City’s Charter Network Hires San Francisco Firm To Design The K-8 Public School Of The Future

Melissa Bailey PhotoIDEOThe company that invented Apple’s computer mouse is coming to New Haven to help the Achievement First charter network invent a new model of K-8 schools.

Achievement First (AF), a nationally recognized charter-school management organization headquartered in New Haven, has hired the company, IDEO, a high-powered San Francisco-based design firm, to radically reimagine the traditional school model.

AF plans to spend the next six months brainstorming new ideas with IDEO, then roll out the resulting model at two new schools that would open in the fall of 2015 in Bridgeport or New Haven, according to Dacia Toll, Achievement First’s CEO. The effort will reexamine how schools structure the school day, use technology, involve families in their children’s education.

Toll dropped that bombshell announcement Wednesday night at a joint meeting for the boards that govern its Connecticut schools in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford. In making the announcement, Toll acknowledged that the charter schools have focused too much on teaching to low-rigor standardized tests and are ready for a “disruptive” change in model.

Toll co-founded Achievement First’s flagship school, Amistad Academy, 15 years ago, then oversaw the replication of that school model into a fast-expanding network of 25 schools in Connecticut, New York City and Providence. She said Achievement First staff have been focusing hard on reading and writing, but the achievement gaps with the state remain too large, and the pace of progress too slow.

Now AF aims “to go after a new school design entirely,” Toll told board members gathered in a community room inside Amistad Academy Elementary School at 130 Edgewood Ave.

IDEOIDEO is a global consulting and design firm whose clients have included Samsung, Toyota, Proctor & Gamble and G.E. Achievement First has hired the firm to conduct a six-month research and development project, from February to July of 2014, to come up with a new design for a school. Parts of that design may be piloted in existing AF schools this fall. AF aims to open two entirely new schools in the fall of 2015 using that model, Toll said. One school would be an elementary school with grades K to 1; the other would be a middle school starting with grade 5, she said.

Because the schools are charter schools—publicly funded schools that accept public school kids by lottery and are run by private organizations under their own charters—AF would need state permission for the experimental schools. Because of “political challenges” in New York City, where a charter skeptic just replaced a pro-charter mayor, AF would seek to open the schools in Connecticut, in “Bridgeport or New Haven,” she said.

AF spokesman Mel Ochoa said he did not know the cost of the contract with IDEO. He said it is being paid for by private donations.

In its project with IDEO, AF aims to create “disruptive innovation”—just as a car company invents a hybrid car, or a scientist comes up with a “breakthrough cure,” Toll said.

“I love Achievement First. I’m proud of Achievement First. However, we also feel like there are a couple of key areas where we want to think in a more unconstrained way,” Toll said. She dubbed the effort “Greenfield”: “Imagine a green field,” with no structures on it and limitless possibilities.

Toll said she wants AF to rethink the basic components of schooling, such as the school day, class schedules, and the use of technology. She said the schools need to come up with new ways to teach kids noncognitive skills, such as teamwork and persistence, that will help them succeed in life. And AF aims to introduce “family engagement in a way that we’ve never done it before.” The effort will likely include a large investment in technology, she said.

She characterized the experiment as the next big step for an organization that seeks to constantly evolve.

In a frank concession, she said the organization previously focused too much on preparing kids for the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), the basic test of reading, math, writing and science by which the state and federal governments measured a school’s success.

“The biggest mistake we made as an organization was pitching to low-level tests,” she said.

Now, she said, Achievement First is teaching kids more higher-order thinking skills aligned with the new Common Core national standards and assessments, which are replacing Connecticut’s legacy tests. On Wednesday, she called for more dramatic change.

“I’m not sure we’re actually that innovative,” she said. “We’re trying to get someone to push us in new ways.”


Toll described IDEO as “the top design firm in the world.”

“They invented [Apple’s] computer mouse. They get far more people who approach them for work than they” can say yes to, Toll said.

Toll said IDEO would assemble a team including “some of the best experts in the field,” including one of the architects of the Common Core, to advise AF’s effort to reinvent itself.

Toll said she doesn’t have a clear picture of what the new model will be: “we’re just at the beginning of figuring out what this is.”

“We’re trying to go into this more with problems we’re trying to solve than solutions we’re trying to implement,” Toll said.

The problems include how to close literacy gaps between Achievement First students, who are mostly poor minorities, and their statewide peers; and how to help kids build “habits of success,” also known as “character development” or “non-cognitive” skills.

Achievement First has not ignored character development, Toll said. But “it’s not enough at the center of what we do. It’s always been the second-class citizen to the academic objectives.”

“We want to do much more systematic R&D [research and development]” in the area, she said. “There’s a lot of cognitive brain research out there”—including on human motivation—“that we haven’t paid enough attention to. We’re trying to say, we’re going to come up with a new school model.”

