Emily Puetz: We Can Do School Better
By: Lauren Kloser
Emily Puetz likes to say, “We can do school better.” In our evolving world, we have many more ways to think about learning, and what it takes to equip this generation with the skills, dispositions and mindsets necessary to solve complex challenges as they build more compassionate and loving communities. From her role as a fourth-grade teacher in Savannah, Georgia, in ACE Teaching Fellows 2, to her position as the chief academic officer of Minneapolis Public Schools, Emily has striven to make schools a place where students learn academic concepts and thrive as human beings.
As the chief academic officer in Minneapolis, Emily made it part of her mission to be out in the schools every week, assessing what was working in schools and looking for creative ways to serve students and their families better. One Thursday, she was driving in an economically challenged part of the city and noticed Ascension Catholic School, an elementary school that she had never before visited. Knowing the struggle of many inner city Catholic schools, she looked into how Ascension was doing. Emily heard the principal speak at her own church, explaining how the school worked to serve both the student and the entire family, and Emily found remarkable data that showed Ascension was defying the odds on almost every metric. Serving the same population as the public schools just a few blocks away, Ascension significantly outperformed its public school counterparts, with passing rates nearly twice as high on both the English and math exams.
Emily and her team soon discovered that Ascension had embraced the idea of educating the entire child to help their students achieve success. With the help of a dynamic pastor, the school’s administration and staff had created a particularly warm and welcoming atmosphere that made students and their families feel at home. They also leveraged community resources and partnerships in powerful ways so that students and families could receive support services that extended far beyond the school day. Services for homeless families, job training, emotional and psychological support and extracurricular engagement were available for both students and their families. Ascension connected its students to the entire community. In doing so, leaders created a school where children thrived emotionally, physically, academically, and spiritually.
Yet schools like Ascension remain the exception more than the norm, and this desire to see thriving schools for all students (including her own two young girls) continues to inform Emily’s work in Denver. She now consults with individual schools and districts to develop teachers and school leaders and build the systems and structures that create the highest potential for maximizing the gifts of our children. As a consultant for ReSchool Colorado, Emily is envisioning a parallel system that would provide learning advocates for all families as they navigate educational choices and also begin to credential learning that happens outside of formal school. This might mean that a student could receive credit for a mission trip, a research project run through a museum, or weekly piano and violin lessons. By expanding how we think about learning, we can begin to recognize the myriad of ways we can help children acquire the skills to fully contribute to their communities.
When Emily started ACE back in 1995, she never planned to spend her career in education. But more than twenty years later, she can’t imagine more fulfilling work than shaping the learning contexts and the spiritual development of young people. Today, Emily’s passion project involves building an organization called the school of life, which aims to teach young people an expanded set of competencies to thrive in life. The sixteen competencies go beyond academics and include such ideas as mindfulness, self-awareness, emotional regulation, understanding of one’s gifts and talents, creating goals and fulfilling commitments, building effective relationships, creating community and understanding the systems we navigate each day (money, conflict, power, justice and the natural world). By engaging young people in interactive experiences, dialogue, and reflection on topics that relate to their daily lives, she hopes to reach them in ways that will help set them on a trajectory to become life-long passionate, curious, and self-reflective learners with the ability to solve problems in their communities as they make the world a better place.