Autonomy Over Oppression

by Kayla Larkin, 2016 Education Innovation Fellow

California, February 2016, a “high-performing” public charter school in San Jose. A tiny little black boy no older than five struggles to carry his lunch and walk up a flight of outdoor stairs at the same time. He finally makes it to the top. He stops. The teacher at the top of the stairs scolds him for not walking in scholar position, and orders him to turn around and “do it again.”

I cringe.

I have been that teacher at the top of the stairs, telling similar-faced and similar-aged students to “do it again.” And for what? To prepare them for a world where people walk a certain way?

In that moment, I think of my students 3,000 miles away in DC, who are likely being told to sit and walk in a certain way, to be silent for the first 15 minutes of lunch because they couldn’t possibly finish their lunch and socialize with their peers at the same time. That sort of autonomy would be too tempting.

I think about the students across town in San Jose at schools with many more affluent white students and I wonder why those children are not being told how to walk, sit, or talk. Why are they allowed to move about the classroom and the school freely? Why are they allowed to speak without restriction? And how are they possibly able to finish their lunch and socialize at the same time?!

When we talk about race and equity in education, we talk about funding, teacher quality, test scores, access to technology. What we don’t talk about is autonomy. Why is it that schools that serve wealthier, white children are the schools that allow for student autonomy—a necessary life skill for college and career readiness—while schools that serve less affluent, black and brown children deny their students the opportunity to wield and develop those most critical skills?

I came back from California and tried to undo years of bad habits that I had developed that stifled my students’ autonomy. At first, it was a little scary. I felt like I might lose control if I let them talk instead of eat, walk, or move silently. I thought I might get in trouble for not forcing students to sit or walk in our school’s take on the “scholar position.”

But what was scarier was what would happen if I didn’t start teaching my students autonomy. They might not learn how to manage their time and responsibilities; they might not learn how to work with others; they might not learn how to get off topic while doing their work and then get themselves back on track. And as a white educator, I realized that if I did not begin to relinquish autonomy to my students, it would mean that I would resign myself to a classroom management style that lent itself more to perpetuating institutionalized oppression than to purposefully empowering students of color.

So fast-forward to the Shaw neighborhood in, Washington D.C. during March, April, May, and June of 2016: I let my students talk during breakfast and they didn’t go hungry. I piloted a Montessori-styled model in a class full of black and brown students, and they thrived just like the whiter, wealthier students I saw in California. I watched students go from working silently and independently to actively collaborating, debating, and discussing their learning with their peers. I watched my students go from being prepared to oblige others and accept the status quo, to being prepared to question the state of things and to lead.

12 Kayla Larkin

Kayla Larkin is a second and third grade English Language Arts teacher at Center City PCS–Shaw Campus.

Innovation Should Not Be Strangled by Inequity

by Latisha Chisholm, 2016 Education Innovation Fellow

Equity in education is at the core of who I am as a social worker and educator. I was raised under the poverty line by a single mother. A great education and the opportunities it has afforded me are the tools I have used to move out of poverty and into a place where I am serving children and communities that reflect me and where I grew up.

I moved from social work into teaching because I noticed that the students I case managed did not have some of the basic skills I considered necessary for successful transition into adulthood. How could they be “successful,” or access anything they could dream of, if they could not read above a 6th grade level? How could they be productive citizens if filling out employment applications independently was difficult and sometimes impossible to do coherently?

By the end of my first three years in the classroom, I had not gotten one professional development opportunity focused on data-supported methods that work with academically struggling youth of color—methods proven to actually close the achievement gap. I have used Kagan Structures, or instructional strategies “designed to increase student engagement and cooperation.”1 These instruction strategies contributed to some success with students as measured by highly effective DCPS teacher ratings, high student engagement and academic success with students repeating the ninth grade, and greater ease of planning for differentiation. The effects, however, were not big enough. My students were still flailing and falling further behind in gathering the skills needed to be productive and self-sustaining adults.


As a psychology major and licensed social worker who focuses on adolescents, I am always thinking about child development and how the brain works. A hallmark of adolescent behavior is impulsivity. Of course, I found that my students were making impulsive decisions. Deciding not to do work. Not to turn in assignments. Not to come to school daily. Not to revise work for better grades or mastery, if they had gotten at least a passing grade. Not to do the best they could at all times. These actions did not make sense to me as a generally logical adult, primarily because if asked, all of my students would verbalize that they wanted to graduate from high school. They could tell you at least one profession they were interested in.

