Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas
Student Teacher at Maxfield Elementary

Creating Change in Education: How a Collaborative School Nurtures Success

Iyanna Rodgers-Neely has two classrooms at Maxfield Elementary in St. Paul. In one, she learns about vowel sounds. In the room right next door, she teaches those same literacy lessons to an energetic class of second graders.

An elementary education major from the University of St. Thomas, Rodgers-Neely ’24 is leading a sort of double life her senior year, and it’s completely by design.

“I take classes at Maxfield, and now I have a class at Maxfield,” Rodgers-Neely said. “At the end of the day, I’ve become a better educator.”

In fall 2023, Maxfield Elementary School officially partnered with the University of St. Thomas to become a collaborative learning school. The partnership aims to improve learning outcomes for the school’s 350 pre-K-5 students. Along the way, leaders hope to develop and apply best practices for teaching and better prepare a new generation of teachers.

To achieve those formidable goals, there’s a lot going on. For one, St. Thomas faculty exchange ideas with veteran Maxfield educators. Math and literacy tutoring has been rolled out for Maxfield learners. And at the top of the list: St. Thomas education students – both undergraduates and graduates – are being immersed in the Maxfield community.

Seven teacher candidates are completing yearlong field experiences alongside Maxfield teachers. Meanwhile, faculty from the School of Education are holding class at Maxfield in a dedicated St. Thomas classroom, allowing education majors to build skills on-site and immediately apply them to a real-world setting.

“We know that with each hour of additional field experience, the better prepared our students are to flourish in their own classrooms,” said Dr. Amy Smith, St. Thomas’ School of Education interim dean. “This immersion helps remove the gap between classroom learning and teaching in the field.”

Addressing the needs of all learners

While Tommies learn firsthand how to create student-centered learning environments, they’re also learning how to better meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Serving primarily Black, Hmong and Latino students, Maxfield Elementary has been a mainstay of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood for 130 years.

Iyanna Rodgers-Neely works with students at Maxfield Elementary.
Elementary education major Iyanna Rodgers-Neely '24 works with students in a breakout reading session at Maxfield Elementary. (Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas)

Rodgers-Neely grew up just blocks from Maxfield. And while she didn’t go to school there, she feels a deep connection to her former neighborhood.

“I like that I’m at a school with students that look like me and staff that look like me. I think it’s really cool to have leaders in the school that look like and reflect the students,” Rodgers-Neely said.

With more than 90% of students at Maxfield qualifying for free lunch, and academic proficiency levels significantly lagging their peers, the school was identified for comprehensive support. Just 18% of Maxfield students are considered proficient in math and reading.

As Minnesota continues to face a disparity gap in educational outcomes for students of color compared to white students, the partnership is looking to develop practices and future teachers who are better prepared to address the needs of all learners.

In Sara Moulton’s second grade classroom – where Rodgers-Neely is student teaching – that can be something as simple as starting each morning in a restorative social justice circle, sharing stories, feelings, and a deep appreciation for each other.

“We are helping our students feel like they are truly part of the community,” Rodgers-Neely said. “This experience has allowed me to be able to create different relationships while knowing that all my students come here every day at a different place in their life.”

Maxfield Elementary students visit the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul. The students enjoyed a STEM-oriented lesson about electrical circuits. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

As Rodgers-Neely builds healthy relationships and culturally sustaining pedagogy within her own classroom, the same work is underway across Maxfield. School of Education leaders recognize that first and foremost, Maxfield is teaching them.

“We view the students and the community here through an asset-based lens,” Smith said. “We recognize the many strengths and awesome things that are happening at Maxfield. It’s such a joy to be part of that, and then to offer our own expertise in collaboration to increase student outcomes by recognizing these children for the amazing people they are.”

Unlocking new tools

If you happen to visit Maxfield on a Tuesday, be prepared to be welcomed by a spirited sea of purple. The elementary students here take “Tommie Tuesday” very seriously and enjoy participating in the Tommie tradition of wearing their best purple on the second school day of the week.

Maxfield school assemblies – often held on Tuesdays – now resemble something closer to Tommie pep rallies.

