School site visits: 2017 K-12 National Forum
Early learning school models
Donors had the option of visiting schools that focus on early learning. AppleTree@Rocketship and Lee Montessori PCS, two charter schools with two distinct approaches to administering prekindergarten education and development in the District of Columbia.
AppleTree’s unique partnership with the Rocketship—an elementary charter network that operates its Rise campus in D.C.—allows for a co-location in the same facility. The partnership establishes an enrollment feeder pattern from AppleTree into Rocketship. This means families need not reenter the charter lottery once they reach elementary grades.
In addition to observing kids in classrooms, donors learned about Every Child Ready, a comprehensive framework that guides everything AppleTree does from curriculum to professional development. Every Child Ready provided critical context for what donors observed in classrooms, allowing them to see the deliberate nature of student activities and play. Part of what makes Every Child Ready so effective is its adaptability. Classroom-level data are collected on a continuous basis to reflect the varied learning needs of students as well as the professional development needs of teachers.
Following AppleTree was Lee Montessori, a public charter school with guides instead of teachers who implement the Montessori Method. Students learn in multi-age classrooms that allow for both independent and small group work. Because the Montessori Method is contingent on student activity being the focal point of classrooms, donors observed from afar the diverse student population engaging in hands-on learning.
During the classroom observation debrief, donors got a glimpse of the “manipulative materials” that Montessori’s youngest learners use to tangibly learn concepts such as quantity and counting. Demand for Lee Montessori is incredibly high, with approximately 978 applications from across D.C. for only 35 new seats.
Entrepreneurial school models
While some donors were immersed in early learning programs of the District of Columbia, others toured some of the exciting elementary and secondary school models in both the charter and district sectors.
The entrepreneurial school model bus started out at Truesdell Education Campus, part of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) that is fully committed to personalized learning and instituting a positive school culture that boosts both enrollment and rigor. Since changing leadership and making changes to curriculum, Truesdell has witnessed a 500 student enrollment increase in just six years. Fully 100 percent of Truesdell’s student population is eligible for free/reduced-price lunch.
Truesdell entered a partnership with the California-based Summit Public Schools to implement Summit Learning, a data interface created by Facebook engineers that allows for personalized learning and students to electronically measure goals and track their academic progress. Students also access a number of course technology tools to help them master content.
Adam Zimmerman, Truesdell’s director of strategy, logistics, and innovation, discussed Truesdell’s adoption of Summit Learning’s personalized model and how it has aided student learning gains in literacy and math.
“We talk less about blended learning and more about personalization. And that’s the goal, is that we want to make sure every kid is met where they are and take them where they need to be in terms of their grade level standards and really pursuing their passions,” said Zimmerman. From Truesdell, donors then toured Washington Leadership Academy (WLA), a 2016 XQ Super School currently in its first year of operation. WLA enrolls 110 students, with 134 students on its waitlist, the 5th largest of any D.C. charter high school. For D.C. charters as a whole, there are 9,703 individually-waitlisted students.
WLA has partnered with external organizations such as Facebook to bring students cutting-edge coding instruction. Students are already coding in virtual reality and almost 10 percent of students already have outside clients for whom they are building web sites for pay. Other components of the WLA curriculum include computer science,non-cognitive skills around social emotional learning, as well as virtual reality learning, which was the reason for its recognition by XQ.
“We focus on computer science, meaning that we don’t only consume learning through technology, our kids are also learning how to be composers using technology. That means creating virtual worlds, creating code, making data science sets, websites, animation, and [using] a lot of different tools,” said Joey Webb, WLA’s founding principal.
In both cases, students at Truesdell and WLA have demonstrated incredible learning gains in both literacy and math on NWEA MAP assessments.
Panel discussion: What does it take to create new school models?
Both buses convened at WLA for an incredibly compelling discussion on serving D.C. communities through school design and incubation. Leading this effort within D.C. is CityBridge Education, which has the ambitious goal of supporting the design and implementation of 25 schools in five years.
Caroline Hill, CityBridge’s director of school transformation, moderated a discussion with Mashea Ashton, CEO of the soon-to-be-opened Digital Pioneers Academy; Eric Dabney, math instructional coach at the DCPS Kimball Elementary and; Joey Webb, WLA’s founding principal.
The panel explored their own objectives when reimagining what a school should look like and what truly helps kids learn. They also explained how CityBridge fellowships have helped them identify the “how” of their vision for founding new schools and programs rooted in personalized learning.
Ashton said that when talking with students and families and assessing a niche for her school in the District, she looked at what industries and skillsets are economically viable that will bridge the gap between coursework and career.
“There’s a supply of talent in Ward 7 and there’s a demand [for computer science jobs], so that’s really what inspired Digital Pioneers Academy,” said Ashton. “No one had any concern about focusing on computer science. Parents and students, they get that.”
Learning from WLA students, Ashton was able to get a sense of what high-school aged students look for in a positive school culture.
Webb stressed the importance of the “planning years,” meaning the time period before the school even open its doors, as critical to WLA’s current success. As a result, WLA leaders were able to overcome challenges related to technology more effectively because of the preparation they did prior to opening.
Much of this planning time was spent hashing out their vision, obtaining student and educator advice, assembling a team, identifying technological course tools, and visiting schools around the country for inspiration.
For his part, Dabney said as a district school educator, he enjoys being able to act as a “spark” for his colleagues who also wanted to enact personalized learning once they saw his classroom, but didn’t know where to start.
The panel then fielded questions about school incubation, personalized learning, and building equity from an audience of over 90 donor attendees from both site visit groups.