Rising Heights Academy in Midway takes student-led approach to elementary education

Rising Heights Academy Director Melissa Ray stands in front of the school building
Brock Marchant/Park Record

Melissa Ray knows what it’s like to struggle in elementary school. She had a hard time performing well as a student under the typical structure, lessons and other foundational aspects of public education. 

“School was really, really hard for me,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to go into education to help kids learn in a better way, in a different way.'”

After her son started school, she saw her struggles reflected in his experience.

That’s why she started Rising Heights Academy, a private elementary school in Midway bringing less traditional and more student-led methods of teaching to the classroom.

After teaching fifth grade for three years and running a floral and event-planning business for six, she decided to start a school — one that could cater to students like her and her son, allowing kids who would otherwise struggle a positive early learning experience.

Walking into Rising Heights Academy in Midway certainly doesn’t feel like walking into other elementary schools.

Though the lights may be off, the buildings have enough windows that light floods in regardless. Though there is a main desk in the entrance, there is not an exuberant lobby but rather just a small room breaking into a couple of hallways. Though there are teachers, students and classes, there aren’t rows of tight-fitting desks facing lecturing teachers.

Rather, kids engage in an education style called Montessori.

“In a public school, you sit in desks, and it’s teacher-led. … All the kids learn the same lesson at the same time and they are given, ‘OK, we have an hour to do this assignment, anything left over, that’s homework,'” Ray explained. 

It’s different in a Montessori classroom.

“They learn sometimes a lesson together, a big lesson, and it’s to spark interest more often than not, and then they’ll break up into smaller groups,” Ray said. “It’s very small group-oriented at where the students are and then a lot of times they do their own follow-up work.”

This can take many forms, Ray explained, such as pizza-eating monster comic strips to show the fraction of pies they consume in order to work on the math proponents of the situation.

“You let them take that uninterrupted work time,” she said. “Yes, they’ll get other lessons throughout the day, but during those couple hours where it’s their independent work time, that’s what they’re doing. … It allows the kid to feed off their interest in a productive way.”

The benefit, she explained, is students with time-management skills and self-motivation.

In Rising Heights Academy, students get the benefits of a high student-to-educator ratio. Ray said that in addition to each classroom having two teachers — one for each half of the day — they also have two aides.

In one classroom, the class constitution — by the students for the students — was displayed on a wall. 

Different areas of the classroom were designated for different subjects.

In one section sat figures representing ones, tens, hundreds and thousands, as well as small puzzles showing how much of a circle constitutes an eighth or a tenth. On another shelf were books about dinosaurs and photos of trilobite, ammonite and orthoceras fossils next to models students could touch. 

Props to help illustrate math concepts sit in a Rising Heights classroom.
Brock Marchant/Park Record

One student was learning about different kinds of leaves, while another — after being asked to count to 10 — was determined to reach 100.

While portions of the school remain under construction, it is scheduled to fully open in October. With four classrooms in total, Ray said the school will have 88 to 100 students at full capacity.

It is no secret to Ray that with monthly tuition for grades one through three at $1,385 and four through six at $1,585, makes Rising Heights less accessible to parents not earning high incomes.

While she said she and the administrator to not make much more than the teachers, the school still does have investors to pay and finances to balance.

When asked what struggling students who can’t afford to enroll at schools like Rising Heights can do to improve their experiences, Ray offered some suggestions.

Parents, she said, can talk to teachers about the individual needs of their students. She also emphasized the value in the time kids spend with their families and in them becoming aware of public resources like libraries.


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