I was frustrated and continued to try new things in hopes of seeing big changes with my students. I began prototyping, or trying out innovative ideas, in my classroom before being introduced to CityBridge, the (it was just starting up when I graduated from Stanford), or design thinking. By August 2015—during my 4th year of teaching—I began to ask myself a big question. “How might I increase student ownership and self-reflection that results in more engagement and higher overall academic progress?” My first prototype of the academic year included data walls, student support plans, and checklists for moving toward mastery on each class objective. These seemed to engage some students, but the success was limited to my students who were present everyday. They were not creative enough for students that were partially connected to school.


The second prototype went a little deeper. I added an attendance data wall that highlighted days absent, or when work was refused, and documented grades. There was a requirement to review attendance data and write a reflection that included an assessment of how one’s grade related to their attendance. I also continued to use checklists to track mastery. I wanted the students to see how much their own actions, attendance, and engagement affected their overall progress. This was moderately successful, and I saw that students were better able to express the connection between their actions and their grades. Grades were no longer this arbitrary thing that the teacher assigned, but a reflection of the level of effort and consistency put in.

The adolescent mind, however, seemed to still need a higher level of analysis and something to remind them of why their current education is important them. I still was looking to increase ownership and self-reflection, so I created a individualized learning plan for each student. This included assessments around career interest and learning styles, analysis of current grades, and short-, medium-, and long-term goal setting. Each student’s long-term goals required them to finish high school at some point, so their short-term goals encouraged them to do better in class by being more consistent. I was elated because I could see them buying into the idea of high school actually having personal importance to them. I gave them warm ups that required them to look back at their goals and assess their own progress. My goal was to keep reminding them, as often as possible and in various ways, that their actions today either moved them closer to or away from their larger goals. I was so excited at the student response that I gave my prototype to a fellow teacher and we agreed to look at it after he implemented it with his class. We wanted to see if his student engagement also increased and to figure out the best ways to tweak it.


I became a CityBridge fellow right after I began prototyping the individualized learning plan. During the first leg of the fellowship, our focus was on learning about innovative practices in the field. My personal motive was to understand the practices of anyone who was doing anything that works with the most difficult high school population to move and to figure out how to implement whatever they were doing that works. During a presentation from Summit Public Schools in California they began to describe Basecamp, an online personalized learning plan that Facebook engineers have designed for their schools and to share with others. During that presentation, I looked at my peer—the same teacher I had shared my paper individualized learning plan with—and we understood we had stumbled upon a digital prototype of exactly what we had been doing by paper in our classrooms. What are the odds that we would find a refined iteration of the exact thing we were prototyping in our classes?

The day after hearing the presentation about Summit Basecamp, we went to visit one of their schools. During a presentation from their administrators, I asked the series of questions I have come to be known for asking at every school visit: “Does this work with your most struggling populations? How do you know?” Summit was one of only two high schools we visited that was able to provide concrete data showing they were actually closing the achievement gap. After four years at Summit, students in their most difficult population—which mirrors that of the most struggling students in the United States—were reading on grade level when they graduated. Their bottom quartile of students were increasing reading levels at a rate 3.6 times that of the average student in that same quartile across the United States. I was astonished and captivated. I have never met a high schooler who came in reading significantly below grade level and graduated reading on grade level.


At this point in our fellowship learning phase, seeing data from a charter school that was closing the achievement gap with students that mirror the bottom quartile of students in the United States was impressive. Honestly, it was the most impressive thing I had heard. The alignment with my own theory of change, and Summit’s years of testing, was icing on the cake. The most important thing I could do at that point was figure out how to get into their training cohort for Summit Basecamp and bring this opportunity to my students.

The sense of urgency I had was almost overwhelming. It felt intense, but looking back I understand why. Everyday we graduate students who do not have a baseline level of numeracy and literacy skills to be competitive in the workforce. They have not been properly equipped by the school district, but they are still graduating. There was no time to waste, because there is no time to waste. Every year that goes by is a new graduating class that will struggle in the world. Therefore, because I had been introduced to something that may help change that, my school needed it, like, yesterday.

At this point, I had not seen the content on the platform, which was okay. Working with students as low as mine often are, I knew we would have to modify or replace content to be sure it was appropriate for my students. I understood that the Summit Basecamp team had the same theory of change as I did, and they tested it with fantastic results. They had created an academic prefrontal cortex for the adolescent brain—a space where students could input their long-term goals and track how their day-to-day decisions moved them closer to meeting those goals. It was an interactive self-assessment. The Summit Personalized Learning Platform holds the rules that students need to be successful as they have defined it for themselves. It does exactly what the brain cannot always do for itself in adolescence.

