Elm City College Preparatory Middle School has emerged as the most likely seat of an ambitious experiment to reinvent K-8 education with two-week-long student expeditions, daily martial arts, and a “huge” investment in technology.
Dacia Toll, CEO of the Achievement First (AF) charter school network, confirmed that news—and offered a glimpse at what that experiment might look like—at a five-hour meeting of the boards that govern AF’s New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford schools.
Standing before several dozen board members in the multi-purpose room of Amistad Academy on Dwight Street, Toll outlined a plan for “disruptive change” at the charter organization she founded 16 years ago.
Achievement First in January hired the San Francisco-based design firm IDEO, which invented Apple’s computer mouse, to re-imagine the traditional K-8 school. AF asked the firm to reconsider every basic assumption about the way kids learn, how their day is structured, and the role of the adults in the building.
Toll dubbed the effort “Greenfield” to signify an open meadow with no constraints about what school has to look like or function.
AF plans to pilot a few new “Greenfield” ideas this fall at existing schools, then start creating the new model in earnest in 2015. The working plan, which has not been finalized, is to start a new school, possibly in New Haven, in 2015 with grades K to 1. Also in 2015, AF would begin to convert Elm City Middle to the new model, starting with the 5th grade. Toll said Elm City is the most likely candidate for conversion; a final decision has not been made.
Toll shared a working sketch of what AF and IDEO have come up with so far, four months into a five-month process of brainstorming what that new model will look like.
In the school of the future, Toll said, students would have eight weeks of normal classes, followed by two weeks of “expeditions.” During those two weeks, they would pick from a menu of choices. They could work intensely on a computer programming project, or spend time in a law office or a Yale science lab. Then they’d go back to eight weeks of classes, then break for another excursion.
Students would do a half-hour of physical activity when they show up to school—plus another half-hour of exercise later in the day.
Does “exercise” mean putting kids on a treadmill while they read a book? asked a board member.
Toll said no. It would be “real playing.” The morning session would likely be martial arts, and the afternoon would be some other kind of sport.
“There’s a ton of research that we haven’t been paying attention to” regarding benefits of exercise for the mind, Toll said.
Each student would have a “running partner,” a student who helps him or her stay on pace with academic goals. Students would also have an eight-person “goal team” that would meet in the morning, and check in in the afternoon, to set and monitor personalized learning goals.
That’s part of an overall effort to increase the frequency of feedback kids get.
Another way to do increase feedback is to bring in technology, Toll said.
The new Greenfield school would see “huge investments in technology,” she said. “Every kid would certainly have a device.”
“We don’t want all of our kids learning math from a computer,” she said. But in math class in particular, adaptive computer programs can be extremely helpful in figuring out what a kid knows and giving him or her the right amount of challenge, she argued. In a futuristic math class, Toll said, kids would work at their own pace on computers, then meet in groups to discuss strategies on how they solved a problem.
Math instruction would be self-directed and would occur in small groups of kids. There would be no more large-group instruction, where 26 kids listen to a teacher give a lecture, she said.
AF would return to a longer school day for students, stretching from 7:30 to 5 p.m., Toll said. Those are more akin to hours Amistad Academy used to keep; the organization has cut back the hours over time, she said.
Toll was asked about teacher burnout—a phenomenon that the organization has fought for years. She said AF’s teacher retention rate has hovered around 80 to 85 percent, which she said is not good but is not far from other school districts doing the same work.
She laid out two ways the new school would seek to preserve teacher energy. The first is staggered schedules. One set of teachers would come into school from 7:30 to 3:30; the other set from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The second idea involves creating a new team of teachers who would relieve classroom teachers for two weeks at a time. The teachers would whisk kids away on two-week expeditions while classroom teachers either took vacation or got extra training. A relief teacher could be someone like an Outward Bound instructor who takes a small group of kids camping, she said.
