Next-Gen Schools Thriving in Detroit

Getting Smart isn’t new to sharing good news from Detroit, but recently, as part of a joint trip with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) and CEE-Trust, a couple members of our team were lucky enough to return to the city. Its obvious driving around, that part of the city have been neglected and abandoned. But it didn’t take long for us to be inspired by the passionate people rebuilding the schools, businesses and community. Detroit has A LOT to be proud of, especially in the world of Next-Gen learning (and BBQ).

NGLC identifies seven design principles for Next Generation Learning and the schools we visited were excellent examples of these design principles in action:

1. Student Centered: Designed to meet the diverse learning 
needs of each student every day

Each classroom we entered at Cornerstone Charter Madison-Carter Academy illustrated a different picture of student centered learning. One door opened to a computer lab of kindergarteners actively engaged in online content from CompassLearning. Another opened to 3 station rotation model where some students were working online, others were in small groups, and another was getting small group instruction from the teacher. Hard to visualize? Check out the short video below:

2. High Expectations: Committed to ensuring that every student 
will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare 
them for success in college and career

A great example of high expectations is the culture of career and college readiness that is visually apparent on the walls at Burns Elementary (EAA). Students were asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, and some students even had the chance to dress the part. The school has fostered an environment focused on high expectations for all students.


3. Self Pacing and Mastery Based Credit: Enables students to 
move at their own optimal pace and receive credit when they demonstrate mastery of the material

The PASE program at EAA Southeastern High School is a perfect visual of what self pacing and mastery based learning can look like. When you walk into the large open space, you can’t help but be reminded of a college experience. There are small study rooms, large open tables, and even couches and a student store. This space, that feels more like a college library than a high school, is where program participants spend a large majority of their day, but for each of them, the day looks very different. The PASE program, with a current enrollment of about 110 students, sets them up to be successful through college, by providing a guided, college-like experience where students make choices about their schedule and their learning. Students are not selected for the program based on good grades and superior attendance, all students are invited to apply, identifying why the unique learning environment would work best for them. Each of the students we spoke with could articulate exactly how they learned best, and they were empowered to build a schedule that meets their unique needs. One student describes: “I do math first, because it is hardest for me, then science because it is easy…hard, easy, hard, easy.” Students explain that they have to be responsible, determined, and willing to work hard, but they all love it. We know that behind the scenes the teachers are hard at work designing independent courses, motivating students, constantly analyzing data and preparing lectures (lectures that the students decide whether or not they need to attend), but what you see is kids at work, meaningful work.


4. Blending Instruction: Optimizes teacher- and technology- 
delivered instruction in group and individual work

In addition to the variety of student centered, blended learning environments that we mentioned above, each school we visited included online learning effectively in their schools. Each classroom had a blended of teacher instruction and online content. We saw a variety of online content at work, including Apex Learning, Compass Learning, ALEKS, ST Math, Rosetta Stone, and BUZZ from Agilix.

Students talked about how the online content prepared them for their daily lessons and teachers described how the data collected from these content providers drove their instruction. Data has allowed teachers to know how well each students is mastering content.  At Cornerstone, we were even invited to join the online classroom via the QR code below, bet parents LOVE that.

5. Student Ownership: Empowers students with skills, 
information, and tools they need to manage their own learning

Student panels were a component of each of the school visit and listening to these students talk, it is extremely clear that they take true ownership over their learning. Here are a couple of our favorite student quotes from the visit:

“It doesn’t mean they’re smarter than me, it means they’re getting more work done.” – Southeastern High School student explaining that having mastery progress charts posted in the classroom serves as motivation rather than embarrassment.

“Before I only came to school for my friends, now what I learn is my friend.”

“I rely on my teachers, when I am not my best.”


6. Scalable: Designed to serve many more students if it 
demonstrates impact  

Can you scale culture? Matchbook Learning which operates three schools in the Detroit area including Burns, has created a strong structure and non-negotiables that each of their schools is built using. While the schools will develop their own unique culture, there is a consistent culture that is scalable because of their turnaround framework;

  1. Assessments

  2. Content

  3. Classroom Design

  4. School Design

  5. Talent

Each classroom has consistent components, every teacher has been trained and developed specifically for the school design. Classroom content for every student is tracked on Buzz in addition to other blended learning programs. Blended learning specialists hired by Matchbook help provide the unique combination of assessments, content and classroom design that the organization offers. Using this strong framework, it’s conceivable that Matchbook will continue to scale even in some of the most struggling schools in the country.

7. Financial Sustainability: Sustainable on public per-pupil 
revenue within four years

Each of the schools we visited is thoughtful about their financial planning. We were able to listen in on a presentation with Afton Partners, that covered what a breakthrough financial plans looks like and how to address gaps and challenges during the launch phase of a school. We appreciate the rich discussions that happened with all the school leaders present. Every school had a unique challenge, but with the support of the group was able to gain valuable information that will continue making them a sustainable school model.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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1 Comment

Jesse Bean

This is an inspiring account of the work underway in Detroit. Particularly compelling is the self-paced, mastery based credit program at Southeastern HS - reminds me a bit of the e5 model in Victoria. Thanks for sharing!
I also wanted to highlight the work that each of the six EAA high schools is currently engaged in around building a performance assessment system that demonstrates Next Generation Readiness. Through their work with our firm, Envision Learning Partners, each high school is implementing a 4-year continuum of performance assessments that will ultimately culminate in a College Success Portfolio Defense. We've piloted and refined this system at Envision Schools over the last 10 years - here's a sampling of that "culminating moment": .
I can't wait to see thousands of EAA high schools seniors this Spring as they celebrating their achievements and demonstrating their capacity to Know, Do, and Reflect at a college-ready level of proficiency. Proud to be working and learning alongside of a very dedicated group of EAA educators at Mumford, Pershing, Ford, Denby, Southeastern and Central Collegiate Academy!


Caroline Vander Ark

Jesse thanks for the comments. We really enjoyed our visits!

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