Wish List: Piecing Together an Ideal School From the Ground Up

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It started as an effort to shine a spotlight on creative schools and teaching practices all over the country and became the inspiration for a new school. Three teachers, Michelle Healy, Brooke Peters and Todd Sutler, started out on a year-long journey they called The Odyssey Initiative to visit a list of schools they’d put together based on recommendations from education professors, journalists, and other teachers.

“It stemmed from the idea of giving the public a window into what the daily life of a teacher was like -- and that our schools aren’t necessarily failing,” said Michelle Healy, co-founder of Compass Charter School. “There are a lot of special amazing schools in our system that we could learn from.” Last school year, they traveled across the country documenting noteworthy teaching practices at district public schools, charter, private and parochial schools.

The trip inspired the three teachers to launch Compass in Brooklyn, New York, set to open with two kindergarten classrooms and two first grades in the fall of 2014. When it has reached its full capacity, the school will have roughly 250 K-5 students. “We saw how the best practices we were witnessing could inform a really transformative school model,” Healy said.

Here's what they learned.

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1. INQUIRY WORKS AT ALL AGES

Brooke Peters taught kindergarten before embarking on this project, and has experience using the interests and passions of the youngest learners to drive learning. “It comes down to trusting kids," she said. "We need to create wider boundaries of what we expect from young kids.” That often means getting out into the community and letting kindergarteners ask questions about the world around them. "We need to create an environment that allows for a little more room and a little more exploration,” Peters said.

That process is easier when teachers know their students well. “The adults in the building will be getting to know the students really well,” Healy said. “Not just academically, but as people. It’s important that the kids be known and all these things can be brought into the classroom.” Using this information, teachers can develop relevant project-based learning experiences that drive student inquiry through their own curiosity about the world around them. “It’s centered towards each individual learner,” Healy said. “The teachers in a progressive classroom are viewed as facilitators who know their learners well and can tailor instruction to each student who comes their way and to each level as well.”

2. INTEGRATED CURRICULUM IS POWERFUL 

A visit to H.O. Wheeler, a public magnet school in Burlington, Vermont, convinced the team that integrating art and sustainability themes will add depth to the curriculum. At Wheeler, an art teacher and a subject teacher work together to develop lessons that access traditional classroom content in more creative ways. Healy described a science lesson they witnessed on leaf categorization; students created their own replicas and categorized those in addition to the ones they’d found outside.

“It gave them a more powerful experience and a bigger venue for communicating their thinking,” Healy said. “It was a powerful example of why the arts should be integrated into the curriculum on a regular basis.”

3. MULTIPLE ASSESSMENTS GIVE A FULL PICTURE

Standardized tests are a reality, at least for the foreseeable future, and there are schools across the country, including well-known examples like Science Leadership Academy, that strike a balance between providing the exploration-based education that inspires teachers and learners, as well as preparing kids for the tests.

“There needs to be balance struck between these two models because the stakes are so high,” Healy said. Instead of teaching to the test, she described treating the test as a genre of education whose pitfalls and structure can be analyzed. “We need to be real that we need to prepare our kids and have them look at this test and negotiate it kind of in the way they’d look at a fiction text or a biography,” she said.

While acknowledging that the state tests will be important for students’ future, the co-founders saw that multiple modes of assessment, including interviewing families and keeping portfolios of student work, help round out the academic picture. “We can’t ignore [the tests], but at the same time there are lots of different ways for us to look at if they are doing well,” said Peters.

4. BUILT IN PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT SUSTAINS TEACHERS

Almost every school doing innovative and exciting things has built-in time for teachers to work together, reflect on their practice and develop new ideas. Planning and prep time can be considered part of keeping schools sustainable because they prevent teacher burnout and help keep teachers satisfied. One model for professional development used by many Odyssey Initiative schools is an early release day.  Students get out early one day a week, allowing teachers to meet in grade-level groups, teach one another and have adequate time to plan projects and lessons.

“We don’t feel like it’s very sustainable to ask our teachers to work for their whole weekends or late into the night on grading,” Healy said. She acknowledges that teachers always have too much to do, but school leaders should try to minimize that.

5. OPEN-ENDED TECHNOLOGY USE

"Our stance on technology is that it’s purposeful, open-ended, and developmentally appropriate," Healy said. She cited studies by pediatric doctors warning parents to limit screen time for all children and eliminate it for children under two entirely.

"It’s important that young kids have ways to document their own work,” Peters added. She’s seen that done with cheap flip cameras, as well as iPads. But the two teachers expect technology to be treated as an extension of the inquiry based process. “We don’t want our students to be limited by our thinking,” Peters said. “As much as we are open-ended in our thinking we are still a product of our lives. It’s about allowing the possibilities to happen.”

One thing the two teachers are adamant they won’t be using are closed-system games or software often dubbed “drill and kill” programs. They saw instances of technology used in open-ended exercises, like at  Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. , where they sat in on a fourth grade math class. Students used tools like Educreations or ShowMe to write out their work on tablets with a stylus, explaining their thinking at the same time. “It was really pushing on that understanding and comprehension of the subject,” Healy said.

6. LEARNING SHOULD BE GROUNDED IN PLACE

When the Odyssey Initiative visited ACE Leadership high school in New Mexico, they found a great example of how grounding a school in its physical location can enhance learning. The school  focuses all its teaching through the lens of architecture, construction and engineering, offering a hands-on learning model. Many students at ACE dropped out of other high schools, but were happy in this experiential school model. The school partners with community members for almost all its projects, which are often based on solving real-world problems. For example, when Healy and Peters visited, the students were designing a bridge for U.S Fish and Wildlife Service taking into account a hatchery located nearby. Students studied the affect their bridge would have on the hatchery and made proposals to Fish and Wildlife officials. Based on their favorable impression of the students' work, the officials asked students to design the informational kiosks found in the adjacent park.

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Visiting ACE helped crystallize what Sutler, Healy and Peters already knew as long time teachers -- every school is different and reflects the broader community. Although the three educators are opening a school in an already crowded education landscape, they don't intend to grow. "We're not looking to be a network; we’re not looking to open 100 locations across the city," Healy said. “We don’t think that’s a sustainable model for providing schools that are grounded in the communities they’re in.” Instead, Compass hopes to use the surrounding community for the kids benefit, grounding them in place.

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