Maxfield Elementary Principal Dr. Leslie Hitchens speaks during an event announcing that Maxfield would become a Collaborative Learning School in partnership with the University of St. Thomas School of Education. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

“It’s just beautiful to watch all that purple,” said Maxfield Principal Dr. Leslie Hitchens, whose favorite color is purple. “Our kids are understanding that there’s a partnership happening, and there’s something new bringing more spirit and life into Maxfield.”

A longtime leader in racial equity work, Hitchens is particularly excited to be working alongside St. Thomas students as they develop critical skills to establish their own inclusive and accepting classrooms.

“This is really a dream for me – helping shape these student teachers into strong restorative teachers, building cultural competencies and instructional practices,” Hitchens said. “Those are some of the most important components that I think they’ll walk away with: those restorative practice pieces, thinking about culturally relevant instruction, and how to support the social, emotional needs of all their students.”

Believing in the mission

The University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul Public Schools and members of the Rondo community worked for years to develop their new partnership. But to truly get a collaborative learning school off the ground, you need donors who believe in your vision just as strongly.

Phil and Margie Soran

Husband-and-wife team, Phil and Margie Soran – both former junior high teachers – quickly saw the potential. Phil, a math teacher turned tech business entrepreneur, had the opportunity to learn at a collaborative school when he was an undergraduate.

“I really love the idea of the collaborative school since student teachers get that exposure earlier on,” Phil Soran said. “With the challenges we're facing in education, we hope this partnership gives a much-needed boost to the students at Maxfield and our future educators coming out of St. Thomas.”

The Sorans have long had a focus on educational philanthropy, supporting the Dougherty Family College at St. Thomas and other initiatives around the Twin Cities. Their support at Maxfield is funding professional development, classroom learning opportunities for pre-service teachers and an opportunity for staff members to focus on research goals.

“We need to do a better job supporting all students, and it starts with teachers,” Margie Soran said. “We want our teachers to be able to go into a classroom and support a diverse group of learners from diverse backgrounds. This opportunity, I believe, will be extremely valuable to teachers as they move into the profession.”

Committed to change

Creating change doesn’t happen overnight. And this collaborative learning school is being built for the long term.

The School of Education has committed its resources through at least 2030, when this year’s preschoolers will be fifth graders and preparing to leave Maxfield.

Dr. Chelda Smith speaks at a combined professional development session for members of the Maxfield Elementary staff and School of Education community. (Brandon Woller '17/University of St. Thomas)

Dr. Chelda Smith, faculty at the School of Education, is serving as faculty-in-residence at Maxfield. The new role was a natural fit for the professor, an expert in asset-based pedagogy who studies African American education and teacher preparation.

“One of our main goals at Maxfield is to help teachers who don’t demographically identify with their students – at least on the surface – to still provide an incredibly rigorous, enriching, culturally-sustaining instructional practice that allows students to thrive academically and personally,” Smith said.

Smith held lessons for her fall courses, including one titled Diversity and Cultural Competence, on-site at Maxfield inside the St. Thomas classroom. Over the weeks, she partnered with Maxfield teachers to explore how issues like the COVID-19 pandemic impacted learners.

School of Education faculty Debra Monson speaks with Maxfield Elementary staff. Monson and other faculty have spearheaded math and reading tutoring at Maxfield. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

“When I look at that particular learning experience, and I think about what it means for our St. Thomas students to graduate and go into a classroom, I feel they are more prepared than perhaps any other group of students graduating right now,” Smith said.

Feeling the promise of transformation

This spring semester, the partnership at Maxfield has expanded. Student interns from Dougherty Family College, the associate degree program at St. Thomas, are gaining experience in Maxfield classrooms. Meanwhile, a research study is preparing to examine the correlation between student attendance and academic achievement.

As the Maxfield Collaborative Learning School partnership evolves, the goal is to share what works at Maxfield with schools across the Twin Cities and beyond. By researching, learning and innovating, participants realize how a bright future at Maxfield could lead to a much brighter future in classrooms across the country.

“We’re here to make sustainable progress and create real change in education,” Dr. Amy Smith said. “I think so many of us are feeling that promise and the magic of what this already is, and what it could be.”