I heard an amazing true story recently about preschoolers and stuffed animals at Plato Academy, a small private school serving grades PreK-8 in Des Plaines, Illinois.
The preschoolers went to their local firehouse on a fieldtrip. When it came time for questions, one student asked the firemen about what happens to stuffed animals in fires. The fireman told the preschoolers that, unfortunately, many children lose their stuffed animals in fires.
The preschoolers were so distraught by this news that they wanted to do something about it.
As a result, they decided to gather their own, gently-used stuffed animals to share with children who lost their belongings in fires.
“They went around classroom to classroom to tell the other kids what they were doing,” described Maria Bolos, director of school operations at Plato Academy.
Within two weeks there were garbage bags full of stuffed animals that they marched back to the firehouse with and said, ‘Here, we want you to give these to kids that lose their stuffed animals in a fire.’ – Maria Bolos
The more that Bolos and Principal Marianthi Koritsaris shared about the school, the more it became clear that question-asking and can-do activism are characteristic of Plato Academy students.
Maybe that’s not surprising for a school that focuses on service learning and on giving each child a voice.
In the classrooms, Koritsaris said, you’ll see students doing more of the talking and teachers doing less of it. In other words, students know that their opinions and ideas are welcome and will be heard. That holds true even in school-wide decisions, like lunch menus or field trips or whether to host a school dance.
“They feel very comfortable walking into the office with an idea of a project, whether it be a service project or an entrepreneurial idea they have about selling coffee to parents on Friday mornings,” Koritsaris said.
This climate of mutual respect between teachers and students is rooted in the defining word of Plato Academy’s mission statement, the Greek word philotimo. The meaning? “Honor your fellow man.”
“There are a lot of schools out there that talk about doing service projects, and kids have to do 15 hours of community service as part of their graduation requirement,” said Koritsaris. “The difference is that we don’t impose that on kids. It arises from things they’re either reading about or being confronted with. Then kids have this aha moment of ‘I want to do something about that.'”
Here’s another example of kids at Plato Academy wanting to do something. When first graders and kindergarteners read a story about how some people don’t have clean water to drink, they were upset.However, their reaction quickly became one of taking action. The kids made a YouTube video with an action plan to help those without clean drinking water. In addition, they put donation bottles and flyers around the school, next to each water fountain.
“So when you get a drink of water, you come to terms with the fact that there’s people who don’t have access to that,” described Kortisaris.
Kortisaris shared a third story just as compelling.
“Kids heard about local St. Baldrick’s events that raise money and awareness for kids with cancer,” she said. “They went to one of those events, came back, and said, ‘We could do that ourselves.’ Lo and behold, for the last three or four years we’ve put together a dynamic St. Baldrick’s event. We’ve had at least half of our population raising money, shaving off their hair, or donating ponytails. We’ve had poster children from St. Baldrick’s come in to meet our kids.”
Despite its tiny size, the school raised a remarkable $16,000 last year from this project!
From mixed-age learning to unique homework policies, students at Plato are up to so much more than community service. But these stories are an awesome testament to how the school is empowering students. Kids are engaging personally in classroom learning and incorporating it into all areas of life.
What we want to see is growth, we want to see kids passionate about learning, loving to learn, we want them to be joyful, we want school to be a place where they’re happy, where they don’t want to leave at the end of the day. And we feel we’ve accomplished that. – Marianthi Koritsaris
Education that inspires kids to happiness and bringing happiness to others… Isn’t this exactly what we want for our students?
"Shining a spotlight on effective educational options for every child"