Back to School with Harmony

Harmony Through The Years

In 2016, Getting Smart produced a series on Harmony Public Schools of Houston, Texas. At the time, the staff was focused on growing in a sustainable way, attracting attention from families wanting a different learning experience for their children. Harmony was serving over thirty thousand students shared across 40+ schools and led by over 3,000 teachers, administrators, and support staff. At the launch of the 2020-2021 school year, administration is expected to see enrollment near 40,000.

2016 (then) 2020 (now)
# of Schools 46 58
# of Students Enrolled 30,735 38,976
# of Students Applied 47,421 52,880
# of Educators 3,151 3,752


Exactly what changes have been made to elicit such progress in just a few years? Where has the school network’s focus been after getting their STEM program up and running? Robert Thornton, a curriculum director and grant facilitator for Harmony said, “There’s a sustained focus from what we were doing then and we didn’t quit—we doubled down.” With that, Getting Smart is once again taking a close look at the bold innovations being implemented by the Harmony team.The Harmony team has developed an attractive learner-centered experience chock full of engaging STEM and project-based work for students. This progress stems from a bedrock culture the staff have cultivated over the past twenty years and recent indicators show they have even more innovation to prove yet. As their staff says about Harmony’s culture, it’s a school that puts core values into action.

Investing in Students By Investing in Teachers

Specifically, we are curious about their progress implementing a grant-funded, radical new approach to how they invest in the professional development of their teaching staff. But first let’s revisit the steps taken a few years ago to position this public charter school system to become the fastest growing of its kind in not only the region, but across the country as well.

Firstly, and even as they continue expanding, Harmony is still dedicated to a very personalized learning experience, an innovation mindset, high expectations for all members of the learning community, personalized, STEM, and project-based learning (PBL), and a college-bound disposition for graduates. From administration, to teaching staff guiding students with parental support, the success stories abound across the charter network.

Recent graduate, Muntazir Panjwani says, “Harmony has teachers that are energetic and love what they do.” Muntazir was a founding member of Harmony’s Innovation Lab and still works there today. “Not every school is giving their teachers this opportunity to further their studies. That gives us a severe edge because we’re already ahead of the game. It’s an amazing edge they’re giving us.”

Harmony in a Time of Global Discord

As the pandemic shut down school operations around the world, Harmony rallied. Teachers and leaders in Harmony launched an initiative with their students to support healthcare workers to the extent they were able. Students took this real-world problem of the COVID-19 outbreak and used their PBL expertise along with the school’s 3D printers to mass-produce shields and masks that were donated to local health care institutions. This is the sort of contribution and responsiveness that demonstrates the leadership capabilities of the students working with the right guidance to make a laudable contribution in their community. Harmony is committed to difference making as the means to learning and preparing students for what comes next.

Harmony Innovation Lab students assembling face shields. Image courtesy of HPS.

In another example of what can happen when Harmony students are empowered by their instructors, students have used the Innovation Lab to serve other needs. Last year, they even produced prosthetic limbs for a young amputee.

There’s a sense of purpose driving students into solving real-world problems. That purpose has staying power, as a number of Harmony graduates continue to stay involved, but now as part time employees at the Innovation Lab while they continue their own postsecondary work as college freshmen. These students see it as their mission to give back.

Imran Abukaker, a 2019 graduate said, “I’ve amassed this knowledge I want to pass along to other kids. All of us at the Lab have an affinity for teaching… My parents wanted to expose me to as many different perspectives as possible, and at HPS there are people of all different backgrounds.” This includes the staff.

The stories, awards, and other notable accomplishments of students and staff at Harmony are the fruits of their labor and commitment to excellence. In order to sustain that in a manner equitable to all, Harmony has worked intensively to direct their energies on maintaining that high level of performance, particularly with cultivating talent in a commendable way.

Agency in Professional Learning

The leadership of Harmony has taken principles and best practices of competency-based education that we’ve known to be a better way of assessing student growth and applied it as an investment in their staff as well. Harmony has built a competency-based approach to career advancement for educators. Using BloomBoard, Harmony developed a replete set of competencies to be nurtured in their educators, awarding achievement with micro-credentials and incentive compensation. Their method is a departure from the top-down observation models prevalent in most school systems in the US and arguably more effective in developing modern practitioners. It includes short term action research and validating the informal continuing education teachers experience in their practice.

We sat down with a number of Harmony educators to hear how the program was impacting their practice. Assistant Principal of Harmony School of Endeavor in Houston, Mehmet Cellik, says, “What makes this work is the action research component. You can read a book and write a paper. This microcredential program goes beyond the paper.” His peers share a similar sense of what is valuable.

Over the next four posts in the series, we will share how HPS has elevated professional learning just as they have for students—by empowering teachers to take charge of their own career advancement.

Additional Resources:

This post is a part one of a five blog series in the upcoming “Getting Smart on Competency-Based Career Advancement at Harmony Public Schools” produced in partnership with Harmony Public Schools (@HarmonyEdu). 

For more, see:

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Eric Nentrup

Eric is an avid writer and education evangelist. With experience in media, edtech, sales and the classroom, he shares a unique cross-section of interests and understanding.

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