Eight Ways New Schools Innovate

The rapid global shift to hybrid and remote learning–with lots of versions and variability–provoked renewed interest in new school models. And, compared to 20 years ago, the invention opportunity is enhanced by the science of learning, broad agreement on the importance of success skills, and better tools.

The opportunity to design schools to promote whole child development is expressed in a framework from Turnaround for Children. The five design principles include “positive relationships, environments filled with safety and belonging, integrated supports, the intentional development of critical skills, mindsets and habits that all successful learners have, and rich meaningful instructional experiences so that students discover what they are capable of.”

With Altitude Learning and for the Texas Learning Exchange, we are building on Turnaround’s complication of learning science and cataloging innovative school models. We spotted and tagged features of innovative schools in eight dimensions. New school models innovate in one or more of these dimensions. They may not have a long track record of success but their early practices and results are promising.

1. Outcomes: how student learning goals are expressed. Outcomes may be innovative in the way they are described, the group they target, or the level strived for:

2. Learning model: how learning experiences are authored, organized and sequenced. Examples of learning models that feature engaging and innovative learning experiences include:

3. Social and emotional learning: whole child development, as Turnaround notes, combines positive relationships, safe learning environments, integrated supports, and skill building. Examples include:

  • Valor Collegiate Academies places human development at the core with environments filled with safety and belonging. The Valor day begins with Compass Circles where facilitators promote mindfulness and social and emotional skills.
  • Social and emotional skills are developed in a team-based advisory system called Crew in EL Education schools. Learning expeditions (projects) involve students in original research, critical thinking, and problem-solving, and character development with a focus on contributing to a better world.
  • SEL is at the heart of equity-centered systems and structures in Austin ISD, where they are “working hard to create brave, respectful, collaborative spaces to support all students, staff, families, and communities.”

4. Competency: how learning is measured, communicated, how learners progress through the system, and how they share their progress and capabilities.

5. Diversity, equity, and inclusion: how diverse learners are welcomed and supported in their learning journey. Examples include:

6. Organization of time and staffing: innovative ways of organizing learning experiences, schedules, supports, and staff. Examples include:

  • To support high dose tutoring, Brooklyn LAB pioneered the LAB Corps Fellowship, a residential talent development model.
  • Schools in the Opportunity Culture network share a system of multi-classroom leadership that provides both a talent development ladder and better support for junior teachers.
  • There are more than 150 teacher-powered public schools where teacher teams have the autonomy to lead their site.
  • Boston Day and Evening Academy have proficiency-based pathways that allow students to progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time. Students benefit from wraparound services, digital tools that help create a personalized approach, and a school open 12 hours a day.
  • Bedford County Public Schools has eliminated master schedules at secondary schools, instead of assigning 12-15 students to a “learning coach” who meets with students routinely to promote connectedness and to develop flexible schedules that meet the needs of each learner.

7. Tools: learning platforms and applications that support innovative practices. Examples include:

8. Theory of Change: unique entry points or partnerships, productive scaling strategies, and networks. Examples include:

  • Tiny start: 4.0 Schools helps edupreneurs pilot their learning model in an afterschool or summer school program.
  • Start small: Kettle Moraine School District launched three microschools to initiate high school transformation. Each started with a couple of teachers and a few dozen students and together they grew into almost half of the high school enrollment.
  • Dallas ISD supports new schools with Innovation Engine grants and personalized learning support. Denver’s Imaginarium supports new and transformed schools.
  • Community as classroom: Tacoma School of the Arts was the first of a network of three schools to leverage community resources.
  • New format: Prenda is a new way to think about remote learning. small groups (pods) of 5-10 students meeting in homes, churches, community centers, or workspaces.

Most innovative schools combine two or more of these dimensions. Examples include:

  • Building 21 in Philadelphia is building a network (#8) around an innovative outcome framework (#1) and learning model (#2), competency assessments (#4) with strong relationships where every student is known and understood (#3).
  • San Diego Met offers students four years of Internships while earning an AA degree with a high school diploma. Gateway to College helps disconnected youth earn an AA with a high school diploma.
  • Solar Prep is a Dallas ISD PK-6 (soon to be PK-8) girls school with a 50/50 socioeconomic diversity blend featuring blended and hands-on STEAM learning including robotics and coding.

The sudden shift to remote learning in March exhibited the limitations and inequities of current learning models while promoting newfound agility. The nine-month struggle to deliver learning experiences under duress made clear to many the potential for new school models. Efforts to launch new schools and transform existing schools around these eight dimensions may be a benefit of the crisis.

For more, see:

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To help inform and deliver new agreements, new practices and new tools Getting Smart and eduInnovation are exploring the Invention Opportunity thanks to support from the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The findings and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of the foundations.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

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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