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Innovations Bold Gamble

Salt Lake school puts students in charge of their learning—and their curricula, and their schedules.
By Wayne D’Orio

Kenneth Grover had a big problem without an easy answer. As the director of secondary schools in Salt Lake City, he saw firsthand the struggles of the city’s high schools. Graduation rates were slowly increasing but they weren’t budging beyond 80 percent.

Not satisfied with adding a percentage point of progress every year, Grover knew a different model was needed. “Nothing changes with outcomes if you don’t change the inputs,” he says.

He did his homework, absorbing Clayton Christensen’s seminal book Disrupting Class, poring through Daniel Pink’s writings on motivation and success, and even gleaning insights from Steve Jobs’s best-selling biography. He visited schools, hopping from San Diego to San Francisco to Florida, searching for models he could emulate. While none of that work resulted in an “aha” moment, he did slowly zero in on what he thought would work best. Simply put, he aspired to create a school where students were in charge of their learning, directing the time, path, and pace of their education.

All of this work led to the hardest part of his journey: getting the Salt Lake City Board of Education to turn his concept from an idea into a living, breathing school.

“We wanted to take personalized education to its fullest,” he says. “We wanted to teach kids how to structure their own day.”

Grover presented his idea to the board. After the proposal was tentatively approved, he gave the school a name, Innovations Early College High School, and started recruiting students. Board members reacted immediately. “They brought me in front of the board for a three-hour Q&A and none of the questions were positive,” he remembers.

Once they saw he was serious, it was more than some board members were ready for, Grover says. “Board members said, ‘That’s the craziest idea we’ve ever heard of. You can’t do it.’ They added, ‘Show us a model that works, and we’ll support it.’” When Grover told them no schools existed at this level and depth of student-directed learning, the board said it couldn’t approve the school.

That’s when the meeting got even more contentious. Grover told the board, “If the premise is to find something that’s successful, are we closing our traditional high schools?” He explained that with a graduation rate of below 80 percent, he didn’t consider any of the city’s existing schools a success. “That really shook them up,” he says. “You said you wanted leaders,” I told them. “This is what leadership looks like. I’m not a manager.”

From Drawing Board to Reality

Fast-forward three years: Grover is holding court in the gorgeous lobby of his new high school. Students check themselves in and out of the school by smartphone, set their pace in classes that they choose, and in some cases even pick which books they will read. However, in many ways, the school looks like a “regular” school. Students sit in classrooms, sometimes being taught by teachers but more often working alone with headphones on. They consult with peers or teachers when necessary.

So is Innovations successful? Has it reached the goals set by Grover? Yes, and no. Last year’s senior class of 55 students had a graduation rate of 89 percent, and Grover hopes this year’s group of 89 students hits 95 percent. But for a high school principal who tells parents, “A high school diploma is meaningless,” he’s aiming much higher. This year, one student is expected to graduate with an associate’s degree already completed, thanks to Salt Lake Community College, which shares the building with Innovations. “In five years, it would be nice if half of our students graduated with an associate’s degree,” Grover says. “That’s ambitious.”

During a recent visit, a group of nine students sat in a semi-circle, answering questions from visitors with nary a school official in sight. While they all spoke enthusiastically about Innovations, I noticed none of their answers was the same. One student came to Innovations because a medical condition caused him to fall behind in his studies and he needed time to catch up. (“Although I’m smart,” he added.) Another mentioned how the small environment allows people to get to know you personally. One student spoke of the freedom to take one class at a time, concentrating solely on a single topic for weeks, while another mentioned that a typical day for her ping-pongs between working on U.S. government studies, completing a creative writing assignment, and then, after lunch, taking part in student government.

In a way, the answers backed up Grover’s initial concept: Students are a collection of individuals and treating them that way will improve their engagement and allow them to learn at their own pace.

When I told Grover his students all seemed bright, and asked if the first-come, first-served public school catered to a somewhat elite group, he quickly mentioned that “a good 10 percent were reading two levels below grade” when they started at Innovations. But with the school’s blended concept, they were given the materials and the time to backfill their knowledge and bring themselves up to, and usually beyond, grade level. Another student got pregnant, and Grover said teachers told her she would have to frontload her work to stay on target. She did, took time off for childbirth, and remains on track to graduate, he adds.

Creating a New School Model

Setting up a school without too many rules is, in some ways, like building a house without a blueprint. Each decision has to be considered, agreed upon, and carried out, all without the benefit of following more than a vague outline.

