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A Comprehensive Approach to Alternative Programs


A Comprehensive Approach to Alternative Programs

Washington district uses three models to meet the needs of different students. By Donna Tyo

When district leaders see me coming down the hallway, they start to laugh. After all, they know what to expect—I’m usually coming with an outside-the-box idea, asking, “Why can’t we do this?” As the principal of alternative programs at Northshore School District in Washington, pushing the envelope is fundamental to my job. I don’t view myself as an administrator; I view myself as a vessel that helps students and families with diverse needs find educational settings in which they can thrive. And if those settings don’t yet exist, I’m dedicated to creating them.

Northshore School District is home to more than 20,000 students spread throughout 30 schools. It also hosts a continuum of alternative offerings. I manage five of these, including the Secondary Academy for Success (SAS), an alternative high school; Northshore Networks, a choice school welcoming students in grades 1–12; and Graduation Alliance, a third-party online learning program.

I’ve been at the district for nearly 40 years, but its enthusiasm for alternative education precedes my time here. In the early 1970s, Clifford P. Johnson, the district’s first minority studies coordinator, recognized that some students simply didn’t fit the mold of a standard high school setting. He established a special assignment program whose remnants would later become SAS. Students received a specifically tailored curriculum, and the goal was to ensure that each one of them had a genuine shot at a high school diploma.  

Even today, clear pathways to graduation are scarcely a given. Every student is different and comes with diverse needs. And yet, every year, countless students across the nation are pushed out of the traditional school setting without knowing that alternatives exist. That’s precisely where I draw my passion: finding the right fit for a kid who has never thought he or she could finish high school.

Let me be clear: Alternative education is not for students who refuse to complete assignments or for those seeking shortcuts to a high school diploma. Our alternative offerings are for students who are severely ill; who struggle with social anxiety; who are victims of bullying; who are recovering from drug addictions; who aspire to be professional musicians, surfers, and ballerinas; who have dropped out and have a full-time job; whose parents lost a job and need their children to earn supplemental income; or whose diverse needs fall anywhere within that spectrum.

Removing Traditional Barriers  

Key to the success of alternative education is removing as many barriers as possible for students who didn’t succeed in a traditional school. The benefit of having multiple alternative offerings is that you can parse out which aspects of the traditional school didn’t work for a student, and go down the line of options to identify the best fit.

We first consider SAS, which is the most “traditional” of our alternative offerings. It requires high school students to attend school five days a week, includes six periods per day, and offers a customized district curriculum. The primary difference is that there is no homework and no standard grade scores. Instead, students earn credits through demonstrated mastery of skills. That way, students don’t get fixated, or defeated, by a bad grade and can see the payoff of their hard work as it’s happening. The academy also champions a safe environment for all students; teachers even go by their first names. 

Next on the continuum is Northshore Networks; it’s a blended program, though not in the digital sense. The students complete half to three-quarters of their work at home but come to our buildings for in-person learning on core subjects they’re struggling with. It offers students a unique balance of flexibility and accountability.

Some of our students need even greater flexibility, and that’s where our online program comes into play. The Graduation Alliance program allows us to deliver standards-based curriculum which students can complete at their own pace. It’s a comprehensive and rigorous program, but one that treats students as individuals and provides wraparound support services. Whether a student requires 1:1 meetings with a licensed teacher or professional tutor, or guidance from an academic coach, we’re able to tap locally available advocates who provide the social and emotional supports these students need.

Stories of Success

It’s worth emphasizing again that there is no such thing as a standard alternative- education student. To wit, one student, a musician, was going to be on tour for much of the time during his high school years. He was a fantastic kid and an even more motivated student, yet he was convinced he had to drop out and settle for a GED. At that point our district had never worked with an online learning provider, but it was what needed to be done in order to make sure he earned his diploma. I managed this inaugural run closely, making sure the right pieces were in place for him, and ultimately he excelled, earning a Northshore School District diploma and walking at graduation just a few months ago. 

