Visiting Schools: Transformative Professional Learning

When you visit her school, principal Cynthia Bagby-Ellison let’s you know know right up front that she has a heart for all kids and mindset for innovation.
You might gather that from her webpage, but it’s clear that it’s culture first when you visit in person.
Bagby-Ellison raises her voice as the elementary band launches a rousing chorus of a John Phillips Sousa march–another thing you might read about on the website but you wouldn’t fully appreciate without visiting.

You’d also miss how quickly the multi-purpose space turns into a student-led discussion (below) or how enthusiastic students are when describing why they like Redwood Heights.

Redwood Heights Elementary School, in the east hills of Oakland, serves a diverse group of 375 students. It’s one of 131 public schools (86 in Oakland USD) serving about 50,000 students.
Grants from the Rogers Family Foundation and advice from Senior Director Greg Klein have introduced blended tools like ST Math in every classroom and supported development of a half a dozen mature rotation models. Brian Greenberg, Silicon Schools and Redwood dad, has also been a valuable advisor.

The Rogers family seeks to engage Oakland school teams to create at least 3,000 high quality, innovative, personalized, student-centered seats by 2020. The transformation process often starts with a school visits to see what is possible and to inspire staff.
Klein said school visits can be “supremely valuable when the visitors are clear and candid about what they aim to see and why, and when the host knows that information, and only agrees to hosting the visit at the specific day/time if they can reasonably guarantee that the visitor’s aims can be met in that time window.” Klein said when there is expectation of alignment, teachers often state they have an understanding of how to  “change things in their own classrooms the next day.”

Veteran teachers at Redwood Heights were enthusiastic about their three station rotation model (below). Not yet a whole school model, the school is still on a blended journey.

Theresa Sanders, a teacher for over thirty years, might argue that the journey is what makes Redwood such a great place to teach and learn. She expressed that this most recent year has been one of her favorites due to the fact she is getting to learn and try new models in her classroom with the trust and support from Principal Bagby-Ellison. While there is benefit in seeing design-built models, it’s often important for teachers to see a school with students that look like theirs in a period of transition.
“When it comes to schools, seeing is believing,” said Brian Greenberg. “I’ve found it more effective to take educators to schools where they can see new models in person rather than trying to convince them with only words.” He warned, however, that we have to be mindful of the burden we are placing on innovative schools and be strategic about change management so that not everyone gets on an airplane and makes the pilgrimage themselves.


School visits can be life changing–they have been for us. You can see more in schools worth visiting, but visiting schools gives you a chance to experience the culture and context in a way that the best video can’t convey. In the first minute of a visit, the sights, sounds and interactions give you a pretty good indication of the school culture. If you visit schools with other people and build in some time for reflection, you’ll see a school from several perspectives and learn even more.
Almost 200 community members from Kansas City have visited schools around the country thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as part of the Kansas City Great Schools initiative (#KCGreatSchools), which was designed to expose “community members to cities with concentrations of high-performing public schools serving a similar population of students as those in Kansas City’s public schools.” Participants got a chance to see design-built schools and those still on a journey–each with their own unique structure, culture, and curriculum.

We visited other Bay blends and innovative Oakland schools, new schools in New Orleans and schools on a blended journey in Washington DC; and we saw innovative purpose built high schools and elementary schools as well as transformed middle schools in Denver.
In the middle of these trips we visited schools in southeast Asia, including the famous Green School in Bali. We discovered that the traditional Singapore American School (SAS) had been transformed by a staff inspired by visits to more than 100 schools in seven countries.
SAS superintendent Chip Kimball said about the trips, “It transformed our thinking.” His team added, “It created what John Kotter would call a ‘sense of urgency’ for change.” The visits taught Kimball that a great school takes a “culture of excellence, possibility and extraordinary care” (adding that very few schools do all three well).
School visits can be a powerful part of a professional learning plan and a critical part of a school transformation effort. It expands your sense of what’s possible and informs the path forward.
We’re planning fall school visits. Contact [email protected] if you’re interested.
For more, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Greg Klein

Thanks, Tom, for visiting and writing about Redwood Heights. For more information, your readers can view Redwood's Blueprint at the bottom of HUGE thank you to Samir Bolar and the great team at the Mastery Design Collaborative ( for their tremendous beyond-the-grant support at Redwood and other Oakland schools to help teams create a blueprint documenting their innovative school model.


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks Greg, we appreciate the work of Rogers Family Fdn!

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