As the grip of Old Man Winter pins D.C. in a submission hold, the city of Angles does not disappoint: 73 and sunny with gentle southwesterly winds. As recompense for our jaunt into paradise, EIF 2015 is operating on little sleep, pushing forward with an aggressive schedule that has our heads filled with a lifetime’s worth of school designs. It is that intoxicating mixture of sleep deprivation and heat stroke from which breakthrough ideas are born.
The first stop on our sojourn finds us at Aspire’s Firestone/Gateway campus in the Southgate area of Los Angeles. The school was the embodiment of a “1.0” model done well: There was also personalization insofar as students worked independently from a variety of materials, engaged in pull-outs with their teachers, and moved through the content at different paces, and the school was also very orderly. What was most impressive, however, was that the order seemed to be self-directed. The students did not receive instructions about how to change stations—they did it on their own without any apparent disruption or disengagement. This school wasn’t as fancy as a Summit or an Epic, but it was effective—which, it seems to me, is the underlying goal.
KIPP Empower Academy is one of the best-known blended schools in the country. I visited six classrooms, and in each, instruction was being delivered whole-group style. While there were Google Chromebooks lining the walls of each classroom, I didn’t see any blended learning or personalization taking place, which was surprising given KIPP Empower’s reputation.
There was a heavy emphasis on order and discipline. Like Rocketship, the students were expected to walk through the halls on yellow lines and in silence. There were clear procedures in each classroom about how to ask questions, how to sit at a desk, and so on. Student movement was highly scripted and monitored. In spite of the emphasis on order, discipline seemed to break down when students were not directly monitored—that is to say, there did not seem to be much self-direction.
Saint Anne is a 104-year-old Catholic K-8 school in Santa Monica. For the past several decades, the school has served a student population that is almost exclusively Latino and low-income. 98% of the school’s students graduate from high school on time and go on to college, and how they pull this off is the mystery we were trying to divine.
As is the case with many Catholic schools, Saint Anne’s instructional model is traditional and basic, though the school moved to a fully blended model a year and a half ago. What is particularly interesting is that Saint Anne is producing consistent and remarkable outcomes with a low-income population without a particularly innovative instructional model and with a dilapidated physical plant.
Saint Anne’s school culture is worth noting. During our extensive school tour, we had little contact with adults. In every classroom from first through eighth grades, it was the children who were leading the tours. Additionally, students were free to roam the classrooms and talk in productive tones. There was an extensive emphasis on arts, recreation, and movement, and students spent a good portion of each day engaged in such activities. I found it interesting that our Fellows reacted so positively to the school that had the lowest penetration of technology, spent the least money per student (25% of D.C.’s rate), and was located in the most dilapidated facility.
“We started from the bottom; now we’re here”
It goes without saying that the highlight of the day—nay, the highlight of the trip—was the party hosted at EIF Program Assistant Arielle Ford’s childhood home. Her father—the renowned Dr. Henri Ford—emceed the event in a deep baritone voice that spun homey accounts of his daughter’s childhood hijinks. The gracious Mrs. Ford and her lovely mother made a meal that would make any chef blush. Well-fed and -oiled from a Haitian rum sour punch, the evening began with highbrow conversations about personalized learning and quickly progressed to soul train dance lines. It’s safe to say that Asante’s soulful embrace of the blushing Blair was the denouement of an amazing day.
Steve Bumbaugh, Manager, Breakthrough Schools: D.C.