Another student had dropped out during the middle of his sophomore year. He was going through drug rehab, family issues, and for a time was homeless. After he pieced his life together, we identified that the district’s online option would be the best fit.  By then our program had been fully developed in partnership with Graduation Alliance; he was able to finish all of his high school requirements and earn a diploma within just one year of his original graduation date.

Between these extremes, there are all kinds of stories. The students our programs serve come from all walks of life, and deserve more options than a traditional school setting can offer them.  

The results our district has achieved are more than just anecdotal: they are backed by data with more than 90 percent of our students graduating on time. But until that number hits 100 percent, I will always feel that there is something more—or different—our district can offer. We all owe it to our students to keep asking, “Why can’t we do this?”

Donna Tyo is the principal of alternative programs at Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington.

 Image: Spanic/iStockphoto

A Framework for the Core


A Framework for the Core

Connecting teacher and leadership effectiveness with the Common Core State Standards.  By Sharon L. Contreras


When our school district began planning for Common Core implementation four years ago, we viewed it as an opportunity to build an educator-effectiveness system that focused on key practices and measures for accelerating student achievement. While the journey hasn’t been without some bumps, we have cultivated a new culture throughout Syracuse City School District (SCSD) that fosters collaboration and continuous improvement toward common goals. Due to the systematic implementation of our work, we’re already seeing an increase in graduation rates.

However, every journey needs a clear roadmap. To ensure success with limited time and resources, we intentionally focused on a particular set of priorities—a workable number of initiatives our district could implement that would most directly impact student outcomes and build capacity for sustainable growth. These effortscentered on constructing new instructional frameworks and progressive teacher and principal evaluation systems based on the Common Core.



Located in an urban area with growing diversity and an evolving job market, SCSD was faced with lackluster student performance, trailing behind four other large school systems in the state. In fact, in 2011 only 48.4 percent of our students graduated on time. Given the wide range of needs in our district, it would be easy to get carried away and try to address them all at once. But by trying to do too much, any one effort becomes too diffused and isn’t given enough time and attention to be fully effective.

Before rolling out our Common Core–aligned professional development, we used a variety of programs and services that were often disconnected and not individualized. Teachers felt there was little continuity, and they sensed a lack of well-defined goals, and at times, conflicting direction. We needed to bring coherence to the multiple supports that our school leaders and teachers were receiving. My leadership team and I decided that the best way to provide this coherence would be to build a road map that would help our district focus its efforts on key strategies and practices that would increase instructional rigor and the complexity of classroom content.


Charting a Roadmap

Developing an educator-effectiveness system that aligned support and evaluation with the demands of Common Core standards required a well-coordinated effort. Partnering with Insight Education Group, we involved multiple and diverse groups of stakeholders—including teachers, school and district leaders, and union members. It was important for us to articulate the professional development experience we envisioned—one that was grounded in adult learning with differentiation for each school and educator. The process involved the following steps:


  • Create a Core Planning Team with broad representation to move the comprehensive work forward.
  • Conduct a broad-based review of relevant research and existing instructional effectiveness documents.
  • Analyze the state’s Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS).
  • Construct the Teaching and Learning Framework and Rubric for evaluation informed by this substantial foundation.
  • Obtain meaningful feedback from instructional leaders and teachers.
  • Build confidence in the validity of the tools.
  • Define a path to professional development that would support the new Common Core practices.


The resulting SCSD Teaching and Learning Framework and rubric is intended to serve as a tool to aid in the observation, coaching, development, and evaluation of classroom teachers. It outlines expectations and strategies around four core practice areas: planning, teaching, the learning environment, and analysis and adjustment. The rubric is used to guide conversations about the development and growth of all teachers. Rather than using the rubric as a checklist, observers rate teachers based on the “preponderance of evidence” collected. This means that a teacher may not demonstrate every measure on the list, but observers should use their professional judgment to determine ratings and subsequent growth plans.


