Project-based learning finds success at Merritt Academy

Christin Soly, Merritt Academy executive director, shares insights into what her school has to offer.

merritt academy
Photo courtesy of Merritt Academy

What are some new course offerings or programs at your school that have been successful?

The success of project-based learning at Merritt inspired us to launch Genius Hour, offering every elementary student the chance to pursue a personal passion project. This takes learning beyond the classroom by engaging each child in something she or he cares deeply about. For example, we have three elementary students interested in music. Every week during Genius Hour, one is learning how to compose a song, another is studying the physiological impact of singing on the human body, and another is designing and building a guitar. They can work in our music studio or Creativity Lab guided by our specialty teachers. The only requirement is that our children share their work later this semester in a presentation ranging from a musical performance, dance, movie, needlepoint, PowerPoint, poster or handwritten report. We love witnessing our children become experts and share their enthusiasm.

We want every student to find success and happiness at Merritt, through specialized reading workshops to math groups. If a kindergartener can do first grade math, she will join the higher level class.

Our preschool STEAM lab and STEAM specialist provide our younger students with a strong foundation, so our kindergarten students already grasp some scientific method principles and the joy of discovery. They see how science, technology, engineering, art and math, even language, intersect in real ways. They learn how to try and appreciate failure as an essential step on the journey to success.

Another wonderful addition has been the Second Step curriculum, our social emotional learning program focusing on skills such as empathy, communication and problem-solving. Research shows these are common skills across many cultures. Whether our graduates go into business, creative arts or STEAM fields, they will need to understand their audience, manage their emotions and assert themselves. Second Step will encourage our graduates to be more involved in their community and live healthier lives.

While not new, our students gain beneficial leadership experience mentoring younger students through Project Pals. Every child at Merritt also spends time with senior citizens through our unique intergenerational program. Our schoolchildren might interview a senior for a social studies poll or collaborate on a service project to benefit a food pantry. So they get to put their social and emotional skills to good practice regularly in and outside the classroom. And there are moments our students see they can achieve things the others cannot. These insightful experiences can surprise them and build their confidence. In the future, we know the ability to relate across different generations at work and in our neighborhoods will be a valuable skill.

How has the school culture changed and evolved over the past 10 or so years?

Merritt continues to evolve to reflect service to our families, their needs and expectations.

Technology drives many changes. We have incorporated age-appropriate technology throughout preschool and the school and helped our families navigate the societal impact of technology’s influence. We just offered parents and our older students a workshop on cyber bullying prevention. We started livestreaming events so parents and grandparents can share in the school experience when they can’t be with us in person. This helps bring our community closer together and serve our families better.

While our school was founded in 1963 in the Christian faith tradition, our families now come from all over the world seeking to share in our character and values curriculum. Merritt now represents at least 60 different nations and many different faiths. We’ve adapted our character education and Code of Courtesy to embrace diversity of thought and respect of others.

Once upon a time schools were places where teachers taught children facts. As artificial intelligence improves and displaces career paths, we focus on developing great people. We help our graduates become critical thinkers of good character with strong social emotional intelligence skills. We teach our students how to interview, write a resume, manage a budget and run a small business. Most of all, we want them to enjoy the journey so they will become lifelong learners.

Photo courtesy of Merritt Academy

How have the needs of students changed over the past decade?

Technology conditions all of us to expect more immediate feedback. We find project-based learning provides that input better than any report card or progress report, though we do offer those traditional measurements, too.

Children today face so many pressures, high expectations and rubrics. Rather than treat childhood as a maze to navigate, we encourage our students to take control of their education. They literally are building their own mazes. Merritt students can seize challenges and look at things from a different perspective. They can use aerial drone photography and a 3-D printer to measure and create a model of our campus or become an expert marble-run engineer. Sometimes they will fail, and that’s OK. We want them to know they can get up and keep growing as they learn from a mistake. Thomas Edison didn’t create the light bulb on the first or even the 100th try. Our young engineer will know if his marble maze works or not. He will gain immediate feedback, and we’ll see the joy on his face.

How does Merritt Academy uniquely serve its students?

We know our students well, whether they are continuing the journey from preschool to kindergarten or joining us as new transfer students. Parents with jobs in multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations, universities, military and diplomatic corps seek us out because of our level of personal service.

Once we assess a prospective student’s reading and math level, we can highly personalize the child’s experience. Our Gifted Program includes a variety of options, whether working at higher grade levels or taking on enhanced assignments to gain an edge. Small class sizes are key. Our French teacher can lead a high school level French class with our eighth graders while nurturing a new sixth grader who previously pursued Mandarin. No child is left behind because our teachers know every child as they would know their own.

Our teachers and classmates can see and appreciate the potential every child offers. One of our middle schoolers put it best: When describing successful collaboration on a class project, she noted, “We are able to play to each other’s strengths.” That’s a great skill for a future manager or executive to have.

Ultimately we want our graduates to be equipped for success as they pursue their passions in high school, their college of choice and well into their adult lives. We hope they will look back at their Merritt experience and say they really enjoyed the journey.

(November 2017)