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!

Design Thinking: Starting with Empathy

With our multi-day California trip behind us, I have about 40 pages of notes and dozens of computer files that attempt to collect all of the information we received. There is so much we observed that will influence my future work—from selecting programs to use in the classroom to computer implementation.

The biggest long-term effect of this trip, however, boils down to empathy. It’s honestly not what I thought I’d walk away with going in. I thought the trip would show me several models of blended learning and I would simply take one and run with it, implementing it into my school as quickly as possible.

But that leaves humans entirely out of the equation. If these school visits and anecdotes (both good and bad) have left me with anything, it’s a deep appreciation for the need of humans to be in the equation when approaching technology.

The process we will be using to implement blended learning and individualized learning in our schools is called design thinking, and we were trained on it at Stanford’s d.School. The process does some really awesome things to bring about change, and it all starts with empathy towards someone else’s problem. Common sense, right?

It seems so, but think about how many changes have been made in your workplace without you being consulted. As a teacher, I’ve seen curriculum, logistics, and systems for interacting with parents radically changed without thoroughly consulting all stakeholders.

Of all the things I’m excited about—and there are many—I am so thankful to have a strong mindset around empathy and others’ needs. This means that, despite the mistakes that I’ll inevitably make, all of my actions can be rooted in the stated wants and needs of teachers, students, and families. Now that’s exciting!

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy


How to Avoid Post-REVIVAL Stress Disorder (PRSD)

I’m a PK (Pastor’s Kid), so I know a spiritual revival when I see one. On this California trip, we have not entered any makeshift churches out of white tents, but in equally inspiring, open, and creative spaces, we have been challenged to respond to a call of action to join a growing movement in our educational system.

I started to realize that the 22 of us Fellows were beginning to convert to the “gospel” of personalized learning when Gisele Huff spoke to us on Tuesday about how irrational it is to expect one teacher to reach the myriad of academic needs for 30 students simultaneously. When she commended us as teachers for working so diligently at an impossible task, there were audible sighs of relief and gratitude for the truth she spoke. What Gisele did for the soul, Brian Greenberg followed up with for the mind by reframing our current factory model of education with one question: Why do we assign 18 years of curriculum to children simply based on the day and year of their birth?

The good news of personalized learning is not just that students learn and achieve according to their individual pace and interests, but also that teachers are able to leverage technology to increase face-to-face time. It is in this time and space that they can focus on fixing misconceptions using real-time data and pushing cognitive skills through challenging tasks teachers. Ultimately, teachers are freed from the burden of ineffectively teaching to an “average” child that rarely exists, and it is the possibility of lifting this burden that I sense within our cohort.

Out of the nine schools we visited in California, three epitomized my vision of a school where teachers and students seem fully liberated. At Saint Anne School in Santa Monica, students participated in a station rotation blended learning model like many of our other site visits, but the sense of purpose and community felt most authentic. I didn’t sense that adults were stressed about how to measure dozens of metrics to ensure students close the achievement gap or engineer social skills that will lead them to success in college. I did, however, see tons of evidence that these students will close the gap as I watched students manage their own behavior and learning, collaborate around a student playing “Stay with Me” on a piano after choir class, and advocate for their learning (one boy did so four times within ten minutes because he wanted to know how to play “Hot Cross Buns” on his violin despite being absent the previous day).

On a secondary level, the students at Alliance BLAST and USC Hybrid High impressed with their sense of ownership over their education. Students knew what assignments they needed to complete, how to access information and had proof of work products that were thoughtful and relevant (ex. connecting the landscape of Mesopotamia to the current rise of ISIS). In both visits, we were led around by students who could explain the benefits of their flex models, not central office personnel well versed in the art of selling a school. In both cases, I had no doubt that these kids would be ready for college primarily because there already “practicing” college in the way their schools are physically and instructionally designed. These settings already resemble the autonomy of campus settings, which trust students to rise to the occasion of living and learning in peaceful harmony.

