Holman Pirate Academy: Do. Reflect. Do Better.

by Dr. Sarah Moran and Maegan Bowersox

Holman Pirate Academy is housed at Holman Middle School in the Pattonville School District, and is proudly located in suburban St. Ann, MO. Holman is a diverse community: of approximately 640 students, 38% are African American; 37% White; 10% Hispanic; 10% Multi-Racial; and 5% Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander. Our students speak a variety of languages, practice many religions, and represent unique cultures. Further, our 18.6% IEP rate is 5% higher than the state average, and our Free/Reduced lunch program averages higher than 50%. At Pirate Academy’s conception, our students’ performance on state tests tended to be higher than districts with similar demographics; however, we were scoring lower than other high-achieving districts with less diversity and we wanted to change that.

Pirate Academy Team

Pirate Academy was designed to provide students with a personalized, competency-based learning environment that empowers and equips students to become partners in the learning process. Each day, students in our program make decisions about their learning path and pace, have access to meaningful assessment that drives ongoing and personalized learning, and are supported in learning essential skills for success. Our team has worked for two years to take student-centered and mastery-based learning from theory to reality. Transitioning to this model has been a rewarding, albeit messy, adventure, and blogger Montie Syrie sums up our process perfectly —  “Do. Reflect. Do better.” 

With this mantra in mind, we put a team together to build Pirate Academy. Starting with the right team of people was a necessity; the team needed to be forward-thinking, willing to take informed risks, and see mistakes and failures as opportunities for growth. In building the right team of educators, it was then necessary to let them have latitude to make educated decisions about their practice.

As Pirate Academy began year three in August, we reflected on the past two years and set actionable goals for the 2022-2023 school year.

Table of Pirate Academy goals

Transitioning away from traditional instruction and grading practices has not been easy, but it has been worthwhile. The traditional system was never set up to help every student succeed, yet our mission in the Pattonville School District is that All will learn. For this to become a reality, the educational system needs to become flexible and responsive to student needs. A one size fits all approach will not actually “fit” all learners and will, inevitably, leave many unprepared for the future. 

Pirate Academy is not a finished product, but we do have concrete evidence of the positive impact this type of learning has on students. Because of the transparency around learning in our program, students can explain their progress toward learning targets and are focused on progress toward mastery instead of just a letter grade. Our students are cultivating a growth mindset because we use assessment for learning and not just of learning. They have positive dispositions and attitudes about learning and themselves as learners, know their strengths and challenges, and know how to advocate for themselves and others. Pirate Academy students are becoming leaders both inside and outside the classroom and it is absolutely a joy to be on this journey with them. 

Holman is now scaling up the program; we’ve added two additional teachers to the team and doubled our student count. This has provided a new set of challenges, and we feel ready to take them on headfirst. Our encouragement to schools and teachers considering this shift is this: Don’t give up before you begin because the task seems overwhelming. Begin with your end goal in mind and your personal “why” behind making the change. Take one step. Reflect. Then course correct and take another step. The goal is worthwhile and you will make it up the metaphorical mountain one purposeful step at a time.

Pirate Academy logoPirate Academy is located at Holman Middle School in St. Ann, Missouri. Holman is part of the Pattonville School District. Pattonville is centrally located in St. Louis County, Missouri near St. Louis Lambert International Airport. The district encompasses 27 square miles, including Bridgeton, Creve Coeur, Maryland Heights, St. Ann and surrounding unincorporated areas of St. Louis County, Missouri.