The idea met a lot of excitement, and some concern, from board members.

“This is absolutely fascinating,” said Melinda Hamilton, chair of the Amistad Academy board.

Angela Scott, an incoming member of the board that oversees Hartford’s AF schools, was skeptical.

“You’re looking at IDEO as a design expert, but it’s not their sweet spot as education curriculum,” she said. “Why them?”

“That’s a great question, and one I’m worried about, too,” Toll replied.

Innova SchoolsToll noted that IDEO “did a whole school network in Peru,” transforming a system of rote learning into one focused on “group work and technology.”

“There’s no doubt that they’re not educational experts,” Toll said. She said she was skeptical at the outset, too. But she sat through a couple of design workshops with the group and was blown away. She said IDEO pushed her to new heights of innovative thinking.

Lankford Wade, another incoming member of AF’s Hartford school board, asked if the experiment would create an uncomfortable split, where some schools are working in an old model and others are innovating. He later elaborated that he is concerned that AF might sacrifice its current model in an effort to rush to a new one.

Toll replied that current AF staff won’t be left out. “The ideas for the new schools are going to come from all sorts of people,” including current school leaders. Plus, she said, AF aims to pilot some of the ideas in existing schools this fall.

Another board member asked Toll if the new model would require a “major investment in technology.”

“I think so,” she replied.

“Blended Learning”

Toll mentioned the idea of “blended learning”—using technology to support and in some cases reorganize classroom instruction. That includes the idea of the flipped classroom, where kids watch videos at home to learn new concepts, then spend their time in the classroom working on problem sets or other projects typically assigned as homework. The method allows for more individualized help and small-group work, and less classroom time spent on lectures.

“I’m not going into it saying we’re sure it’s going to be a blended-learning school,” Toll said. But the use of more technology fits with the ideas of adding more individualized learning, and moving away from seat-time instruction to “competency-based” instruction, where kids move forward at their own pace as soon as they master certain skills, she said.

So technology will likely have “a more dominant role” in the new model, Toll said.

In a classroom-style arrangement, Toll asked board members to break into four groups to discuss the day’s news.

Recalling a simile Toll had raised earlier, Dick Ferguson (pictured), chairman of the Elm City College Prep board, raised a key difference between designing schools and designing cars. With cars, he said, there’s a chance to test-drive them and use crash-test dummies before putting them on the road.

“When you start to build a new school model,” however, “the only way you know if it’s going to work is to put real live kids in it,” Ferguson said.

He later said he supports the plan because he trusts AF to be thoughtful about its approach. He said he was just “wondering aloud” about what it means to “take this innovative model and try it out on real kids.”

Andy Boas, chairman of AF’s Bridgeport board, was more optimistic.

“Continuous improvement is the mark of a great organization,” he said.

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posted by: robn on January 23, 2014  10:49am

AF and IDEO should be aware that some elective “disruption” has produced negative results in the past. Case in point; Branford’s Walsh Intermediate School was designed in the 1970s as an open classroom school. The desire for an open atmosphere ignored very basic issues of privacy and acoustics that have made for a very difficult learning/teaching environment.

Long and short: experiment but don’t do something that’s difficult to undo.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 23, 2014  12:18pm

What happen with the Investigation of the high rate of suspensions among Achievement First charter schools.

posted by: Walt on January 23, 2014  6:05pm

Hopefully the newer curricula will consider   some training on the negative effects of garish hairdos and excessive piercings on the chances of the student being hired after they graduate from the School

Even if they are sharp,  neat, well - trained kids, appearance can   easily kill job opportunities

posted by: CreatingUrgency on January 23, 2014  7:05pm

“In making the announcement, Toll acknowledged that the charter schools have focused too much on teaching to low-rigor standardized tests and are ready for a “disruptive” change in model.”

So, charter schools were supposed to be the innovators…laboratories of innovation…which showed public schools how to “do it right”. And now, NOW, you are saying “WE DID IT WRONG!”

You have got to be kidding!

Achievement First can con anyone out of money.

posted by: Eric B. Smith on January 23, 2014  7:38pm

@Walt. I am the father of the teenager I believe you were referring to when you mentioned “garish hairdos and excessive piercings.”  The curricula does not need any of the type of training you mentioned.  That’s a parent’s job, which I will never abdicate to a school.  Yes, she is sharp, neat, well trained (if I do say so myself) and her appearance is perfectly fine (as others have said so themselves, including the photographer apparently).  Rather than fit the cookie cutter image of America implied by your comment, people should be free to choose how they want to dress and style themselves.  She has made informed choices and her choice to not serve at places that won’t let her live authentically has not hindered her from getting good internships, volunteer opportunities, and acceptance into four colleges she has heard from so far with no rejections.  Your comment makes it clear that we have a long way to go before we can accept people (I intentionally did not use the word “judge,” since it’s not our job to judge anyone) based on the content of their character and not by the color of their hair or the number of their piercings.

posted by: Walt on January 24, 2014  3:33am

Eric Smith

Tried to be non-offensive,  by not referring to the picture, but obviously did not succeed. 

