By: Keith Nuthall and Becky Perez
Another intense school planning week ended with our team standing on a street corner on a chilly Sacramento day waiting for an Uber to arrive to take us to lunch. Our planning team, including our Superintendent, had just spent the morning at MET Sacramento, We toured the school with Sonny, an articulate senior with a compelling story. While walking backward, he wove together his story of metamorphosis, from a shy freshman to a confident, well-spoken senior. As our Uber approached, our Superintendent looked down in reflective thought and spoke with conviction, “We must do high school differently.”
A One High School Town with Deep Traditions
Nestled among Southern Los Angeles County communities, Paramount Unified School District is a one high school town with a long history of serving over 4,000 urban youth. The community bleeds with maroon and white pride. Alumni greet each other with a handshake and motto, “Once a Pirate Always a Pirate.” Traditions and rituals run deep here. Students’ daily experiences follow a traditional rhythm and predictable outcome. Our community celebrates top-tier college acceptance letters, high parent satisfaction, and state and national recognition, so one may question why must we do high school differently?
Listening to Sonny’s compelling story about his learning journey through MET Sacramento confirmed what our visiting team already knew. Far too many students are struggling and frustrated in the current model, falling behind in an increasingly irrelevant curriculum. Others know how to play the school game, feeling that high school is a waste of time. Today’s high school graduates leave us unprepared to face a rapidly changing future that will demand decidedly different and evolving knowledge and skills. A diploma holds diminishing currency with colleges and future employers and falls short in ensuring active participation in our democracy.
In contrast, Sonny and his classmates spoke eloquently about the value of their education, how they felt respected as a learner and why they felt prepared for today and tomorrow. They described a school culture deliberately designed to ensure equitable access to learning based on their interests and opportunities connecting them to college coursework and industry mentors. Adults did not make judgments and decisions about their capabilities, interests and future for them. Instead, they were full partners in their journey with an advisor. For these students, school was not practice or a game. They were building social capital and a pathway to their future.
Reimagining a High School in Paramount
Reimagining high school in Paramount Unified began with convening a High School Promise Initiative leadership group charged with examining the current state and exploring best practices. The team moved forward in a predictable fashion with school and district leaders touring innovative high schools throughout California. School visits ended with common themes and unique characteristics handwritten in hieroglyphics on seemingly a thousand sticky charts. A new small high school concept emerged from the exploration as a strategy to reimagining secondary schools within the district.
As Odyssey STEM Academy co-founders, tasked with creating a new, non-charter, STEM-focused high school in Paramount Unified, we began by expanding our school design team to include more students, families, and college and university representation. We then engaged them in a six-month iterative design process to construct school design principles and graduate profiles to guide present and future decision-making. Initial dialogue surfaced students’ desires to develop their academic and social potential against current realities. Addressing inequities meant rethinking traditional beliefs and structures that track and disengage students and reimaging new ones that ensure a robust set of support systems.
As a result of this process, we arrived at our Odyssey mission:
Empowering learners by awakening their curiosity and passion to transform themselves and the world.
Stemming from this mission, we derived design principles which define why we exist, what we value, and how will we ensure each Odyssey community member reaches his or her full potential. Because all Odyssey community members are learners, the word learner throughout the document refers to all members of the school community – scholars, staff, families and mentors.
We share this process and our principles as a means to encourage any other leaders or teams working through new school design.
Odyssey STEM Design Principles
Our community of learners celebrates the uniqueness of each individual. Systems and structures designed for equitable access to programs and opportunities ensure academic and social-emotional well-being for all. Meaningful ties among community members foster a trusting, caring, and mutually respectful culture. Intentionally diverse and integrated learning environments create a community-wide culture of achievement so that learners thrive in a multicultural, global society.
Agency, managing one’s own learning, is cultivated through a collaborative school-wide culture that is intellectually challenging. Learners progress on a pathway unique to them. They co-construct purposeful learning experiences, monitor their progress towards learning goals, and determine how to exhibit their depth of knowledge and skill. Time and tailored support empower learners to meet high expectations in a safe learning environment that fosters innovation.
Learners engage in authentic work that matters to them and the outside world. They use inquiry to design projects to tackle society’s greatest STEM challenges. Literacy, numeracy, content knowledge and skills are strengthened through connections to meaningful, culturally relevant experiences across all disciplines. Intentional use of technology ignites anytime, anywhere learning. Learners make their thinking visible by curating and sharing their work with authentic audiences.