My partner teacher, also an Education Innovation Fellow, and I went back to our school on a mission. We recruited teachers and administrators. We gave presentations to our school about the program and what we had seen. We were so convincing that every administrator and approximately 15 teachers agreed to complete the application process for our school to be a Summit Basecamp site. While most schools applying put in one application, our principal asked us to put in two. We were excited. Excited about what this could mean for our students and how much they could benefit from the personalized learning platform.

After applying and finding out the program was excited to work with us, we also learned we had to get central office approval to bring the program to our school. We thought this would be an easy task. There were so many reasons why it made sense for our school. Two other DCPS schools in northwest were already implementing the model in their school. Anacostia High is a “Target 40” school, which means we have been identified as one of the 40 lowest performing schools in the district, and need innovative ideas to really bring about change that affects students in the most important ways.

We were told no. Officially, the platform is not compatible with our network and other technology systems. Our school would not be able to access the flexible workarounds used by others schools that enable them to use Summit Basecamp. We were cautioned to remember that many lessons from our charter colleagues cannot be successfully scaled.

Innovation was strangled and a quarter of the educators in my school were left staring at a brick wall.

In speaking to other innovators, I found that Google accounts were a large problem. Every program that required students to have Google accounts was rejected if it required district approval.

I continued to stare at the brick wall, to process the blanket “no.”

The school, teachers, and administrators are on board and excited.

The program is free and will fly us out to to California to get trained.

The program administrators will create the accounts students need for us, so there is no extra work put on the District.

What about what Lisa Delpit said?

In their first iteration, charter schools were to be beacons for what could happen in public schools. They were intended to develop models for working with the most challenging populations. What they discovered was to be shared and reproduced in other public school classrooms. 2

What about the achievement gap?

What about the corresponding opportunity gap?

What about the severity of the need?

What about the dire need for innovation at a bottom 40 school?

What about treating east and west of the river equitably, and giving us the same chances, flexibility, and opportunity as them?

What about the fact that no one knows how to close the achievement gap at the high school level? I believe that makes it our duty to neutralize any potential roadblocks in order to make sure what has been proven to work gets to our most vulnerable students.

There are almost no techniques that people use in high schools that have been proven to work with the most marginalized youth. There may be none. If there are, I have not heard of them. Charter schools have the luxury and flexibility to innovate at a rate that traditional public schools do not. When a charter does develop a great idea and has the wherewithal make it available for free to public schools, it is our duty as educators to make sure what works gets to those who need it most.

How do we move forward and ensure innovation is not strangled by the inequity?

Latisha Chisholm, LGSW, is a Special Education Coordinator at Anacostia High School.


1Spencer, K. Summer 2008. Kagan Structures Simply Put. Retrieved from Kagan Online.

2 Delpit, L. (2012). “Multiplication is for White People”: Raising expectations for other people’s children. New York, NY: The New Press

Start With Students: One Teacher’s Design-Thinking Journey

“Innovation” was a buzzword humming around the educational zeitgeist when I started the Education Innovation Fellowship in January. When I talk to people about the program, they often ask what that word, “innovation,” means, and I have to admit, I was wary of the fuzzy term. Luckily, the innovation I have found is something clear and tangible: an entirely new (to me) way of solving challenges in our schools—a process we call design thinking. I want to share a little bit about my ongoing journey through this process, because I think that it has value for other teachers tackling thorny problems in their own classrooms—and I’ll share some of the awesome experiences and resources I encountered along the way.

Step 1: Empathize

Empathize header

The radical idea at the core of this first step is that if you want to know what will work best to solve a particular challenge for students you should ask them.

What may seem common sense to some is a first step often overlooked by many. We, as teachers, get into our planning zone and consult with all kinds of peers, experts, and stakeholders. We seek the counsel of instructional coaches or more experienced colleagues; we ask families the best ways to support their students; we scour the Internet to find interesting new resources; and while all of this is helpful, we can forget to reach out to the most important stakeholders involved in the classroom: students themselves. The first step in designing our new classroom prototypes was to conduct empathy interviews with students. The purpose was to ask them what was working and what wasn’t, and to see what ideas they had about how to make their learning more enjoyable and effective.

Ultimately, we used the data gathered from these interviews to tell stories about our students—who they are, what motivates them, and what they need in their school and classroom environment to be successful. This knowledge would form the foundation of what came next in defining the particular challenge we wanted to tackle in our classrooms. As another fellow said to me: “If you have never been outside of a box, then do you know you are in a box? Can you dream of what is outside of the box? If not, then how can students who have never seen any different say they want their class to be different?”

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Step 2: Define

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In the second step of the design-thinking process, I crafted open-ended statements asking “How might we…?” tackle specific problems, and shaped “mad libs” identifying my students’ needs.

