What is your first memory of school?
Was it a teacher standing in front of a room, facing 25-30 students all sitting in desks with a chalkboard behind her? Did your desk have a little opening where you stored your notebooks and writing utensils? Were there rows? Was raising your hand the main way to participate in class?
The term “egg crate school” or “factory model school” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. And most of our public schools today still reflect this paradigm. Our most amazing, talented teachers in this model are able to differentiate and give small group lessons, and really change this traditional structure of school as most know it.
Here’s where it starts to get interesting.
Next Generation Learning Challenge in Oakland (NGLC in Oakland) is a grant program that supports school teams to solve real problems in education by rethinking this typical classroom model and then moving to a personalized learning environment that leverages technology and increases student agency.
Sounds great. How?
Greg Klein, Senior Director for Innovation and Learning at the Rogers Family Foundation, describes the process as a multi-pronged approach.
“Our approach to school design supports educators to create many different models of learning and to imagine what different classrooms could look like. The bottom line is to target and personalize the instruction and the lessons for every single kid,” says Klein.
One popular personalization strategy has been leveraging technology and online content to support each stage of student learning. Some programs can offload teacher lesson prep, while others can give a lesson to a student. These tools can administer an assessment, and can then adjust and help move the student on to what’s next. This can be done while the teacher is working with other students on a different topic or a different degree of difficulty.
Student agency also becomes more apparent in personalized learning schools. Teachers guide students to set their own goals, and then facilitate from the side as students drive more of their own learning.
“We all have to learn about the Civil War, for example, and answer some of the same driving questions,” explains Klein. “But we don’t all have to learn about it at the same time in the same lesson or through the same media. Maybe some of us are going to investigate traditional textbooks, some of us will investigate using the web, some of us will look at fictional stories that are based in historical fact.”
The point is that we can bring those different approaches together in this new classroom model.
“Research on fostering within children a healthy growth mindset speaks to the idea that intelligence is not fixed; you can get better at things when you practice,” says Klein. “Yes, Steph Curry has some natural talents, but he also takes a thousand free throws every day. He works hard and he practices. And the idea that you can get better at things by practicing and having that belief in yourself is a research-based factor.”
In March of 2015, planning grants were awarded to ten Oakland public schools via the NGLC in Oakland grant program. As with many things of this nature, there was more school interest – 26 applied – than resources to support. The screening process was challenging, but for Klein, the thing that stood out to him amongst the schools selected was their commitment to bold ideas.
“They were willing to try a lot of different things: big changes to their bell schedule, new teacher roles, different courses, new ways of structuring the day, different innovative partnerships with third parties, nonprofits, and companies,” says Klein. “The committee felt the schools selected were dreaming big. They have great teams, they have deep benches. The leaders are strong, they’ve been at this for a while and they’ve empowered their teacher teams to have decision-making power and budget-making power. Those are big things.”
The ten schools chosen had a year to put together a new school design model which was showcased at an open house fair in January of 2016. Ultimately, seven schools were chosen to fully implement their new school-wide personalized learning models.
One of the schools chosen was Roosevelt Middle School, led by principal Cliff Hong who has been at the helm for seven years.
Roosevelt Middle School is one of the larger district-run middle schools making the transition from the prototypical “egg crate” model into a schedule with longer periods focusing on personalized learning and STED (science, technology, engineering, and design) learning.
Hong is the type of principal who tends to think outside the box and not adhere to standard programs of learning. He was especially curious about the “Teach to One” model of personalized learning and thought that the NGLC in Oakland grant could help implement this into his school.
After a lot of research and site visits to other school districts who implement the Teach to One learning model, Hong applied for the NGLC in Oakland planning grant.
“Once we got the planning grant, that was a boost for all of us,” explains Hong. “At that point we shared what we were doing more widely with our staff. The structure for the launch grant to start building our school towards being a personalized learning school was so helpful for us, so we went ahead and re-designed our school, did a pilot of some personalized learning strategies, engaged our families, and our staff.”
At that point, Roosevelt was ready to move on to the NGLC in Oakland launch process (view Roosevelt’s school design blueprint here).
“Every step of the way has been about the teachers,” says Hong. “So after the pilot I asked them if they wanted to keep doing it this way, expanding Teach to One, to see how it goes. They essentially said, yeah, it’s better than what we were doing before so let’s do it. Now we’re going full speed ahead and trying to be as thorough with it as possible.”
Hong says that this Teach to One model is especially effective with English Language Learners and students with special needs. “We want to push the envelope to see how much can we personalize for all of our students.”
But how can we measure if this new school design actually works in a quantifiable, measurable way?
“A year from now all the schools will have taken another year of state testing. Like it or not, that will be a big thing,” says Klein. “As models take time to come together, I would argue that the state data collected during the spring of 2018, after two full years of implementation, is really the data to look at.”
NGLC in Oakland will look at spring 2017 state data and school level sources even sooner to get a real-time indication around school progress. Additional indicators such as the percentage of students being suspended, attendance rates, and interim academic assessments will also be examined. “In the long-run, it would be great to support positive school transformation across Oakland,” says Klein. “What I’m focused on now is to help bring school model design opportunities to every single school team that wants to raise their hands and be in this over the next 5-10 years.”
Klein understands that some schools are happy with and getting strong results with the traditional model.
“We have an urgent need for quality public schools in Oakland. Right now. I’m not interested at all in intruding on a school team that doesn’t want our support. We created a program for curious schools to opt in because they have identified a problem they want to solve,” says Klein. “Our role is to support schools in building their own capacity to solve their own problems moving forward.”
One of the wonderful things about the schools who have qualified for this launch grant is that they are not relying on this grant alone. They have other resources in place, which, according to Klein, will help them be even more successful.
“This is where we take a step back,” says Klein. “We’ve put out a set of opportunities to come learn about this program with dollars, support, resources,” explains Klein. “It comes with hard work, but the school is agreeing to do it and the school is bringing community onboard. The school team engages parents, the rest of the faculty, the students, and it’s the school team who owns that. We can help, but I’m not going to swoop into a school and do it for the team and say, ‘Now I’m going show you how to run your own school.’”
Stay tuned. We will check back in with Cliff Hong and Roosevelt, and the other six schools engaged in NGLC in Oakland to find out how they’re doing at the end of the school year.
But as of now, talking to Cliff and other leaders, it is clear that they are in it for the long haul. “I’m continually learning and becoming more and more motivated,” says Hong.
An innovative school, indeed.
-Contributed by Natalie Buster