STAFF ED: Pursuing Pursuit Day’s Potential

Wydown’s pursuit days suggest a new method of learning.


Robin Fultz

Students at Wydown Middle School engage in Pursuit Day.

The Clayton School District’s purpose in educating students, as described in its vision statement, is to “develop leaders who shape the world through independence, creativity and critical thinking.”

Yet for most students, primary and secondary schooling consist of prescribed, rigorous academic curriculum with little room for the choice and independence that foster this creativity.

Other school districts around the nation have adopted systems that give students more agency to pursue topics that genuinely interest them.

Walter Payton College Prep, a top-ranked high school in Chicago, places a large emphasis on enriching education and granting students opportunities to enhance their schedules with untraditional seminars.

These “choice periods” range from activities such as horseback riding to classes on improv comedy and do little to diminish the academic rigor of the school: Walter Payton College Prep has a college attendance rate of 99 percent and students score around eight points higher than the state average on the ACT.

Last year, Wydown adopted a similar system. The generally-unproductive early release Fridays were transformed into “Pursuit Days,” where students were given the liberty to choose what they wanted to learn.

At the beginning of the year, teachers compiled a list of potential classes that wouldn’t normally be taught in a school setting, similar to those at Walter Payton College Prep.

After a few days, students picked and ranked their favorites. While the concept behind Pursuit Day was intriguing, the actual implementation was less than ideal.

A survey taken by participating students at the end of the year revealed the common sentiment that Pursuit Day did not reach its potential.

Many students did not receive their first choice of class, weren’t with friends or didn’t like the classes they chose in general.

Some of these classes were located outdoors, and often didn’t work well due to the unpredictability of St. Louis weather. This year, the district decided to stop and re-evaluate the program.

A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 2010 found that approximately one in four youth meets the criteria for a “mental disorder with the potential to have a severe impairment across their lifetime”, with nearly a third of students suffering from an anxiety-related disorder.

These numbers have risen over the past few decades as schools across the country have propagated competitive academic environments.

The District must break the monotony of work and stress and embrace the approach successfully implemented in other schools to give students some agency behind their learning.

According to Senior Vice President for Education Pathways Carolyn Booker, having enrichment classes and programs leads to “an increased motivation to learn, improved self confidence, feelings of belonging to a larger community and reduced anxiety” in students.

A re-imagined Pursuit Day could serve as a way for the District to better achieve its holistic educational goal and help students grow in ways beyond the classroom.

Creating a better and successful Pursuit Day could consist of making sure students are put into their desired classes, as well as offering a larger variety of classes, focusing in all areas of interest (music, arts, science, tech, math, etc.).

Also, having the option to have different classes for different semesters could give students a chance to be in classes they want and so the students can be with their friends, and explore other areas of interest.

CHS could take a page from the efforts at WMS and consider adopting a model similar to Pursuit Day and Payton’s Seminar Schedule.

On Early Release PD Days – rather than having a full schedule of shortened class periods – the morning could be dedicated to two longer seminar periods.

Teachers could propose passion classes for students to chose from. This move could energize teachers by providing flexibility and opportunity to teach something that they really love but is outside of their subject area. Additionally, this provides students agency in their learning, since they would get to select which seminar course they want to take.

Seminar day could also serve as an avenue for community members to engage with the student body by volunteering to host a class for students.

The opportunity to break away from the grind is upon us — we should take it.