After gathering information about what my students say about their learning experience and what they actually do in the classroom, I used that knowledge to identify what I think they need most. This became the driver of all brainstorming, and the way to hone in on one particular challenge that considered the desires and struggles expressed by the students.

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In interviews, my students discussed how they wanted a balance of independent work time and group work, but that they wanted to decide which type made the most sense for them when practicing a given skill or solving a task. They liked feeling supported by each other and by me as their teacher, and hoped to continue choosing their own partners or groups while working at their own pace. Many of my students also said that the reason people should learn math is because of its real-world application and importance for everyday skills. As a result of these insights, my innovation prototypes during the spring semester focused on ways to incorporate more student choice and voice into our current station rotation model.

Needs Assessment

Step 3: Ideate


My next task was to learn about what other educators outside my school are doing while simultaneously keeping my own students in mind.

One amazing aspect of participating in the Fellowship is that we have the opportunity to travel to see classrooms and schools around the country where other educators are doing innovative work. As a cohort, we have seen schools of all shapes and sizes in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, California, across the city of Chicago, and right here in our nation’s capital. I returned from these trips energized, inspired, and ready to hit the ground running in my own classroom. Before embarking on these trips, however, I found myself in need of a design-process attitude check.

The ideate phase of the design thinking process doesn’t believe in bad ideas. It asks you to suspend judgment of thoughts that surface, and to be open to learning from places or sources you had not previously considered. While this is all well and good in theory, it was admittedly difficult to squash the small voice in the back of my head that tells me all the reasons why an idea would never work. I was at risk of entering these innovative classrooms across the country having already decided that there was no way what I saw would work in my own classroom. To prevent that mindset from getting in the way of my own learning, I came up with a plan. I would try to enter each school we visited with an open mind, while also reflecting on my specific students. Rather than focus on the myriad reasons that what I saw in practice couldn’t work in my own context (lack of technology, money, support, or know-how, for starters), I instead chose to keep a simple journal. I would write down two or three big takeaways from each school we visited. I would document key artifacts and examples related to the many different kinds of student work we saw. As a result, I walked away from these trips with a rich bank of ideas that I could then use when brainstorming my own station remodel. I saw how innovation could mean students flying a drone around a classroom (yes that happened!) but can also involve teachers and students moving through more traditional class structures in new and interesting ways.

Urban Montessori

While visiting Urban Montessori in Oakland, CA, we had a chance to see students creating their own work plans. They were given a list of core subjects they needed to work on by the end of the week, and when they finished a given activity in one of those areas a teacher would identify the activity the student chose and sign off to indicate mastery.

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Students in a 4th grade class at La Escuelita, also in Oakland, kept personalized data trackers in their notebooks. These allowed students to set their goals for the year and keep track of their progress in reaching these goals along the way.

La Escuelita goal setting

A 5th grade class at La Escuelita had students setting not just long term goals, but also weekly ones. They decided how many minutes they anticipated needing to spend on the different programs or activities to meet these goals and planned their own class time and homework accordingly.

Summit Prep role description

At the Summit Prep campus we visited in Redwood City, CA students were supported as they worked in groups on projects. One scaffold was assigning students different roles, but also giving them question frames to encourage more dialogue and to help keep themselves on track. While a lot of the work students do for these projects is online, they still had daily activities related to the big projects that required collaborative work.

Saint Anne tracker

A teacher at Saint Anne School in Los Angeles had students check off their own progress when working through online programs using a wall tracker.

Incubator School PLP

Here a ninth grade student at the Incubator School in Los Angeles shows off their personalized learning plan, or PLP. The PLP organizes assignments created by the teacher into an online platform for students to complete.

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Students at a Rocketship in Santa Clara, CA had their own data trackers for the week, but also visual reminders of what their goals were for each of the online programs students used.

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Classrooms across grade levels at CICS West Belden in Chicago used menus to allow students options when choosing their classwork. On the left above, an early childhood teacher presented students a menu of options they can choose from each day. Students must complete all of the activities by the end of the week to earn free time on Fridays (and submit the work using an app called Seesaw), but they have control over when they complete the activities in a given week.

West Belden multiple modes

Above is the agenda projected for the day in an upper elementary reading classroom where students are given an objective—making inferences in this case—and presented with multiple ways to meet that objective. They can watch videos, read articles, or create presentations, and each mode has its own submission to prove mastery.


Students at Two Rivers PCS here in D.C. also had visual systems to track their student centers. A Kindergarten teacher allowed students to pick their activity during group work by moving their magnetized name, and students in an upper grades classroom were given their station rotation assignments on a PowerPoint slide projected on the board each day.

