Morgridge Academy

One early project, a garden planted by fifth and sixth graders, still benefits Morgridge Academy’s community today by providing produce to its families!

The Results

Students responded exquisitely both academically and socially to the PBL model. Morgridge Academy’s 2017 CMAT scores marked the first time in school history that eighth graders went on to high school with above-average scores in Mathematics.

On a social level, educators noticed students developed stronger communication skills. Those that were once shy gained the confidence to present their PBL findings, participate in conversations with peers and community leaders and became advocates for their health needs. Students reported feeling more engaged in the classroom and felt heard, both at school and in the community. Thanks to the culture shift that took place at Morgridge Academy, for the first time in a long time, these students felt like students and not patients.

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