Unfortunately, I am already sensing this mountaintop experience coming to a close. In the upcoming weeks, the light of this alternative way to imagining “school” will likely fade as I return to the same environment with a different mindset and I worry about how effective I can be at spreading this good news in the valley of everyday school life. How do you create buy-in to a learning model that many kids cannot even imagine? How do I narrow down my priorities in rearranging my classroom to better facilitate learning? How do I stay disciplined in measuring progress along clearly defined goals?

Post-Revival Stress Disorder can strike here because you can A) CONTEMPLATE forever as the possibilities for change are overwhelming, B) CRASH because you attempted every idea all at once, or C) COPE with the status quo because its familiar.

I am prone to option B, as I have no fear trying new things—but if there’s nothing I’ve learned over the past five days, you don’t innovate for innovation’s sake. You must take the time to define the problem according to your consumer (hint: the student). Consequently, I will not rush into designing an elaborate combo model of every edtech tool I’ve gotten excited about, nor will I plan out how to make online playlists that will allow students to move through a unit’s content at their own pace.

I am ONLY committing to the following next steps:

  1. EMPATHIZE: Interview at least six students from each of my classes using the following prompt: “Could you describe a time you felt excited to be in class?”
  2. DEFINE: Prioritize no more than THREE key levers for moving towards personalization in my classroom based on student experiences, not mine.
  3. IDEATE: Not until Step 2 is done because I must know what problem I’m fixing.
  4. PROTOTYPE: Not until Step 2 is complete because all tools don’t build the same thing.
  5. TEST: If it’s not already obvious, Step 2 comes first; otherwise, I have no idea what I’m actually measuring as success beyond a warm and fuzzy feeling.

So, fellow disciples, next time you see me, I should have three clearly defined components for what students need from my class. Should I fail to have this, please feel free to reiterate to me the importance of not just believing in personalizing learning, but taking the time to model the entire design process and not just trek back to the valley without a compass.

Design process


Desiree Smith, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Congress Heights Campus


Someday or Monday?

As a teacher at KIPP DC Heights Academy in the Anacostia neighborhood, I was very excited to hear that one of our school visits would be at a fellow KIPP region.

During the visit to KIPP LA’s KIPP Empower Academy, I had a really powerful realization: As I looked around the campus, I saw so many things reminiscent of my school.

This goes beyond the superficial features, like our uniforms or logos. On a deeper level, we both use ChromeBooks as our main student technology, we serve similar underserved populations, and there’s significant overlap in the instructional technology programs we are using.

So much about this trip has been focused on seeing schools that are doing things radically different from our own, often with different student populations and class setups. This is extraordinarily powerful as we are tasked with innovating in education in D.C.

Our trip to KIPP was powerful to me, though, because it showed me that with a few moderate changes, my school can shift to a blended model. We have the technology, we have the infrastructure, and we have the smart educators who are devoted to students. KIPP Empower showed how close we already are.

With this work, I often think about the “someday/Monday” paradigm. We have so many things we want to do “someday”—like end educational inequity. However, we have students on Monday. KIPP Empower showed that, with some collaboration, next Monday or the one after isn’t too soon to start blended learning with my kiddos.

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy



As a parent, you develop a mindset of the superhero—or, in my case, superSHEro. When my daughter was born, I automatically began to act in a way that would change the world for her. I started with me, constant trying to be my best self, be more savvy with my money, provide for and shelter this child—because through her, I live forever. I’m her superhero, going above and beyond to save the world (or change the world) for her. I wear that cape for her!

Then I became a teacher and was awarded another cape. I now am a superhero for my students, because through them, I also live forever. The values I hope to instill in them, the drive I pray they develop as a result of the interactions and lessons between them and me. For some, I am actually their mother, friend, lawyer, social worker, and more for the eight to ten hours that they are at school each day. Teachers are superheroes: Through our students, we change the world.

So I wear two capes—sometimes at the same time, and sometimes sacrificing one cape to wear the other. But my constant dilemma is when to take one off to put the other on. I’m the sole provider for my child, so there are some risks I am not willing to take when it comes to job stability. However, I have to think about all of the other children who need someone to take a chance, innovate, and do something radical for them. Which cape bears the most weight? Which cape is the most important? Save the world…or save my girl?

Kelley Jones, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Orr Elementary School


Are You Willing to be Epic?