Synthesis of learning

Now that I had learned from some of the big thinkers in redesigning schools, it was my job to come back and synthesize. How could I use the best of what I saw and tweak it to try it out in my own classroom?  I began brainstorming the different elements of station work that I wanted students to experience—from what the actual center activities would be, to who students could partner with, and how they would plan out their work and reflect on their learning. Taking a few of these ideas, I created my “minimally viable product” or prototype that I wanted to try out as we wrapped up the school year.

Step 4: Prototype

Prototype header

What can I try out on Monday to see how it goes?

MVP Photo

My essential idea after many rounds of brainstorming was that students would self-select their station work after analyzing their individual data and creating their own personalized weekly learning plan. This idea—students making their station plans—was based on classrooms I had seen in California and Chicago, along with what I knew to be happening in early childhood programs across D.C. Tools of the Mind is a curriculum used by many DC Public Schools that helps students learn self-regulation through structured play. The early childhood students make make a plan and then pick a station e.g.: “I am going to learn about splashing at the water station.” A teacher then attaches a clothespin to an activity wheel or some other sort of indicator to place a student at this activity. The scheduling wheel balances the size of groups, because if the water station is already full, the student has to pick a different station. This, in the context of all of the personalized learning I had seen at work, was a light bulb kind of moment for me. Who do we as teachers allow to have agency? If four year olds can be given the freedom to structure their own learning, why not fourth graders? At what point does the urgency to learn critical skills crowd out the agency and autonomy we are willing to give students, and what is the balance? These questions were driving me as I put out my first prototype.

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Because we were nearing the end of the school year, I asked students to analyze their most recent i-Ready diagnostic assessments to see the content areas they should focus on. They then underlined the specific skills within that content band (under “Next Steps for Instruction” below) to target for the week. The idea was that they would build these critical skills that the data said they still needed to be ready for the fifth grade.Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 12.44.59 PMStudents placed the skills they targeted into their weekly planner. They then reflected on which activities would help them to learn that particular skill. As we rolled out the plans, students were given a choice of activities: ST Math, working with a peer tutor, playing content-based games, practicing their fluency facts, or meeting with me as their teacher. Students had already been participating in these activities throughout the year during station time, so they were familiar with procedures and expectations already.

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Step 5: Test

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In this stage of the process, students test the prototype in action while I learn from them and make changes.

Station 2

Students used their i-Ready data to identify areas of strength as well as areas where they needed practice. They self-identified as experts on a given topic, and signed up to have other students come to them for tutoring support.

Station 3

Groups of students practiced their fluency by timing their knowledge of facts, playing games, or using our online programs.

Station 4

Then it’s time to iterate, iterate, iterate!

Here I look back to the empathize step, and the cycle of work continues.

As you can imagine, implementing this new way of doing stations generated a whole other set of questions that will lead to further tweaking and learning. I’m doing more brainstorming around the different ways students can document their learning at the stations, how I can ensure high mathematical accuracy and quality of work while students are working independently or in small groups, and the best way for students to reflect on how the stations are going for them, to name a few.  Importantly, this tweaking will involve more interviewing and observing students to find out what works best for them. I’m excited to continue this learning during the summer and fall as I prepare to roll out this work with a new group of students. Most of all, I’m excited to see how using the design thinking process has changed the way I view my classroom and my students, and how we go about solving problems together.

Kaila Ramsey is a 4th grade math and science teacher at H.D. Cooke Elementary School.

16 Kaila Ramsey


High expectations for relevance


Throughout the year, we read a variety of books with the Education Innovation Fellows. This month, the book is Deeper Learning. In the spirit of participating in the learning process, I am sharing my own reflection on the text.

One striking aspect of Deeper Learning is how much the authors, Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath, highlight the words and work of real teachers, leaders, and students in the schools they profile. The whole book is full of short anecdotes from the individuals doing the hard work of transforming schools, and we, the readers, often get these stories from a close, over-the-shoulder perspective. Reading this, I didn’t need convincing as to whether or not this work was possible—I felt instead that I was hearing from the people who were doing the work. The relevance and purpose of what they are doing to invest and to inspire students, and to reach beyond the walls of their schools feels urgent and vital.

In their concluding chapter, the authors make one of their more forceful claims about the necessity of this work:

If public education does not transform, not only will it become irrelevant, but it will generate more and far-reaching inequality with regard to education and broader life outcomes that have for years been linked to education attainment (p 186).

So many of the stories they tell are fundamentally about that issue of relevance. Education, they argue, must rest on meaningful, relevant connections between students and between students and teachers. The work that students do ought to be relevant to them, to their communities, and to the education and careers they will have beyond their time in K-12.