“The first year was a rough transition,” Grover says. For instance, English teacher Heather Bauer notes she excelled at classroom management. But when she enthusiastically switched to Innovations, she realized her skills didn’t quite apply anymore. Since she’s not often at the front of the room, the dynamic is different; now, when a student acts out, she can talk to them one-on-one immediately.“It took me some adjustment,” she admits.

“I don’t lecture all day, but I do have classes,” says Bauer. “We do have lessons. They last as long as they have to. Some students leave early, others stay.” The best part of Bauer’s day, however, is the one-on-one time she has with students. “I get to reach each kid where they are and I get to help them move forward. Ten minutes of dedicated time with one student can mean more than hours of lecturing. This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

The school’s curriculum is online. Some of it is purchased, some created by staff. Teachers are responsible for being in school eight hours a day (students attend six and half hours, anytime between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.). Salt Lake’s union contract calls for eight-hour teacher days, but about six and half hours of that is spent in school, while the rest is taken up by grading papers, creating lesson plans, and other work done after school. Innovations’ teachers do all of their work in school, with the expectation that they shouldn’t have to keep working when they leave the building. The fledgling school of 320 students has seven full-time teachers and one half-time teacher, all of whom chose to work at Innovations because of the model. No teachers have left, reports Grover.

Each teacher mentors just over 40 students, meeting them weekly either in person or via e-mail to assess their progress. Mentors send out a progress transcript to parents once a month. Math teacher Chris Walter says he regularly sends notes to fellow teachers detailing which students are behind in their class work; his colleagues then find their mentees on his list and address any issues in their next weekly meeting.

Language arts teacher Dana Savage talks about how something seemingly as simple as meeting students weekly took a while to sort out. Because students progress at their own pace, the conferences are helpful checkpoints during which to set goals. What Savage quickly learned was that many students preferred to connect on Mondays. With some weekly meetings taking up to 30 minutes, Savage realized she needed to formalize her process, mandating that students sign up for slots so she can balance her work. Savage spends her time divided among four tasks: mentor meetings, class meetings, grading, and helping students individually.

Grover, when asked what aspects of the school he’s nailed, and what he is still working on, grows animated. “We’ve nailed the culture, we’ve nailed the rigor,” he says proudly. “We’re working on cross-collaboration among teachers.” Teacher evaluation is also still being defined. With so many kids working on their own, Grover and the staff are puzzling over how to create an evaluation model that best fits the school’s workflow.

Acclimating Students

Giving students this much freedom, when most come from Salt Lake’s traditional schools, took some adjustments, too. “One of our teachers said it best today,” Grover says. “We hold their hand a little more until they can fly. Some figure it out in a few weeks; some take three to four months. We build in structure as needed.”

Freshmen start out with a rough schedule, making sure they understand the school’s ethos before being cast out on their own. Some students can earn a credit in one week’s time, while others accomplish nearly nothing, says Grover. “It’s fascinating to see the lights turn on.” Conversely, he notes that some students do have problems adjusting back to regular classes when they go to college, although “none are hampered by the rigor.”

Students are expected to earn eight credits per school year, though the pace is theirs to determine. It didn’t take long to realize, however, that most students would avoid math as much as possible. To block this, Innovations requires that students stay current and on level with their math and language arts studies.

Classrooms have a collection of students working on their own laptops; they can check out computers from the school, if needed. Students who want courses not offered at Innovations can travel to nearby high schools for these classes. (Innovations is co-located with the district’s Career and Technical Education Center, so classes in hairdressing and automotives are offered on-site.) The school has just a couple of clubs, but no sports or music classes; students can participate in those extracurricular activities at the school in their zone. The district of 25,000 students operates four other high schools.

Innovations offers AP classes, but with the community college located just across the hall, most students are choosing to simply take college courses for extra challenge. After paying a $40 registration fee, students can take as many college classes as their schedule allows.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

When asked if the Innovations model would spread to the city’s K-8 schools soon, Grover shakes his head. “Give me a break,” he says, with mock indignation. “This is hard. I don’t want to get fired.” However, the blended learning idea is already spreading to the city’s four other high schools, and a three-year plan exists to push student choice into middle schools.

Similar experiments are sprouting up in other parts of the country. Partly because Innovations’ model doesn’t call for any radical restructuring of a school’s physical space, other districts have started to create their own student-driven schools. Twenty-two school districts in Kentucky are implementing personalized learning after visiting Innovations. An extremely rural district in Indiana is implementing the idea, while other districts around Utah are piggybacking on the model.

“We’re starting to build a little network,” Grover says proudly.

 Image: Courtesy of School Improvement Network. 

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