Strengthening the New Frameworks

It wasn’t enough to simply establish the roadmap, however; it was critical to create processes to ensure teachers had the training and support they needed to achieve the core practices outlined in the framework. We also needed to build knowledge and capacity for observing, coaching, and rating teachers, and for effective implementation of the Common Core. As a result, we added these steps:


  • Conduct professional development for teachers, including coaching and video-based observation and feedback, designed to clarify and model the instructional practices described in the Teaching and Learning Framework.
  • Provide common planning time in which teachers are able to meet weekly during the school day to address challenges and share best practices.
  • Construct a Building Leadership Framework and Rubric for all principals in the district.
  • Design a third aligned rubric, in concert with the other two, to serve as the foundation for the recruitment, training, and evaluation of vice-principals.
  • Provide training to school leaders on how to coach and develop both high and low performing teachers.
  • Establish observation-rating norms and conduct periodic recertification to ensure that principals consistently use commonly understood expectations.
  • Develop a certification process for principals to ensure that teachers are evaluated equitably using the revised frameworks and evaluation systems.


Promising Results

I’ve heard from school leaders and teachers across the district that the frameworks and processes now in place have enabled them to build out instructional priorities, bring coherence to their work, and document our bright spots. It’s also dramatically improved collaboration among teachers and principals. The job of an administrator or teacher can often be isolating, and it’s important as district leaders to provide the right supports to help educators in the adoption of new frameworks in their practice. We now have a very rigorous and Common Core–aligned observation rubric that is helping us understand where our teachers are and how we can help them grow and develop.

The district-wide frameworks we’ve implemented are driving instructional improvement and systems alignment. My hope is that the best practices we’re using to pull the right levers at the right time can serve other leaders across the country who are grappling with similar issues.


Sharon Contreras, Ph.D., is superintendent of Syracuse City School District. She’s the first female superintendent of SCSD and the first woman of color in New York State to serve as superintendent of one of the Big 5 districts. Prior to her current role, Contreras served in various positions as an educator, include chief academic officer, assistant superintendent, principal, and teacher.

Image: Courtesy of Insight Education Group

Picking the Right Science Equipment


Picking the Right Science Equipment

Five questions that will help you protect your budget while maximizing learning for students. By Laura Trout

Science experiments that might have been too time-consuming or expensive or even dangerous in traditional classroom labs are now possible thanks to new technology tools such as digital sensors and probes. But which equipment is right for your school? There are a number of factors to consider. Here are five key questions to help you make the most of your budget while providing your students with the tools of today’s science and technology careers. 

1. What platforms and devices do your students currently use?

Before you set out to purchase new equipment, look at what students are already using in their science classes.

  • Do they use iPads, Chromebooks, or Android tablets?
  • Do they use Mac or Windows computers or netbooks?
  • Do you have a 1:1 implementation, or are students sharing devices?
  • What types of probes do you currently have and how old are they?

Keeping all this in mind will help you take full advantage of your existing technology investments and identify which equipment will best complement what you already have.  

2. How will the equipment support your science or STEM curriculum?

To avoid buying equipment that no one is going to use, take a look at your existing curriculum.

  • What equipment would support teachers’ existing lessons and experiments?
  • How could teachers modify their lessons and experiments to take advantage of the new capabilities offered in today’s sensors?
  • What experiments could teachers add if they had the right tools?

3. How much equipment do you actually need?

When determining how much equipment to buy, there are several things to consider:

  • What is your average class size?
  • Will every student need this particular sensor?
  • Can they share the sensor in small groups? If so, how many students per sensor?
  • Are there labs that will require two sensors (e.g., two temperature probes simultaneously)?
  • When and how often will the sensor be used during a semester or school year?

One thing you can do to stretch your science budget is to share interfaces and sensors within your department. In analyzing the curriculum at our school we realized each teacher may only use a certain set of probes five to 10 days each year. So instead of having the probes sit on the shelf the other 170 days, they could be used by other teachers. We store the equipment in a central location in bins that the teachers can check out for a few days at a time. With only two class sets of interfaces and one class set of most probes (two sets for force probes and temperature probes), we have run into very few conflicts in a department of eight teachers.