The question I ask myself, as an education professional and as a parent, is about that connection between relevance and equity. When I choose to accept the irrelevance of what many students are doing in school, then am I simultaneously accepting inequity in the broader life outcomes of students in different communities?

I also appreciate the broad definition of “relevance” that Martinez and McGrath embrace. Rather that narrowing relevance solely to math and reading outcomes, or to college acceptance rates, or to employment opportunities, they broadly conceive of relevant deeper learning as “the capacity for learning how to learn.” They elaborate:

More specifically, Deeper Learning is the process of preparing and empowering students to master essential academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, have an academic mindset, and be self-directed in their education (p 3).

This leaves me thinking that if I’m looking for evidence of deeper learning in schools and classrooms, then I, too, have to listen to the students, leaders, and teachers doing transformative work. And if I’m looking for relevance in particular, then I should listen to students and to their families. Because it’s not just teachers who should expect education to feel relevant—students should feel that relevance, and families should expect it. And setting high expectations for relevance is one step toward enabling the transformation the authors describe.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt
Education Innovation Fellowship

Notes from the Road: California 2016, Part II

We can’t believe it’s over! Our week in California with the Education Innovation Fellowship was filled with surprises, insights, and amazing experiences. Over the course of the trip, we visited eight school across San Francisco and Los Angeles and were blown away by the many different ways school leaders and teachers are re-thinking school design.

Our first few days in California are detailed in last week’s post. Here’s how the second half of our trip went: 


Summit Prep Redwood City High School 
This high school was a real treat for us to visit. Summit Prep is where Summit Basecamp—an online tool that helps teachers and schools design personalized learning plans—originated and was first implemented. The demonstration of Summit Basecamp we received at the Facebook offices set expectations very high, but the school was able to deliver on its promise of a truly innovative way of teaching students. We were able to see how Summit allows students and teachers to seamlessly view and track student progress over their entire academic career; students set goals and receive personalized coaching and instruction to meet those goals. 

Khan Lab School
You may be familiar with Sal Khan’s online learning platform, Khan Academy, and Sal Khan recently started his own school based on an idea he calls the “one world schoolhouse.” Khan Lab School is a beautiful, open, one-room, multi-age school where students are placed into “independence levels” rather than grade levels. We saw students tinkering away on projects, working independently on assignments, and challenging each other with interesting questions. 

Rocketship Spark Academy

We were also able to visit a Rocketship School in San Jose. Rocketship has really pioneered the blended learning model and has seen tremendous growth in student performance. Preston Smith, the CEO and co-founder of Rocketship, gave an inspiring talk to the fellows after our tour!



Incubator School
Incubator School has developed a model that positions students as the “CEO” of their individual learning experiences. Students embark on large entrepreneurial projects that serve as the core of their educational experience. We saw students designing and printing 3D objects to solve problems, teams of students working on animation projects, and students designing flight paths for mini-drones. Sujata Bhaat, the founder of Incubator School, envisions a future where her students will leave high school ready to start their own businesses or explore a diverse array of post-secondary educational opportunities. 

Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts
At Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts, students learn through an innovative arts-integrated curriculum that utilizes art as a vehicle to teach all subject areas. The school’s architecture is awe-inspiring, and the interior is full of hanging sculptures, paintings, and large, brightly colored shipping containers that act as rooms. Another interesting tidbit: the school has virtually no walls or closed off rooms, so there is an open, free feeling about the entire space. 

Homeboy Industries
Although Homeboy Industries is not a school, it serves as a powerful example of the impact a community-based organization can have. Homeboy serves people formerly involved in gangs and who have been through the criminal justice system. We started our visit to Homeboy in Homegirl Cafe, a excellent cafe-style restaurant run mostly by women in the program. We were given an tour by a young man whose life story moved us all: After being shot in the head, he lost control of his ability to speak, but he found refuge at Homeboy. He then became a tour guide, where he was able to rehabilitate his speech.  



Da Vinci Innovation Academy
Our reaction to Da Vinci Innovation Academy was universal: What a cool school! Da Vinci blends homeschooling and onsite learning: Students attend school two days a week and are homeschooled for five days. What we loved about Da Vinci was how each child was valued and affirmed in a very profound way.

Saint Anne School
Our final school tour was also one of the most motivating. Michael Browning, the principal of Saint Anne School, is a fierce and passionate advocate of the blended learning model. The fellows were so inspired by Michael’s vision for blended learning and the impact it has had on the culture and achievement of the school. 


