Aspiring to Aristos

This MMSD scholars and grants program recognizes the best of the best Madison teachers

Five years ago literacy coach Beth Steffen had an excellent idea, but she needed seed money to get it up and running. Armed with research suggesting that student-centered, project-based learning with “authentic audiences” outside of the school improves achievement, she applied for and received a unique grant that would enable teacher collaboration to develop a technology-enhanced interdisciplinary program designed to improve literacy among ninth- and tenth-grade English as a second language students at La Follette High School.

Students used multiple new texts and skills from all core academic areas to study their topic of choice, food. And they employed flip cameras—relatively inexpensive technology—to photograph, film, and edit their projects and share them via podcasts and blogs to connect with outside audiences. The caliber of the projects showed the degree of students’ achievement. And the teachers’ best-practices-based collaboration process is replicable for future program development.

More than one hundred grants like Steffen’s have begun thanks to funding from the Aristos Scholars and Grants program of the Madison Metropolitan School District. Aristos is a Greek word meaning excellent, or optimal, and the program recognizes Madison’s most innovative, creative teachers. It’s part of a concerted district effort to foster groundbreaking thinking and elevate the level of education in our community. The program began in 2001 with grants from the Rennebohm Foundation, the founding funder, and later from the Kelly Family Foundation. To date, $700,000 in Aristos grants have been administered by the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools.

Aristos has also helped enrich art education. A grant enabled Meri Lau, Midvale Elementary School’s art teacher, to give her K-2 students firsthand experience with art. Her students ooh and ah at the paintings, sculptures, and other exquisite pieces during annual field trips to local art museums.

“In museums the art is real and genuine; it’s not the same as seeing it on a screen,” she says. “The kids appreciate it and come back with their families, so we’re creating community connections, too, and public-school visits to the museums have increased substantially.”

Lau’s initiative, launched just over five years ago, continues today and is self-sustaining. A private donor began funding her field trips—and similar ones at other schools—in year two.

Here’s how the program works: Each year Aristos awards grants of up to $10,000 for inventive faculty program proposals. It also designates about twenty Aristos scholars from among grant recipients and peer nominees, who form a think tank to examine district educational issues.

Scholars serve three-year terms. “We start with a two-day retreat in early October to explore educational issues. Then we meet monthly and bring in speakers, watch videos, or read books to fuel our discussions,” says retired assistant superintendent and program director Rita Applebaum. Scholarly discussion subjects span the educational spectrum and the K-12 age range. The topics are wide-ranging and often confront the toughest challenge today’s schools face, from maintaining quality of education in an era of declining revenues to minority student achievement and public perception of the education system.

Before Jennifer Cheatham joined MMSD as district superintendent in 2013, the scholars focused on the leadership transition. “We discussed lessons learned, what we wanted to change, and what we wanted to preserve,” says Applebaum. “The scholars are a cross-section of the district, and we created a video talking about what we wanted to see in a new superintendent.”

Cheatham viewed the video before becoming superintendent and found it useful to know teachers’ thoughts.

“The Aristos program does great work to identify creative staff members in MMSD and provide them with new learning, enrichment and resources to help us think about strategic innovation in our district,” says Cheatham. “Our schools are incredibly focused on the day-to-day work of great teaching and learning—continually reviewing data and making the best decisions for children. And while we stay focused on that work, there are also places where we don’t have all the answers. We need to identify areas that truly require innovation—rather than pilot practices we know work—and target our innovation efforts there.”

Aristos encourages teachers to do just that. “The grant process has rigor and accountability, and requires proposals that are research-based and haven’t been done before,” says Steffen, who also served as an Aristos scholar.

Recent grants enable an engineering curriculum targeted to underserved students, a Chromebooks-based reading achievement program, a case management system for students affected by ADHD, a digital storytelling program using iPads, and a technology-centered math classroom to address knowledge gaps.

The coolest thing about the program for Steffen is the opportunity to interact with people she wouldn’t otherwise have a reason to. “Across the district, it’s the only time we’re able to gather and think together,” she says. “Aristos is a treasured experience for teachers in Madison. It changes people’s perspectives.”

Mika Oriedo, a peer-nominated former scholar and a teacher at Sennett Middle School, agrees. “Time is in short supply, and Aristos gives us time to collaborate, read, discuss, and get intellectual with other educators. It makes us better teachers to sit and take the time to learn about concepts and discuss how they would play out in our own classrooms.”

During her tenure as a scholar, Lau appreciated meeting teachers in other content areas. “I got to meet math teachers, high school teachers, and some administrators,” she says. “And you know they’re colleagues who are really invested in public education. They’re really dedicated and willing to try things, and we got a lot of support from each other. It was so helpful to hear them talk about challenges they faced and how they resolved them, or how they were still perplexed.”

The program benefits Madison schools by validating teachers’ efforts to innovate and building leadership among people who wouldn’t otherwise take leadership positions, Lau says. “It builds a core group of innovative teachers. And others in our schools learn from them, which extends the benefit. It helps improve teaching and learning throughout our schools, and makes you really proud of what the schools do.”

Photo of Rita Applebaum by Sharon Vanorny.

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