4. Which students will use the equipment?

Consider the educational levels of your students.

  • Do their ability levels match the tools and interfaces you’re evaluating?
  • Are the sensors easy to set up and take apart?
  • Can the sensors be used outside of the classroom?
  • Will students be able to connect the sensors to their computers or tablets and transmit their data without teacher assistance?

In our science classes in grades 3–12, we use PASPORT sensors from PASCO for data collection. At every grade level, we teach students how to connect their sensors to their iPads via Bluetooth through AirLink interfaces. We also show them how to use a science learning application called SPARKvue for real-time quantitative measurement and analysis with the sensors. This process is much more efficient than having the teacher run around the classroom to make sure every iPad is connected to the sensors every time students use them. Students feel ownership of the data when they are able to set up the equipment on their own. This also allows students to get their data faster so they can move on to their analysis and discussion.

5. How will students share the data they collect?

When evaluating sensors, it’s important to determine how the data will be transmitted from the sensor to the student’s computer or tablet.

  • Is a USB connection required?
  • Is there a Bluetooth option?
  • When the data is transmitted, does it go directly to the student’s device or does it go to the cloud?

A key part of the scientific process is the sharing, analysis, and discussion of data. So it’s important to make it as quick and easy as possible for students to share their data with their teacher and peers.

Deepening Learning, Increasing Motivation

Inquiry-based instruction using digital sensors and probes is helping our students deepen their understanding of science concepts and practices, while increasing their engagement and motivation. The sensors also provide students with faster, easier ways to collect, analyze, and share data, so we can make the most of our instructional time.

By asking the right questions, you can maximize your budget while providing students with the latest tools to help them learn to think and act like real scientists.


Laura Trout is the science department chair and Lower School science coordinator for Lancaster Country Day School, an independent PreK12 college-preparatory school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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Building Staff Community Early in the Year


Building Staff Community Early in the Year

Three ways to connect teachers and keep the focus on students.  By Mike Anderson

Emily lay curled up under her covers long after the alarm clock had woken her up. Her mother came into her room. “Emily! You need to get up! It’s the first day of school and it’s time to get going!”

Emily put the pillow over her head. “I’m scared! What if the kids are mean? What if the teachers don’t like me? What if I don’t know what to do?!”

Her mother sighed and smiled knowingly. “I know the first day is tough, and we go through this every year. I’m sure everything will be fine. Besides, you have to go to school on the first day—you’re the principal!”

You’ve probably heard this classic beginning-of-the-school-year joke before, but it serves as a nice reminder. The beginning of the year is both exciting and stressful for everyone: students, parents, teachers, and administrators! With so much to do and so much pressure to accomplish everything right now, it's important to remember that the beginning of the year should be about building relationships and forming communities that can work well together.

In a recent post for teachers, I shared some strategies for getting to know students. In this piece, I’d like to focus on a few ideas for administrators. How can principals and school leaders both get to know their staff and help their staff members know each other? After all, administrators are also working to create positive and collaborative learning communities—staff who can work together and learn together effectively throughout the year. And, just as teachers should blend community-building activities into daily academic teaching, school leaders can help staff get to know each other through the work they do together as a staff.

So, with that in mind, here are a few activities school leaders can use in staff meetings early in the year to help staff reconnect and build more positive working relationships.

Blend Social and Academic Sharing: As a part of staff discussions at the beginning of the year, have teachers turn and talk to share ideas. As you do this, sprinkle in some related social topics. For example, as staff begin to examine standards-based assessment strategies, you might give three short discussion topics: 1) What are some of your memories of grading and assessment from when you were a student? 2) What are some of your experiences with grades as a parent/aunt/uncle/friend? 3) What are some questions you have about standards-based grading? Or, if teachers are about to discuss strategies for reading instruction, begin by having teachers reflect on books they read over the summer or some of their favorite authors.