In any classroom in the United States, there are common “best practices” that schools employ to provide a rich experience for students. However, we cannot resist the overwhelming data showing that we are failing tremendously to provide high-quality education nationwide.

In my four-day experience in California, I have had the opportunity to visit multiple schools that have introduced blended learning as part of their educational climate. I’ve witnessed multiple models and heard from visionary leaders regarding their new approaches to educating children. I’ll admit that every model looks enticing, which can make it hard to determine what to implement. But one word that has resonated with me is “Epic.”

Epic is a game-based school located in California. Each student has his or her own Avatar, and the goal is to gain points and badges and to unlock levels to access new content and increased freedom. It is a radical and uncomfortable yet exciting model that left me inspired to push my vision for education.

While I am aware that the educational system may never employ this model broadly, I want to push educators to think on an “Epic” level. Imagine that you could create the ultimate classroom or school: How could you make it epic? We as educators have a creative talent that has been lost amidst the pressure to perform high and be in compliance. However, this is the opposite of epic! In writing this post, I want teachers to know that you have talent, vision, and a voice, talent. Your ability to be great is not solely based on the data results, test prep, or a teacher evaluation rubric. Some things are so great that they can’t be quantified! They are epic!

This experience has exposed me to the risk-takers and epic ideas. I have learned many lessons, which I will sum up in three short points:

  • To be epic, you must be unsatisfied with the current system in place.
  • To be epic, you must be willing to get it wrong and be content with mess.
  • To be epic, you must be relentless in your pursuit, despite voices that will cause you to question everything you are doing.

Be an epic educator, not an average teacher!

Brandon Johnson, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Browne Education Campus


“We Started From the Bottom; Now We’re Here”

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.


Aspire Firestone/Gateway

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

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 School

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.
CityBridge Foundation


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


California Is Just Different…Or Is It?

MA blog post photos

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


Where Was This Place When I Was Twelve?

Walking into the strange space that was Epic Middle School, I realized instantly that this was not the type of learning I was used to seeing. Having grown up in Virginia—and being a product of the public school system—Epic looked like mass chaos. Students sat at large tables in front of computers, they were often loud and talking to each other, their focus was sometimes seemed questionable, and it was hard to really understand what was going on.

We moved into a small room, where we got to meet some of the staff at Epic and get to know better what was actually going on in this new environment. Epic is a middle school in Oakland, California, that is run by Education for Change, a charter management organization (CMO) that operates six charter schools in the Oakland area.  All of Education for Change’s schools are public and aim to help improve neighborhoods.

What makes Epic different, though, is not the fact that it is a charter school—it’s that the entire school is one big game.

Students are split into “houses” when they first come to the school; then, they are given different ways to progress through the “game” of school. Epic has no traditional grades or traditional methods of deciding where a student is at developmentally—they have replaced grade levels (like sixth, seventh, or eighth) with levels 1–3, and each level requires a different amount of points. Points, in this case, have replaced the A–F grading system, and students receive these points based on mastery of the material.

This game culture is something that I found incredibly appealing. Being a person who appreciates video games, board games, and puzzles, I thought to myself, “Where was this school when I was 12 years old?” I also look at things differently now that I am an educator. Walking into the classrooms, it was unclear what students were supposed to be doing in many cases. Long gone were the traditional elements we’ve come to expect in classrooms (objectives, essential questions, agendas, etc.). Students seemed to completely understand what they were supposed to be doing—and furthermore, they were actively engaged in making that happen.

Leaving Epic, I felt highly conflicted. I was initially hooked by the idea of turning education into a game, but I was then challenged by the way the school asked me to change some fundamental ways that I looked at education. I think Epic as a school asks us to reexamine what is really important about learning. Why do we have grade levels based on age? Why do we make kids take classes at the same time? Most importantly, what is the job that we want schools to do?

Epic is a school that is building problem solvers. From the first day, students are presented with puzzles to help determine something as simple as their daily schedule. Problem solving is built into the school and is how students progress and become successful. In an economy that more and more often is putting a premium on problem solving skills, it seems to be worth asking the question, “Is Epic a school ahead of its time?”

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Ballou Senior High School