In addition to school visits, our week in California was full of powerful conversations about race and equity, educational practice, and school design. It was inspiring for us, the CityBridge staff, to see how eager our fellows are to come back and bring the many new ideas and experiences they have had back to their classrooms. The week was full of laughter, tears, and growing friendships—all of the things that make us a family, not just a fellowship. It has been a privilege to witness this family of educators become even more committed to transforming their communities and their schools.


Notes from the Road: California 2016

Last Sunday, CityBridge’s fourth cohort of Education Innovation Fellows jumped on a plane and headed out west for a whirlwind week of innovative schools and design thinking in California. Every year, this trip has been life-changing for our fellows: diving deep into design thinking and seeing new ideas in practice is, as we’ve learned, a powerful combination.

Stay tuned for a full download—but until then, here are some snapshots from the road. Join in the fellows’ experiences in real time by following @CityBridgeFdn and #EIF16 on Twitter.

On Monday, Fellows brainstormed big ideas and questions they have about 8 Great Leaps in education:


They formed teams bases on common themes and challenges they’re passionate about.

They then headed to Stanford and honed their design thinking skills with a workshop at the


Here are a few folks building “student empathy totems” to remind them of how they can put themselves in the shoes of one of their learners:


Then they shared their totems in a gallery walk discussion:


On Tuesday, the team started the day at Urban Montessori Charter School, where fellows learned the key elements of the Montessori model and how the school expands upon that core model with design thinking. They also heard from the school staff about the challenges of crafting an intentionally diverse public school:


After Urban Montessori, the fellows headed across Oakland to La Escuelita, an Oakland Unified elementary school:


There, they learned about how the teachers have driven the design and implementation of a blended learning model and a maker space. Students in the maker space were building circuits:


Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland was their next stop, where teachers gathered in that school’s maker space, the Creativity Lab:


Fellows (and CityBridge staff!) got to experience the basics of making by investigating real-world products, taking them apart, and explaining the complexity of the component parts. In this meta-moment, teachers dissect a pencil sharper:


The team’s last stop was the Facebook headquarters, the world’s largest open-plan office, where Shauntel Poulson (Reach Capital) introduced fellows to the ed-tech market. They closed the day with a highly interactive Nearpod demo from Guido Kovalskys, Nearpod CEO, and a demo of the Summit Basecamp Personalized Learning Platform from the Basecamp team and the Facebook engineers who work full time on the project.

Today, the fellows will head down to Los Angeles for more school visits, design thinking, and discussions about how to do school better. Stay tuned!

5 Tips for the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows

To the 2016 class of Education Innovation Fellows,

I’m going to assume that you applied for this fellowship because you’re not 100% happy with the way education is currently run and delivered in our country’s public school system. You’re in good company—I’ve met few educators who are wholly satisfied with it.

I’m also going to assume that you see some amount of promise and potential in technology and individualization as a lever to drive student achievement and teacher effectiveness/satisfaction. You’re in growing company there!

This fellowship was a life-changing experience for me.

Honestly. I have a feeling of restlessness around the learning I see happening at my school that keeps me up at night. I can’t stop looking at other schools, reading about innovation, and asking neat people for informational interviews. I have a sense of drive, an optimism, and an absolute obligation that was little more than a vague thought when I first applied for the fellowship.

So, with that, I have a few tips for you to get the most out of the fellowship:

1. Before a program day or trip, get plenty of sleep, and treat yourself well.

CityBridge knows how valuable your time is. They will not be wasting it. With that said, you are in for a long day (or, for your travel portion, days) of learning and absorbing lots of information. Treat yourself well.


2. Please, take notes on all your school visits.

We went on about 30 school visits throughout the year. They start to blur together. There’s nothing worse than trying to pitch a pilot or modification to your principal, referencing the evidence you’ve seen at a school visit, and then forgetting the school. So make sure you label the note with the name of the school—especially because you might see three schools in one day!


3. Build relationships with your fellow…fellows!

Honestly, one of my biggest regrets from my Fellowship experience has nothing to do with tech or individualized learning. I honestly wish I had gone more out of my way to build relationships with my co-fellows. They are absolutely amazing people, with a crazy amount of combined teaching experience. You never know what a bumpy bus ride conversation between school visits might bring up, but I want you to go further than that. During the fellowship, email them. Reach out to them to go get a drink or some supper. You might even find a TechBFF.


4. Blog at least once a month.

Taking something you’ve learned about/experimented with in your classroom/failed at and writing about it is helpful to you and helpful to others. It also builds your tool belt of teacher-leader experiences and opens you to collaboration, discussion and growth.