Use Active and Interactive Protocols for Group Discussions: Just like students, adults are more engaged and socially connected when we use structured and interesting protocols to guide their group work. Many resources about facilitating effective PLCs have great suggestions. Two resources that I love, which are packed with effective protocols, are Teacher Teams That Get Results and Energize Your Meetings!

Generate Shared Philosophical Statements: So often in schools, we’re so busy engaged in what to do, we neglect to pause and remember why we do it. Creating shared philosophical statements can help teachers reconnect with their sense of mission and purpose. It can also help bring staff together and highlight shared values. Here’s a process to try:

  1. Place teachers together in groups, perhaps by grade level, team, or department. Or you might consider mixing teachers together who don’t often connect. Decide which will be the best fit for your staff.
  2. Let them know that their challenge will be to create a few positive belief statements about students and learning with which they all agree.
  3. Give a few examples to get them started. Make sure these statements are positive! For example, one of my favorites is “All students want to learn.” Another great one, voiced so eloquently by Ross Greene, is “Kids do well when they can.”
  4. Have teachers spend a few minutes writing and reflecting silently to generate some of their own positive beliefs about students and learning.
  5. Have teachers share their beliefs with their group and look for common threads.
  6. Together, have groups create belief statements they all share. They should write these statements on chart paper.
  7. Post the charts and have all staff read and reflect on the various belief statements.
  8. Consider holding onto these charts. Come back to them periodically throughout the year.

These are just a few ways to help build connections with and between staff. If you’re interested in more ideas about how to begin the school year in a positive way, you might consider attending a webinar I will be presenting on August 19: The First Weeks of School: Best Practices for Principals. In addition to sharing ideas about community building, we’ll also explore key ideas about discipline, academic work, connecting with families, and taking care of staff health and balance.

I will also present a webinar for teachers on August 27: The First Weeks of School: Best Practices for Teachers. This webinar will draw on ideas from my book The First Six Weeks of School, as well as on many other resources and experts in the field.

Mike Anderson is an award-winning educator (National Milken Educator Award and New Hampshire Teacher of the Year finalist) and author, whose books include The Well-Balanced Teacher: How to Work Smarter and Stay Sane Inside the Classroom and Out (ASCD, 2010) and The First Six Weeks of School, 2nd Edition. After 15 years as a classroom teacher and over six years as a consultant for a non-profit educational organization, Mike is now working as an independent consultant. To learn more about Mike and his work visit www.leadinggreatlearning.com.

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How to Create an Award-Winning Alternative School


How to Create an Award-Winning
Alternative School

Westerville’s school serves disenfranchised students, and grad rates soar to 75 percent. By Dr. Scott Ebbrecht  

For many decades, Westerville City School District in Ohio was viewed as an affluent, predominately white suburban district. Yet during the past 15 years, the district has evolved to include students from more than 70 countries who speak a vast range of languages and hail from a mix of races, culture, and socioeconomic groups. 

Such an explosion of growth at varying economic levels has brought with it both challenges and opportunities. The diversity has led to a culturally rich population offering a variety of perspectives within a unique melting pot. Currently, the district serves students living within a 52-square-mile area located just northeast of Columbus. Its enrollment of about 14,800 students makes WCSD the state’s 11th largest school district.

In order to meet the diverse needs of the district’s students and families, especially for those disenfranchised from the traditional school experience, the WCSD alternative high school program—Educational Options for Success (EOS)—was established with Alternative Challenge grant money.

The program supports students who have been expelled from school; students who are over-age and under-credited and are considering dropping out; students who have dropped out and/or experienced failure in a charter school alternative; and students whose personal schedule and responsibilities will not accommodate a classroom experience during a traditional school day.

Obvious Problems

The district knew something needed to change during the 2003–2004 school year when data indicated that more than 600 of its high school students were at risk of school failure and/or dropping out. At the time, 70–100 high school students were being expelled annually, 146 high school students were enrolled in charter schools, and every year approximately 10 percent (450) of high school students didn’t earn enough credits to advance to the next grade level.