Students would work on a cycle, taking two-week expeditions every eight weeks throughout the year. The expeditions—an idea borrowed from the Summit schools—would cost AF about $900 to $1,000 per kid for the entire year, Toll estimated. Eventually, AF could hire a team of full-time expedition leaders who would spend the whole year work with rotating groups of kids in various Greenfield-ized AF schools.
Elm City Conversion
An internal document obtained by the Independent identifies Elm City College Prep, a middle school serving 219 students in grades 5 to 8 at 794 Dixwell Ave., as the site of the Greenfield experiment in 2015. The plan calls for splitting Elm City into two schools starting in 2015—a fifth-grade Greenfield experiment and a traditional 6th to 8th grade school. The Greenfield project would start with the 5th grade and expand by one grade every year. The two schools might be split onto two separate campuses if AF can find the space. Toll met with teachers to discuss this plan and identified which staff would carry it out.
Toll confirmed Monday that Elm City is a “strong possibility” for a Greenfield conversion; she said a final decision has not yet been made. She said AF prefers to “give the new model a designated space,” but AF won’t be building any new buildings, so they’ll have to find the space.
She said also in 2015, AF plans to create a new elementary school with grades K and 1 to begin the Greenfield experiment there. That may mean creating a new building.
She said Elm City Middle is a good candidate for conversion because it has a “strong team” that has “taken the lead on implementing next-generation technology integration.”
“It’s a bonus that it’s here in town,” she said.
Elm City Middle’s principal, Rebecca Good, who has been at the school since in 2006, plans to leave the school after the 2014-15 school year. Toll said the school has two strong internal leaders who could step up and lead the two schools. Robert Hawke, a former KIPP principal who joined Elm City last fall as a principal-in-training and instructional coach, has emerged as the most likely candidate to lead the Greenfield school. Hawke has been involved in planning the Greenfield proposal; the new school would be a great fit for his skill set, she said.
Magaly Cajigas (at left in photo), the parent representative on the Elm City College Prep charter board, said she supports the Greenfield project but had not heard that Elm City Middle would be involved.
“I’m happy to hear it. A little surprised,” she said upon hearing the news from a reporter Monday.
Toll said AF did involve teachers in the IDEO brainstorming—just not teachers from Elm City Middle. That was not intentional, she said: AF invited “distinguished” teachers, those who ranked highly on teacher evaluations, to take part in the planning process. It just so happened that there were no “distinguished” teachers at Elm City the 2012-13 school year (there are now three), she said.
Parents from both Amistad and Elm City were involved in the brainstorming, Toll said. IDEO even spent hours at parents’ homes doing day-long “home stays.”
Toll said she briefed Elm City teachers on the possibility of opening two new Greenfield schools. An Elm City teacher suggested the possibility of converting an existing school, Toll said. She returned for a second meeting before school ended and suggested converting Elm City Middle. Teachers raised many questions about what the changes would mean for their kids, the school, and their jobs. She said in a survey, 95 percent of Elm City staff responded that they support the conversion.
Parents and teachers “obviously will be heavily involved” in the planning going forward, Toll said.
She added that parents who don’t want to take part in the Greenfield experiment at Elm City Middle will have the option of attending Amistad Academy instead.
Toll said AF came up with the plan after visiting some 20 innovative schools across the country. She visited the BASIS charter network in Arizona, where kids learn from PhD-toting teachers, ace Advanced Placement classes, and outperform their counterparts in China. She stopped in on the Summit charter high schools in Northern California, which have a highly personalized, self-paced curriculum. And she checked out a school in Acton, Texas, that has done a great job engaging families.
Toll said the AF school of the future will aspire to combine three qualities those schools embodied: “accelerated expectations,” “ownership and personalization,” and an “awesomely powerful community.” She said she has not seen one school that does all three.
Toll said the impetus for the redesign was that “we had this fear that we were still working to make a fairly traditional model, but just make it work really well.
“We needed to carve out head space and capacity to think in an unconstrained way.”