5. Embrace the messy.

So much of what you see will be in its first few years, in a pilot, in revision, or being wholly changed. You may run a pilot that is really messy. You might will have a scenario where ten students can’t log in to their reading program at the computer station. And this is all okay. Embrace the mess. Lots of schools haven’t even touched individualized learning with a ten-foot pole. This is your permission to feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, make mistakes, learn, and pivot!



Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow (Alumnus)
KIPP DC Heights Academy

New Measures of Broader Outcomes

I find that many proposals for why we should improve education rely on a handful of similar arguments. Some common ones that I encounter:

  1. Appeals that highlight opportunity gaps between high- and low-income students.
  2. Appeals about the importance of education for the U.S. economy.
  3. Appeals about “The Future” or boilerplate about our current era of “high-speed information” and the need to help students adapt to technology.

The economic and opportunity arguments are important and valuable. And while I think that a lot of technology predictions don’t pan out, I certainly want all students to be ready for “The Future,” whatever it may hold. The authors of a paper released last fall make a different appeal. In “Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic,” they argue:

We must be far less patient about expanding our vision of what it means for students to be successful and developing effective ways of supporting and measuring this broader view.

This is an argument about what students should be learning that isn’t bounded by a curriculum. It’s about multiplying an academic curriculum by what the authors refer to as “critical habits of success such as self-awareness, agency, drive, curiosity and empathy.”

I think that the writers—Stacey Childress, Aylon Samouha, Diane Tavenner, and Jeff Wetzler—rightly attribute some of the recent opposition of parents around the country to standardized tests to the narrow focus on math and reading common in many schools. But I think they’re also pointing to big, challenging, and potentially messy work, which is figuring out ways to assess these other “critical skills.” I don’t think that it’s always easy to measure these things, and there’s also a risk that it will initially feel uncomfortable or wrong to measure intangibles like curiosity, empathy, and deep content expertise. But their impatience resonates with me because I don’t think that we can wait for other elements of next-generation education systems to fall into place before digging into this question of what an expanded vision for student success is, and how to measure it.

The authors describe this element of their theory of change as a need for “new measures of broader outcomes.” This expanded vision of student success will certainly require appropriate measures of things like agency and executive function. But I think that this work can’t be left solely to the innovators and early adopters in the education world. Another of the seven “key factors” upon which their theory depends is deep engagement from “students, families, and communities.” They argue that these stakeholders need “a clear and compelling vision of what school can be for their child” and that “in short, they need a compelling reason to change what they are looking for in schools.” One of these things that families might not yet know they can look for is the expanded vision of what student success means, and how to measure it.

So this is one of many important challenges in education innovation: cultivating conversations among educators and with parents about the limited scope of what we mean by a “good school.” The primary measures of “good” that are readily available rely upon the existing narrow focus on math and reading scores.

One of the authors, Alyon Samouha, will be doing a workshop this month with the 2016 Education Innovation Fellows, and I’m eager to see what sort of new measures of broader outcomes they design.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt

Reflections on Startup Weekend EDU D.C.: Next Gen Schools


This past weekend, we hosted the first Startup Weekend dedicated to school design outside of California—and the first one to be held in more than 18 months. The energy and the excitement of the weekend are still fresh, so I thought we would report out to other potential organizing teams on what we learned.

  1. The demand is there. We had more than 90 people buy $75 tickets to participate in a Startup Weekend dedicated to school design. Educators are hungry for opportunities to engage with colleagues in designing the future of school.
  2. Be clear about what you mean by school design. We wrote a new judging rubric for the weekend that deviates from the universal Startup Weekend judging criteria. This is a really important step. We also learned that five areas of judging is too many—both for participants and for judges. In the future we would work to narrow it down to three.
  3. Coaching is awesome. Our coaches got rave reviews from participants. Participants said that they got their most important insights from exchanges with coaches. One group said they felt like they’d had a graduate-level seminar in 30 minutes.
  4. Make it a community event. Our speakers, our coaches, our judges, and our organizing team were all local. In the end, our participants left feeling like innovation exists in our community and can be driven by our community—we don’t need to fly people in from California to make it happen.

I’ll close with a final personal reflection. We had more than 150 people attend some portion of the weekend. On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, our host site, Columbia Heights Educational Campus, opened its doors at 7 a.m. and closed at 11 p.m., and we had teams there at all hours. And to a person, attendees were energetic, optimistic, and grateful for the opportunity.

Innovation in education is going to come from treating students differently and providing very different experiences. People are at the very heart of this movement. The question I keep coming back to is: How are we going to do that if we don’t start treating educators differently—and providing different experiences?

It is our hope that Startup Weekend could be one of those experiences, and it exceeded my expectations.

Thank you to everyone for a fantastic weekend!

Margaret Angell, Director, CityBridge Education Innovation Portfolio