Arts Integration and Expeditions with Personalized Learning: NGLC in Oakland Launch Update

In the piece below Natalie Buster, our guest blog contributor, had a chance to connect with Morgan Alconcher, Principal of ASCEND, and Julie McMillan, a teacher at ASCEND, to discover how their Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC) in Oakland grant allowed the school to evolve into the vision they set forth three years ago. This is part of a series launched in fall 2017 to share updates from our seven NGLC in Oakland launch grantees to hear what they learned from the first year of work and how it has shaped their focus for the second year of the grant.


Rogers Family Foundation: Tell me about last year. How did the NGLC in Oakland launch grant change your approach?

Morgan Alconcher: This last year for us was about scaling our model. Three years ago, we came to a beautiful vision. It anchors in what our model has been: an arts integrated, expeditionary learning school. Our main goal is situating and prioritizing student agency with lots of data sharing and cultivating with kids.  

RFF: You use multi-age classrooms where you group kids across grade level. Why? What are the benefits/tradeoffs?

Flexible seating options in action.

Julie McMillan: Last year we went from working with only our grade-level students to sharing students across grades in developmental bands for both reading and social emotional learning blocks in the day. This was initially a big shift as we learned how to use different data points to regroup students and build relationships with students across grades. Once we systematized this process, we found that students were happy to move from room to room and worked well having multiple teachers. We also created flexible learning environments in our classrooms. This meant that we took away most desks, got rid of assigned seating, and created learning nooks all around the room. Students immediately latched on to this classroom transformation and loved being able to pick where they learned best.

MA: It’s been impactful in so many ways. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves. Using data to drive instruction has always been an important piece of our work and the range of what we offer students. What we’ve learned is a) teachers become stronger experts in the content and in knowing students; and b) students have a more easily accessible pathway to their learning. Students may be with one group for reading and another group for math. This way they’re still with their peers. There is no stigma for someone being “held behind” or “special classes,” there is a culture and sentiment about getting what you need.  

One of the challenges is the paradigm shifting that has to go into reconceptualizing the notion of a teacher’s glory, responsibility, and pride. That all really changes when you teach kids in a team. We have had to have some really intense conversations of internal working models that we hold on to in our moments of challenge of what school should be and how teachers get feedback. It’s about learning to trust your team and working as adults: advocate for what you believe, consider group needs. I think that we have done some really interesting work around our staffing model. The ratio of teachers to students is greatly improved. We partner with local universities, and some teachers are leads for some structures. It’s seamless so kids can move across areas.  

JM: Yes, teachers collaborate more and work together in bigger teams across grades. Our school professional development sessions are designed for us to dive into best student agency practices and develop systems together based on research. We also have weekly Collaboration Time when we get to learn and plan with each other. This time is invaluable to me because it is the time I get to learn from my colleagues.

RFF: What about on the student side? What are you seeing there?

MA: Our kids across our grade levels are really now more competent in working both cross-curricular and cross-grade level. Eighth graders mentoring fifth graders and fifth graders giving feedback to seventh graders. They are melding in how they connect. However, there’s a lot you have to do to make relationships effective and kind with good modeling of behavior. We have had to do a lot around high accountability with our values so that kids check themselves and their role when they are mixing grade levels to that extent. Things like our referral data or suspension data were never terrible, but they have gone down even farther. There’s a greater responsibility in common spaces than there was before.  

JM: Both student engagement and student accountability have increased. Students have built positive and productive connections with students and teachers across multiple grades. Students can speak to where and how they learn best. Reading scores have gone up.

RFF: You also use Teach to One math in middle school. Tell me more about that.

Students work independently on Teach to One.

MA: I  think that I can say now that we are the only school in our organization [ASCEND is an Education for Change school] who is working with that model. And it works because of the other paradigm shifts. Teach to One has let us personalize by way of providing targeted content in a way that only an algorithm can do. We can assess each student each day on what they do. The ability to determine and pre-slug [assign content for students based on prior performance in the program] each day is pretty powerful. That being said, without the really strong culture that we’ve put in place with the program, I don’t’ think that we would have been as successful. When you embed the importance of personalization and student agency with teachers who are truly tracking progress and eloquently work on sharing their reasoning for their thinking, then it’s a success. They can lean in and collaboratively problem solve. But there has to be the buy in. The model is powerful in this scenario. We have set the stage, and I believe it has more to do with our teachers and the way we’ve set up our lab.

A challenge with Teach to One, can be that once a kid is pre-slugged in can be a little bit of a beast to change their path. There are a lot of nuts and bolts that have to be pre-chosen. Flexibility is the tradeoff. We as a school have to look at the big picture to make sure they don’t get stuck in the system.

 RFF: Where do you see ASCEND in five years’ time?

MA: When I think about ASCEND in five years, I believe the things we are doing will be in place. We are working hard as a team to codify what we’re doing. We’ll be much better at it. It’s strong enough that the next round will be built atop this round. We have a very consistent committed group of people who have been in this building doing the work, with pretty strong processes for onboarding and prioritizing fit. I really believe the magic is making sure you have a team who are willing to push and try and sustain when something’s right, engage in hard conversations, and celebrate the small wins along the way. The longevity of us who stay and continue the work and grow in the work will drive the success. Stagnation is not even in our vocabulary.  

JM: I see ASCEND having a competency-based learning model where students can speak clearly to their learning trajectory and learning goals. I see students working on passion projects collaboratively across grades at ASCEND. I see ASCEND teachers following their own personally designed teaching trajectories and becoming experts in their own foci.

RFF: And what’s your goal for your students once they leave ASCEND and enter the “real world?”

MA: We’ve designed a graduate profile for a student at ASCEND. It really is anchored in our habits of work and learning: passion, perseverance, craftsmanship, and curiosity. I want them to leave ASCEND knowing how to take risks in learning, in social situations while still being vulnerable to the many things they have to learn. That knowledge gives them the agency to make choices. I want them to critically consume knowledge and media, to know to ask strong questions, and say what they actually mean with evidence. We try really hard to identify and anchor injustice and change makers. That kind of language and conversation runs through all of our grade levels, even down to our youngest students.

As a leader I have a theory of action around doing for adults what I want them to do for kids. A lot of my own development and research and learning experience has had to do with figuring out how to make the educator reflect what I want for my kids so I can offer teachers and staff an environment that matches an experience like that. We are trying to push on the traditional schooling model by designing what our kids need today, not what previous generations have needed.

Because education is so institutional, to engage in a change process that is lasting and runs deep has to really do with ongoing learning opportunities and networking and connection with funding to stay in the game and have a flow of thought-provoking partnership. Without that, it’s hard to keep the momentum. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure that’s true here. But we need constant feedback.  


Key Data Stats for ASCEND 

For the 2017-18 school year, ASECND has 487 students across Kindergarten to eighth grade. The school’s main racial/ethnicity student groups include Hispanic (94%), African American (3%), Asian (2%), and White (1%). Over three-quarters of students (82%) qualify for free or reduced price lunch, 65% are English Learners, and 8% qualify for Special Education services. ASCEND’s rate of chronic absenteeism was 5.2% compared to California’s state-wide rate of 10.8% (this is the percentage of students who miss 18 or more school days, or greater than 10% of the school year).

In the bullets below we have provided 2017 SBAC assessment results for all students attending ASCEND, any Oakland Unified School District school, and any public school in California that met or exceeded the standard.

  • ASCEND: All Students–33.6% English Language Arts, 26.2% math
  • OUSD: All Students–31.9% English Language Arts, 25.5% math
  • California: All Students–48.6% English Language Arts, 37.6% math

– contributed by Natalie Buster