By David Ross

Through our Exemplar Program, P21 is working to identify, document, promote and celebrate examples of successful 21st-century learning. This program provides educators and communities a variety of models to draw from, and offers policymakers and business leaders vibrant examples to help encourage their support.

As of December, we have identified 75 exemplars. Excellence comes in many flavors, and our network ranges from pre-schools to early-college high schools in rural, suburban and urban settings, with varied governance structures (private, independent, charter and public). Despite the variety, through lines can be identified, which we have described in a publication (Patterns of Innovation) and now share in this blog.

The vital role of effective leadership will become evident as we examine the five essential and interacting ingredients of a successful Exemplar. We believe these ingredients represent the foundational features required for transformation into a 21st-century school and provide leaders with a clear pathway to develop those features.

a 5-way venn diagram highlighting the 5 pillars of whole school transformation: distributed leadership, student agency, research & evidence, engaged community, and a climate of achievement

1. Climate of Achievement

Over the last two months, I have led site evaluation teams in daylong visits to potential Exemplar schools. In every visit, the team saw a palpable school climate of success, recognition and high expectations.

Educators and communities have recognized the importance of school climate for many years. More recently, its importance has been elevated in terms of the impact it can have on school transformation.  In turnarounds, the school climate is often one of the first things to be addressed by new leadership.

This is especially true for schools implementing high-quality Project Based Learning. Leaders must establish a culture of inquiry before the pedagogy takes hold. We saw this time and again on our visits.

At Feaster Charter School in Chula Vista, CA, walls are adorned with posters focusing student and staff attention on the mindset skill being developed each month. At Sycamore Valley Academy in Visalia, CA, principal Damien Phillips was overseeing a monthly awards ceremony in which parents and students cheered as their peers were recognized for displaying the Habits of a Scholar, many of which are integral to PBL.

2. Engaged Community

A strategic plan is one of the first documents that candidate schools submit as part of their Exemplar application. Mission and vision statements come next. During the review process, P21 staff looks for alignment between the strategic plan and mission and vision statements.

Ideally, school leadership uses those documents to access the support of the community. When our evaluation team visits sites we look for evidence that local and regional businesses are involved in the school. We look for evidence, even in elementary schools, that institutes of higher education play a role in leadership development and professional learning.

“We are proud of the partnerships we have,” says principal Emily Clare of Avonworth High School in Pittsburgh. “We push collaboration for teachers, between school buildings and outside the school.”

The school excels through partnerships with nearly all the leading art and culture institutions in the Pittsburgh area, including the Carnegie Science Center, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol Museum, and the Mattress Factory, a celebrated contemporary art installation museum. These partnerships have helped Avonworth create the Pittsburgh Galleries Project, giving students and educators a chance to connect with the art and museum world hands-on behind the scenes, and create their own curated galleries with input from museum experts

3. Distributed Leadership

Exemplar schools embody distributed leadership. The principal demonstrates personal and professional ownership of the vision and he or she effectively communicates how that vision shapes teaching and learning, but ownership should be viewed as community property. All stakeholders execute the vision with enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm is promoted by continuous engagement and assessment of community needs.

Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois took a novel approach to distributed leadership: The school became part of a brain trust. Five years ago, District 41 created a committee of educators and administrators devoted to exploring the future of education in the district, particularly in light of increasingly rigorous standards. The “Think Tank,” as it came to be called, “looked at the rigor of the Common Core,” noted Assistant Superintendent for Teaching, Learning and Accountability Karen Carlson. “We knew we were ten-plus years into the 21st century, and asked, ‘What do we need to start doing differently?’”

With support from the Illinois Consortium for 21st Century Schools and an eye towards the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning, the Think Tank surveyed educators, reviewed research, visited other districts and established the District 41 Learner Characteristics. Operationally, the District 41 Think Tank recommended the introduction of multi-age student groupings, teacher specialization and a block scheduling system. That recommendation led Franklin Elementary to a full multi-age instructional system, with students in grades two and three and grades four and five grouped together to enable more personalized instruction for students.

4. Student Agency

At the heart of student agency is the belief that schools are for and about students, and students need to deeply participate in their learning. The leaders of Exemplar Schools epitomize this: They help create a culture that invigorates the belief that school is about students’ needs and aspirations.

At Springfield Renaissance School, administrators and teacher leaders embed opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning. Students are expected to assess and demonstrate their progress through student-led family conferences, which teacher Keith Wright describes as “a way of returning responsibility for the quality of the student’s education onto their shoulders. We have 11-year-olds who identify ‘strong pieces of work that show what I’m doing well, pieces of work that show where I need to improve, and a plan for how I’m going to start improving.’”

Renaissance students also create portfolios at critical points in their education, where they showcase project work that they feel demonstrates to both peers and teachers their readiness to move forward.

5. Application of Evidence and Research

Leaders at Exemplar schools apply effective research-based approaches and theory in the formation of their overall mission, the development of supports to the mission, and in their everyday practice. The approaches used by the individual schools are diverse yet they deeply implement many aspects of the P21 Framework for 21st Century Learning.

Perhaps the most common and transformational approach observed across the Exemplar schools is Project Based Learning. PBL is a key practice among most Exemplars and is a featured element of the rubric P21 uses to evaluate potential candidates for the program.

Before a 21st-century learning redesign, Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, CA, had issues with discipline, local violence, a predominate focus on test scores, demotivated educators and disconnected parents. Superintendent Kathy Gomez wanted to revitalize the learning culture so that students wanted to be at school. The goal was to create “something more meaningful for students, moving away from a test-taking culture.”

Katherine Smith leadership engaged the school community with a project-based learning model for the school’s redesign. Staff members were asked to make a commitment to PBL and the school’s new vision to stay. Seventy-five percent of the existing staff exercised voluntary transfer and an influx of committed educators established a college-bound culture, with a belief that all students can make it and achieve at high levels, utilizing project-based learning, professional collaboration and shared leadership. “No other school has reinvented itself with PBL wall-to-wall,” says Principal Aaron Brengard, especially in a high-functioning high-poverty setting like Katherine Smith.

These essential ingredients have proved successful for our 75 Exemplar schools. And now there’s room for more. Applications are open for next year’s cohort.

This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more about this series and to learn ways that you can contribute, click the icon below to go to the Project-Based World page.

pbl world.png

Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

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David Ross is CEO of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. Follow him on Twitter: @davidPBLross


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1 COMMENT

  1. Love that this is narrowed down to a short list of the most important components of school change. I’m curious if the research and evidence component is meant to be an active process of data gathering and reflection. I have found that several schools place a lot of evidence on the gathering of all relevant data before taking first steps in implementation, which leaves them years behind the curve. Thanks again for the read!

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