Notes from the Road

Over the last three days, we’ve visited four different charter schools in the Bay Area: ASCEND, Epic, Rocketship Spark, and Summit. At each, I’ve been incredibly impressed with certain elements of the program. At Ascend, teacher and student relationships are strong—you can feel it as soon as you walk in the building. Epic’s quest for student engagement and the amount of freedom given to middle school students was mind-blowing. In its first year, the school staff is so clearly invested in the enormously ambitious task of creating an entirely new type of school—one centered around a game. At Rocketship, school culture and routines were tight. Summit’s content delivery interface was unbelievable, and their deep commitment to ensuring student are college-ready was palpable—every staff member seemed entirely committed to that mission.

What I’ve found myself coming back to over and over again this week is the importance of student engagement and the distinct difference between student engagement and student compliance. As I consider what edtech tools to implement and what instructional approaches to try in my own classroom, I’m becoming obsessed with engagement. In too many schools, “blended learning” is being used to keep kids occupied while adults are busy. The potential of these tools is too great to shortchange kids in that way. Many edtech platforms are fun and encourage deep understanding of material, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by seeing some kids sitting in front of them. The question is, how do we use elements of choice, goal setting, individual interest, and our relationships with students to have them excited—and I mean really excited—about using them each day? We desperately need to stop the trend of handing kids computers so they can click through and stay quiet. True engagement with edtech is going to be the key to a transformational personalized classroom.

Kate O’Connor, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
E.L. Haynes PCS

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California Is Just Different…Or Is It?

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If you saw 22 grown men and women go down a slide laughing (and maybe shrieking a little), would you turn and look? At GSVlabs, an ed tech incubator in Redwood City, California, there is a large plastic slide from the second floor down to the coffee shop on the ground floor. On a tour of GSVlabs today, our Education Innovation Fellows opted to take the slide over the stairs—and the ten or so entrepreneurs sipping coffee didn’t seem to notice. Which made me wonder, is California just different?

Today was one of those days that might make you think that. We had three stops that highlighted remarkable innovations in education:

#1: Rocketship Spark Academy

We started our day at Rocketship Spark Academy, a Rocketship Education school in its second year of operation. Kylie Alsofrom, a member of the (inaugural) 2013 Education Innovation Fellowship cohort and now the assistant principal at Spark, led us on a 90-minute tour of the school, showing us classrooms, the learning lab, and enrichment classes. The teachers and staff opened their school to us completely. They showed us how a combination of strong school culture, fabulous teachers, and blended learning can have outsized results…and made it look easy. As one Fellow remarked, “If they can expect that of their students, I can expect it of mine.”

#2: EdTech 101

Our next stop was GSVlabs, where General Manager Nancy Lue gave us a wonderful overview of the edtech venture investing landscape. We were then joined by Shauntel Poulson, Principal at NewSchools Venture Fund’s Seed Fund, who led a conversation with Jennifer Coogan, the Chief Content Officer of Newsela, Guido Kovalskys, CEO of Nearpod, and Chris Walsh, CEO of Zaption—about their startup stories and the opportunities and challenges they face. Then we broke into small groups for product demonstrations and discussions.

Many of the Fellows raved about these demos as a highlight of the trip. Why was hearing directly from the entrepreneurs so compelling?  “It was the difference between talking to a child’s aunt and talking to their parent.”

#3: Summit Public Schools

The last big stop of the day was Summit Public Schools. School is not in session this week, and teachers across the Summit network have gathered at the Summit Shasta Campus for four days of professional development. We spent 90 minutes in conversation with members of Summit’s leadership team and a panel of teachers to talk about Summit’s model, vision, and work. In such a simple, complex, obvious, dynamic, clear, and complicated way, Summit is systematically questioning all our assumptions about school, dismantling the current model, and building something new. Their truly innovative approach and practice—made all of us think hard about this work. As on of our Fellows said, “It just clicked. What job do we want schools to do?”

At the end of our third day, we have left the Bay Area behind to head to Los Angeles. We are about to land at LAX, almost 15 hours after we met in the hotel lobby to head out to visit Rocketship Spark, and the Fellows in the seats next to me are still talking about the day. The energy of these D.C. teachers is just different…

Margaret Angell, Director, Education Innovation Portfolio
CityBridge Foundation

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