Learning Beyond Classroom Walls
Through multiple internships and authentic projects, learners become contributing partners in their work with industry professionals. Internship projects are connected to learner interests and deepen understanding throughout the curriculum. Through this work, learners navigate systems, build relationships, and establish a professional network. The mutually beneficial relationships result in academic growth and character development.
Empowering learners to reach their full potential requires the combined effort of scholars, staff, families, and the community. Communication reaches beyond the standard parent-teacher conference to include families as valued and trusted participants in the learning process. Recognizing, understanding, and valuing individual backgrounds and life experiences contributes to learners’ positive socio-emotional and academic growth.
Putting the Principles into Action
We actively seek opportunities to reflect with our Odyssey community about our intended and lived mission and principles to both refine the design and establish reciprocal accountability for enacting them.
Why did Sonny and his MET Sacramento classmates appear so prepared to face today’s and tomorrow’s career and life opportunities and challenges? They spoke eloquently about the value of their education and how they felt respected as a learner. The school’s mission is alive and deeply held within its students. How can we make that happen for students at Odyssey?
Odyssey STEM will also be a member of the Big Picture Learning (BPL) network, which like MET Sacramento follows ten BPL design principles. Like Odyssey’s design principles, these distinguishers define why and how the community will work together to ensure students reach their full potential. What makes BPL schools unique is the full and ongoing involvement of students, advisors, and family in defining each student’s full potential using six broad, overarching learning goals. Sonny and his classmates tell a compelling story because they are responsible for mapping their own journey.
Our mission calls on learners to transform herself or himself by developing curiosity and zest for learning and life. Transformation is a long and adventurous journey marked by important milestones. Drawing heavily from BPL learning goals and corresponding competencies developed by its partner school Gibson EK, our design team developed learning goals, milestones, and competencies to aid our students learning odyssey throughout high school and beyond.
Odyssey Learning Goals
Communication and Collaboration
Scholars are confident, respectful communicators. They initiate conversations and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with peers and adults to build an understanding of concepts and ideas and complete authentic tasks and projects.
Scholars observe phenomena, generate their own questions, design and conduct investigation, and construct and defend arguments as contributing members of society.
Scholars make sense of quantitative phenomena by constructing viable arguments, justifying their thinking, and generalizing understandings to tackle real-world problems.
Scholars understand diverse perspectives and engage with critical issues of the past and present to examine their impact on society. They use their understanding of local, state, and world policies to become active participants in local, national, and global communities.
Scholars possess the habits of mind to achieve their goals for the future. They are curious and express a joy for learning. They feel a sense of responsibility to make a contribution both at the local level and in the wider world.
An Ongoing Learning Journey
Today’s high school graduates also demand decidedly different and evolving knowledge and skills. Milestones and competencies embedded within each learning goal define key interpersonal, intrapersonal, and intellectual strengths required to prosper and compete today and embrace tomorrow’s career and life opportunities and challenges. Explore our learning goals, milestones, and competencies.
The most important question remains. How will opening a new high school in Paramount disrupt the realities in our comprehensive high school? We are optimistic that the commitment to redesigning structures that traditionally separate the winners and losers will reveal a concrete approach, a prototype, that comprehensive schools can build on as they move towards questioning their role in institutionalizing inequity and courageously redesign schools to do what our mission statements pledge.
We tell our journey of reimagining the next generation, non-charter, public high school in an urban setting to document our work, maybe help a colleague, and selfishly get support and camaraderie from the #RethinkHighSchool community. As Getting Smart founder, Tom Vander Ark quipped at a recent gathering, “This is hard work.” and we wholeheartedly agree. Here’s to learning and sharing throughout the process, knowing that even though it is hard work, it needs to be done!
Keith Nuthall is Principal and Co-founder of Odyssey STEM Academy in the Paramount Unified School District. @KeithNuthall
Becky Perez is Academic Dean and Co-founder of Odyssey STEM Academy in the Paramount Unified School District. @BeckyP_Odyssey
- Building 21: Designing a Network for Competency-Based Education
- Rethinking Readiness: Deeper Learning for College, Work and Life
- Rethinking the High School Credential
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