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.


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

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

And the winners are…


Drumroll, please…the winning ideas from Startup Weekend EDU D.C.: Next Gen Schools!

The teams were lined up, the mic check was done, more than 50 people had arrived to watch, our judges were in place—and our emcee, Caroline Hill, started the slow clap announcing the kickoff to Sunday’s final Startup Weekend EDU D.C.: Next Gen Schools presentations. It was game time for the ten teams that had wrestled with their ideas for the past two days.

Each team had five minutes to present their school design, followed by Q&A from the judges (including Jennie Niles, Deputy Mayor for Education; Bobbi MacDonald, Executive Director of City Neighbors Foundation; Tracy Foster, Principal of Randle Highlands Elementary School; and Abreham Gebre; graduate of Columbia Heights Educational Campus and current student at Georgetown University). And then, during an agonizing 45 minutes, the judges selected the three winning teams.

And those winners are…


Concept summary: Competency-based, project-based school for over-age, under-credited students, coupled with a flexible schedule.

Strength of concept:

  • The school concept was built on a clear student need, and it articulated why existing schools do not serve those students. The clarity of the concept grew from this excellent problem identification.
  • The combination of competency-based learning, project-based learning, and other program attributes has not been attempted for this student demographic before, making it truly innovative.
  • The school is designed for students who are disenfranchised and offers an alternative model for those that are not served by the current system.

Opportunity to improve concept:

  • It was unclear how all the pieces of the learning program would come together seamlessly for students.

Prize: A one-year membership to 1776; fees waived to 4.0 Schools programs, including Essentials


Concept summary: A school serving students grades 6–12 that would focus not on some hypothetical future course to success, but on tapping into student passion today and supporting students in learning how to pursue life with purpose. The core of the model was “creation courses” and “passion projects.”

Strength of concept:

  • Problem identification: The articulation of why school needs to be fundamentally reframed was compelling.
  • Learning program: The creation courses and passion projects were some of the most exciting ideas presented.

Opportunity to improve concept:

  • Learning program: It was unclear why there was no need for a building—that concept felt core and yet unfinished.
  • Equity: It was unclear how this would push the conversation in the city around equity.

Prize: NBC Universal 21st Century Skills prize of three tickets to SxSWEDU; Fees waived to 4.0 Schools programs, including Essentials


Summary of concept: A partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, the school would serve students grades 5–12 through a combination of foundational academics taught through playlists and projects, internships, and experience-based learning throughout the network of the Smithsonian Institution, the largest network of museums in the nation.

Strength of concept:

  • The richness of the program was compelling; the use of technology to do the heavy lifting on basic content and then leverage the various institutions and museums for projects would be a great combination.

Opportunity to improve concept:

  • The concept of tapping into exemplary local institutions for K-12 education has been tried many times. What is different about this attempt? Why now?
  • It was unclear how this concept addressed inequity explicitly.

Prize: Fees waived to 4.0 Schools programs, including Essentials

Empowering English Language Learners: Come Prepared for Conferences

At Center City PCS in Shaw, we teach native speakers of 9 languages. I use a three-part framework to support English Language Learners in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 here!

Part 3: Come prepared for conferences.

Each individual’s path of language learning is slightly different. No student learns 100% of the same words and concepts in 100% the same order. Our classroom’s blended learning model includes time for conferences in order to make room for personalized instruction that is designed to fit individual student needs.

Some of the personalization comes from me, the teacher, in the way I respond to student data and come to conferences with teaching points in mind. But an extremely motivating form of personalization comes from students themselves when they come prepared for conferences with questions. In order to make sure students know what I mean by “come prepared,” this year, I’ll be sharing this list of potential conference topics with ELL students:

  • A word you are not sure how to use in a sentence
  • A sentence or paragraph of text that was confusing
  • A person or place name that you would like explained (many allusions to American history and geography are challenging to newcomers)
  • An open response question worded in a way that you found confusing
  • A place where you lost points on an assignment, and you want to be sure you know how to correct it
  • A real life situation in which you wanted to express something and were not sure how to say it in English

In language learning, as in most kinds of learning, success breeds success. Controlling their pace, collecting new words, and coming prepared for conferences are three strategies ELLs can use to accelerate their success with English in a blended learning classroom. I’m hopeful that by explicitly teaching these three strategies for maximizing language learning, my co-teacher and I can put kids in a position to be the drivers of their own English acquisition and to improve their English on purpose in every class period of their days.

Alison Gillmeister, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Shaw Campus


Empowering English Language Learners: Collect New Words

At Center City PCS in Shaw, we teach native speakers of 9 languages. I use a three-part framework to support English Language Learners in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom. Check out Part 1 here, and stay tuned for Part 3 later this week!

Part 2: Collect new words.

Building vocabulary is the key to an English language learner’s (ELL’s) success. I tell my students that when they read, they are like Mario traveling through his video game world. Each new word they encounter and pick up for themselves is like one of those gold rings that Mario collects on his journey. Recording a word that is new to them so that they can study it later should set off a rewarding “Ding!” in their brains, just like the “Ding!” that Mario hears when he picks up a gold ring.

Many of my students already have the habit of collecting words that are new to them and recording them in their individual vocabulary notebooks. The challenge is making sure that students go back and study those words later so that the words move to long term memory.

A teacher at the EdSurge Tech for Schools Summit in July shared a tech strategy he uses to address this challenge, which I will be trying his strategy year. When this teacher’s students read online, he has them read with Quizlet, an online flashcard program, open in another tab. Students can create digital flashcards as they read. A teacher can then see what words students are recording and how often students go back to study these words.

At our computer station this year, I will require students to use Quizlet to collect new words as they read. I am excited to see what difference the digital flashcards make in students’ independent acquisition of new vocabulary.

Check back later this week for more on the framework I use to support ELLs in being strong, independent learners in a blended learning classroom!

Alison Gillmeister, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Shaw Campus