It is the job of personnel folks to judge many factors in hiring, including appropriate appearance .

Your daughter, from what little can be determine from the published picture appears neat, good-looking and intelligent,  and the fact that she was apparently chosen to represent others on this important new group certainly indicates she is thought of as way above average.

Do not wish to insult her or you,  but my point is still valid.  She will do much better on the job market if she grows out of this fad.

Up to her, and I guess you, to some extent,  but I believe the schools as well as the parents should offer guidance

posted by: ElmCityVoice on January 24, 2014  9:26am

Seriously, these AF people have NO SHAME. After years of scamming and bullying public schools for not properly teaching to the test, they decide the test no longer works. Perhaps it’s because their kids are doing no better with this miserable “teach to the test” strategy they call education than the public school. This reminds me of the children’s story,“Sneetches on the Beaches” by Dr. Seuss.

AF people don’t want to have “Teach to the Test” stars on their bellies if the rest of do. Now they’re willing to spend hedge fund money, go through the magic machine, and come out with IDEO stars on their bellies. Dick Ferguson, an AF board member wondered aloud, what it means to “take this innovative model and try it out on real kids.” Hey, those “real” kids are our kids! Why not try it out on your own kids first.

posted by: Eric B. Smith on January 24, 2014  10:14am


You’re right only in the sense that appearance matters when seeking a job.  Where you’re wrong is in the assumption that there’s only one standard for what’s appropriate.  Without knowing what a person is looking to do career-wise, one can’t begin to assess what’s appropriate.  It’s also broad, paternalistic, and condescending judgments that tend to insult and offend, despite a person’s best intentions.

I also can’t help but disagree with you regarding the role of schools in offering this kind of guidance.  I look to the school to provide subject matter education.  Its best to leave education on these types of issues up to parents for a number of reasons.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on January 24, 2014  10:15am

posted by: Walt on January 24, 2014 2:33am

Do not wish to insult her or you,  but my point is still valid.  She will do much better on the job market if she grows out of this fad.

There are jobs the fad industry that she could apply for.She could get a job as a Model.She can get a job as a actor.Who says she has to apply for a job in the main stream. As far as hair when it comes to Black folks we are always under attack.

posted by: robn on January 24, 2014  10:43am


This is Sir Richard Branson, Knight of the Realm, accomplished sailor, philanthropist, F1 team owner, billionaire.

posted by: mohovs on January 24, 2014  1:31pm

So the previous mayor rebuilt all the schools in New Haven over the last decade and now they are obsolete buildings???? Give me a break. If you head out of New Haven you will find that many communities have no problem with their kids learning using schools from the 70’s that are obsolete by todays standards. Please do not waste any more money building new buildings when they are not the problem.

posted by: Walt on January 26, 2014  7:36am

Hardly a fair comparison, Robn

Sir Dickie was third generation royalty
( if Sir meets that definition)  from a very wealthy family , a dialectic who could not handle school and dropped out of high school for good.

Got involved in music and drugs and eventually became an entrepreneur,  He was great at that, as you have indicated,

Apparently was never hired by anyone at any time ,He was instead,the boss and the hirer,  and could make his own decisions, not to be OKed by others.

As you   probably know,  Bronson usually looked pretty sharp, not as in your photo,  appropriate for his position in music,

He was also a gambler, and when he lost a big bet, posed for your un-typical picture in order to pay off his debt, it is said.

Not really an apt comparison,

Kind of sorry now   that I opened the subject,  but nevertheless the topic   has truth,  and I believe the system should offer some enlightenment to the kids before they face the hiring interviews

posted by: Eric B. Smith on January 26, 2014  12:16pm

Walt, no need to feel sorry for starting the conversation.  It’s worth having and it’s similar to the conversation my daughter and I had when she expressed interest in coloring her hair and getting piercings.  The issue isn’t that you raised the issue.  The issue is how you raised it, e. g. the adjectives you used.

And Robn’s comparison my not be fair, but it sure is funny!

posted by: nhstudent4ever on January 26, 2014  8:14pm

I think moving away from teaching to the test is a positive direction, but I don’t think technology is the answer. Kids today often have access to technology, and that seems to cross economic lines. I think they should focus on the “habits of success” rather than the technological issues.

Schools should foster creativity and individualism. It sounds like Jasmine will be very successful regardless of her choices of appearance. Schools should teach the importance of being neat and clean, and how a certain professional appearance may be expected in some settings. However, they should also be championing the notion that your intellect is far more powerful than your appearance!