Not only were these circumstances inhibiting students from succeeding in school, future careers, and life in general, but they were straining teachers in the classroom. According to recent research, the annual cost for a teacher to deal with a disruptive student for one hour each day amounts to more $27,000 per classroom in lost instructional time.

The general working assumption of district educators was that the problems facing these students can most often be attributed to a poor match between the school and the student. The primary goal for creating EOS was to facilitate successful school completion through the application of evidence-based instructional practices and the development of life skills and academic enablers. By fostering interpersonal skills, motivation, engagement, and study skills, EOS drives student success in both their school and community environments, while also supporting their transition from the EOS program. 

EOS was created to serve the needs of at-risk students by providing a highly structured and supportive alternative instructional setting. The program uses Apex Learning digital curriculum as an alternative instructional delivery system and offers tiered support services based on the degree of student need. The purpose of the program is to assist targeted groups in gaining the skills required to earn course credits and, when applicable, provide assistance toward passing and thus meeting all state graduation tests/requirements.

By preventing seriously at-risk students from dropping out, EOS allows over-aged and under-credited students to earn sufficient credits and/or to pass state exams so they can graduate, and allows students who have already dropped out to return to school and finish. The program offers five specific services to both the student and his or her family: assessment, education, accountability, counseling, and parental engagement. 

The facility in which EOS is located once served as the WCSD administrative offices. The interior of the building was redesigned with input from students. The design was specifically developed to provide a more professional environment for students. They made it clear they wanted to come to a place that felt more like a work environment, fully equipped with a coffee station and a structure designed to minimize all sound.

Incorporating a combination of Apex Learning digital curriculum, blended learning, face-to-face mentoring, and community service, EOS has enrolled more than 1,300 students. Nearly 89 percent of the students who enroll at the EOS earn credit or graduate. Initially, the district went from graduating 13.5 percent of a defined disenfranchised student population to consistently graduating nearly 75 percent. 

National Recognition

The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University recently conducted a study on the EOS program to evaluate its effectiveness.

EOS was identified as a model program for dropout prevention, receiving the highest research rating: Strong Evidence of Effectiveness. Dr. Ed Lentz, University of Cincinnati (2011), cited “The fact that EOS assists two groups of students who either would not be educated for at least a semester (expellees) or who have already dropped out of school is commendable.

“Since its inception, nearly 90 percent of students beginning EOS have completed the program; a program, it is noted, with very strict standards of conduct,” Lentz said in his report. “Outcomes for those completing the program are highly positive and far better than those not completing the program. This fact adds weight to a conclusion that EOS has prevented negative educational outcomes. Success with these groups has proven difficult in general; yet, EOS success is clear and is repeated every academic year.”

The program focuses on supporting a student’s need to maintain an adequate rate of academic progress; maintain consistent attendance; improve motivation for school success by decreasing incidents of repeated failure and feelings of alienation; assure ongoing adult support and mentoring/coaching; and address mental health, substance use, delinquency and/or deviant disruptive behavioral concerns. District officials involve parents to the fullest extent possible in order to promote positive socialization and adjustment for adolescents.

Today, the EOS program continues to improve the graduation rate, attendance rate, and the district’s overall ability to connect with and motivate disenfranchised students who may otherwise undermine efforts to provide a safe, positive learning environments for all students.

What’s important is that these students now have a choice to participate in EOS. The program continues to inspire and prepare students for life, supporting them with college preparation or career exploration to get them to the next level.

Dr. Scott Ebbrecht is the director of alternative education and assessment for Ohio’s Westerville City Schools. He serves as a school administrator, an organizational leadership consultant, and a public speaker on meeting the needs of disenfranchised students, school improvement planning. and conducting cultural analyses within organizations.

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STEM Startups


STEM Startups

Execs discuss how specialty schools are starting to erase the country’s science deficit.  By Wayne D’Orio

There was more than just talk during the morning sessions of the STEM Summit 3.0 last week in New York City. In a daylong program hosted by Scientific American and Macmillan Education, three high-powered business executives with varying ties to education discussed not only the need for more students to study STEM topics, but also specifically what they’re doing about the problem.

