by Dr. Ryan B. Jackson

I can remember the first time I drove down to Mount Pleasant, Tennessee. It felt like it took forever. I was making the trek from Hermitage. As I pushed deeper and deeper into rural America, as my mind twirled around the idea of a new educational journey—vastly different from the previous 10 years in inner-city Nashville—I could not help but wonder: Am I making the right decision?

I fashioned myself as an innovator, a visionary. My final three years at Maplewood High School in Metro Nashville were spent embedding the STEAM mindset and practices into our school. It was during that time I became a firm believer in embedding art into a STEM curriculum, positioning students as creators, not merely consumers of content.

A week or so into my new journey as principal at Mount Pleasant, I read a quote by Simon Sinek: “Innovation happens at the fringes.” It was a lightning bolt of truth at the exact moment I needed it. At the time, Mount Pleasant High School was in a state of despair. Low enrollment, negative stigma, few arts programs and a culture of fear. By all accounts, this was a school in crisis.

This was when Mount Pleasant High School’s Courage to Create vision was born. Using STEAM as the catalyst, our goal was to empower teachers and students to incorporate holistic learning practices, centered around high-profile projects with many students across various content areas coming together to create something special.

That’s the funny thing about innovation: it comes in all shapes, sizes and ideas. Yes, we were going to re-brand ourselves, eradicating the negative stigma and downtrodden culture and perception, but we were not going to lose our entire identity. In fact, we embraced many of our inherent strengths: a thriving construction and agriculture program and a new mechatronics and arts program to name a few.

Our staff rallied behind the idea that many hands make light work and actively sought ways to connect students with specific projects that played to their strengths. This approach worked twofold: it enhanced our students’ perceived sense of belonging, which, in turn, enabled students to feel more capable. We were mapping a journey for students to find success utilizing their innate talents while sharpening much-needed skill sets.

Three and a half years later, Mount Pleasant High School has added eight industry partners, amassed more than a million dollars in grant funding, decreased violence and discipline, increased enrollment and student achievement—and it still feels like we’re just getting started.

The component—the main ingredient—has been art. I truly believe art breathes life into the soul of a school, and as I have watched Mount Pleasant resurrect itself, this belief grows stronger.

It is true: innovation does happen at the fringes, and it manifests in many shapes.

 

Dr. Ryan B. Jackson (’09 and ’13)
Executive principal, Mount Pleasant High School