Last year we visited project-based Katherine Smith Elementary School, a New Tech Network school in the Evergreen School District in East San Jose. We had to cap our list, but noted 18 things that stood out to us about this compelling place to teach and learn. Recently, we brought another group to experience Katherine Smith and found an unbelievable amount of learning energy spilling out of every classroom.
We saw young engineers building solar powered fans (right) and entrepreneurs mixing new batches of slime (a hot selling Shark Tank Business startup–below right), and students flipping classroom tables to create a theatre backdrop.
We could share with you more about the evidence of project-based learning that permeated the campus, the classrooms we saw that were bursting with energy and enthusiasm as students prepared for an upcoming exhibition night, or about how every teacher expressed how much they enjoyed working at Katherine Smith. Instead, we want to focus on just one aspect of this school that really stood out; the student ambassadors–by far the best example we’ve seen in thousands of school visits.
Students at Katherine Smith apply to the student ambassador program and if accepted, are responsible for guiding and touring visitors around their campus. There are school ambassadors and classroom ambassadors. As you tour the school grounds, a school ambassador also coordinates and works with a classroom ambassador to let you go in visit classrooms.
Principal Aaron Brengard wrote about the first time he saw a student ambassador program at a Napa New Tech High School and how he enthusiastically brought back the idea to his own staff to try. He mentions several goals he has for ambassadors in his program, including increased student agency and social belonging. We witnessed how student ambassadors were meeting these goals in real-time, but wanted to call attention to 6 other takeaways.
6 Takeaways from the Katherine Smith Student Ambassador Program
- Students were confident in leading. The ambassadors were quick to respond to questions, they looked you in the eye, shook hands, spoke loudly and clearly, and were remarkably well informed about where they had been, what they were learning, and where they were headed. They also were extremely comfortable discussing and working with students outside of their grade-level (younger students with older and vice versa).
- Students had real purpose and tasks. Every ambassador had a list of different places around the school and pieces of information that they wanted to cover in the tour. As we walked around, students checked off their lists and discussed with their partner ambassador where to head next.
- Students worked to reiterate. On our first trip, we did not notice an element of feedback. On this visit, students asked for feedback and takeaways after we finished touring. They let us know it was a practice that they just started to incorporate. Students also iterate and customize their tours, depending on the group or visitor they will be leading.
- Students had autonomy and voice. Principal Aaron Brengard, while he was available to students for questions and he debriefed with them post tour, did not appear to prep students about what to say. He clearly wanted the students to lead the tours. He also invited them to be a part of our debrief and lunch, sitting alongside other teachers and staff (on this day it included Evergreen Schools Superintendent Kathy Gomez).
- Students were working on academic goals. As we walked around the Katherine Smith Campus, one of the ambassadors carried around an iPad and used a digital timer to keep track of time. Students also needed to exercise their presentation skills (speaking, listening, and facilitating) as they showed us around.
- Students were working on personal goals. Maybe one of the most powerful takeaways from having a student ambassador was hearing why they each wanted to be one. A student who was working hard to improve in her speech classes decided that public speaking to new people would be a good way for her to practice.
The student ambassador program at Katherine Smith also very much reflects a high-quality mini-project (see Buck Institute for Education Gold Standard PBL) because several student goals and essential project design elements are incorporated. Students had voice and choice, they had an authentic task, received critique and feedback and reflected after the experience.
Principal Brengard left us with a closing thought, which only further validated what we witnessed and reinforced our support of the student ambassador program:
“Something happened for us when we realized we are not preparing students for a real world some time in the future. The real world was right in front of them now. The Student Ambassadors are just one example. We’ve had over 1,000 visitors in the last two years. Ambassadors support an authentic need. They are not just my students – they are my partners.”
For more on student-led programs and schools worth visiting, see:
- Quality Project-Based Learning at Katherine Smith Elementary
- 65 Elementary and Middle Schools Worth Visiting
- Culminating Passions: Student Leadership for School-Wide Change
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