Former New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein, former Intel CEO and chairman Craig Barrett, and Google’s chief education evangelist, Jaime Casap, have all started, or will start, schools that encourage students to study science, technology, engineering, and math.

Klein’s model, Brooklyn’s P-Tech, is the best known of the three, but he recounted how the idea for the now-acclaimed school started almost as a dare. Klein said then-IBM CEO Sam Palmisano asked him during a day at the U.S. Open tennis tournament if his company was doing enough for New York’s schools.

“He expected me to say yes,” Klein said, but Klein didn’t, instead asking the CEO what more IBM could do. Talks continued, and quickly the idea for a six-year program that incorporates high school, two years of college classes, and priority to work at IBM upon graduation was hatched. IBM designed the curriculum and agreed to certify graduates. Klein dealt with the red tape and put together a deal with the City University of New York, which would teach the college classes. Less than a year later, Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-Tech, opened. Since 2011, the school has been visited by President Obama and replicated in Chicago and Connecticut. This year new schools based on this model are expected to open around the country.

Klein called his eight years in charge of the country’s largest school district a “murderously hard and frustrating job, but no work I’ve done has been more satisfying.” P-Tech was part of his move to dismantle many of the city’s largest high schools and replace them with smaller schools. “Innovation doesn’t guarantee success,” Klein told the 200 guests at the STEM summit. While he admitted some of his new schools didn’t pan out, he did say that overall success allowed the district to push the graduation rate of African-American males from 29 percent to 42 percent during his tenure. (Klein is currently CEO of Amplify, the News Corp. company.)

Barrett, now president and chairman of BASIS Schools, the charter network that operates 24 schools in three states, says BASIS demands students take rigorous courses in both math and science.

Barrett spoke harshly about the current state of education in the United States, saying, “On average, we’re failing.” He praised higher education institutions in this country, but singled out K–12 schools for criticism. He said BASIS Schools allow teachers to use their personal style and get results. The schools have about 100 applicants for each opening, he noted.

Casap, who launched Google Apps for Education, is starting his own school in Arizona next year. He said the public school would be called Phoenix Code Academy and it would offer students a way to solve education problems through coding. “It’s more of an incubator than a school,” he said. “We have to figure out how to teach history through coding,” he added. The school, expected to open in the fall of 2016, has already hired its principal and teachers, he said.

Image: Courtesy of STEM Summit 3.0

Setting Up Your Own Program to Challenge Students


Setting Up Your Own Program to Challenge Students

See how this Minnetonka Schools’ program pushes its highest achieving students. By Ann McMullan

This is part 2 of 2. Yesterday’s story explained the genesis of the Navigator Program.

When students return to school this fall as part of the Minnetonka Public Schools #276 Navigator Program they will know they are entering a world created especially for them: highly gifted students with specific learning modalities and unique social and emotional needs. Since students are grouped together in grades 2 and 3 and grades 4 and 5, many of the students will be coming back to the same teacher and classroom they left last spring.

Liz Gluck, a veteran Navigator teacher at Excelsior Elementary School, explains what days are like for her students. “One challenge that is fairly typical among gifted students is organizing their work and setting priorities and goals. We begin the school year by working together to have students master the skill sets embedded in executive functioning. These skills are a set of processes that help students learn to manage themselves in order to achieve certain goals. This work helps students understand how their brains function and how various parts of their brain play a role in how they approach and organize their work. [For more on executive functions see Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.] Students have to create their own daily to-do lists, with priorities clearly defined. This process is a critical component of Navigator and is reinforced daily.”

Additionally the Habits of Mind framework, developed by Art Costa and Bena Kallick, gives structure to daily practice in each classroom. “By instilling the characteristics of the Habits of Mind,” says Gluck, “students learn to temper their need for perfection with specific problem-solving, life-related skills that promote insight, perseverance, creativity, and craftsmanship. Learning becomes a process of awareness and is very intentional.”

Gluck goes on to describe a typical math lesson. “Students are asked to look at the world and discover that math is everywhere. If a student thinks he or she may not be good at math, but comes to understand and connect math to their own world, through play and other activities, then they are better able to embrace the learning. That lays the groundwork for when we delve into the core of the math curriculum and connect it with other content areas.”

Assessment of student learning is based on the use of scoring rubrics. Often students will develop their own rubrics for their assignments. Teachers regularly conference with their students to be sure they are on track. Sometimes students are harder on themselves than the teacher would be, Gluck adds. “In those instances, we conference with the students to help them see that they truly accomplished their learning goals and in fact performed above their targeted learning goals.”

January “J-Term” Project

The start of the spring semester brings a special learning opportunity to the students known as the J-Term project. Founded in project-based learning strategies, students delve into inquiry-based study. In mid-November they’re asked to begin considering a real-world problem they would like to solve. When school resumes in January all subjects other than math are woven into the individual work that each student does around the problem they’ve chosen to research and solve. At the conclusion of the J-Term project each student plots out their work on a trifold poster which they individually present and discuss with visitors at an Open House event.

One recent J-Term project originated with a student’s frustration about not being able to bring his bicycle with him when he traveled. “He set out to create a collapsible bike,” Gluck recalls. “His starting point was research around the history of bicycles and why we have our current wheel sizes and shapes. He would conference with me and together we came up with additional questions. When he got to the design phase, he had to do the math and answer questions about wheel circumference and other aspects of a bicycle’s design. Even though there may already be a collapsible bicycle on the market, I would not let that deter him. His unique design could be patent worthy.”

Student and Parent Voices

The enthusiastic responses from students and parents to a recent evaluation survey about Navigator give clear evidence that the program is meeting the needs of these very special students.

Students said:
“It is hard in a good way.”
“In Navigator, I actually get to learn with people who learn like me.”
“It is different because I choose what I do.”
“The environment is friendly to me and I make friends easier than in a regular classroom.”

Parents said:
“My child really enjoyed being with other children who share the same interests and values. The best thing the Navigator Program offers him is an environment where he fits in so he can express and develop his talents without feeling that he should hold himself back.”

“Much more challenging and interesting. You are saving my child from academic failure because she is more engaged than before.”

“Being understood and accepted, knowing that his/her teacher understands his/her learning needs and is willing to facilitate those needs, as well as a classroom that allows a measure of freedom and encourages exploration and independence.”

To see the Navigator students and teachers in action visit https://vimeo.com/129242036 and https://vimeo.com/129242037

For additional information, consult the Navigator Program website or contact Diane Rundquist at 952-401-5100.

Ann McMullan, @Ann_McMullan, is an education consultant based in Los Angeles. A former school district administrator, she is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences and contributor to education publications.

Image: Keith Brofsky/Media Bakery

How to Challenge Your Highest Achieving Students


How to Challenge Your Highest Achieving Students

Minnetonka’s Navigator Program pushes students while building hard-to-learn skills.
By Ann McMullan

This is part 1 of 2. Tomorrow’s story will delve deeply into the day-to-day tasks students complete in the program.

The word navigator originates from the verb navigate. One definition of navigate is to direct (oneself, one’s way, etc.) carefully or safely. Visitors to the Navigator Program classrooms in the Minnetonka Public Schools #276 encounter students who find their direction within their own uniqueness as gifted students. These students are cared for by teachers and administrators—as well as themselves and each other—in a safe learning environment where they are strongly encouraged to leverage their talents to innovate, inspire, and excel.

Now in its seventh year, the Navigator Program in this Minnesota school district targets the academic, social, and emotional needs of the area’s most gifted students. Initially created by Superintendent Dennis Peterson and his leadership team, the program is designed to provide a safe learning haven for children who are at the top intelligence levels but often face challenges, boredom, and disappointment in traditional classrooms. Peterson and his team based their understanding of exceptionally gifted students on 80 years of academic research and their own observations. With their understanding of and compassion for these students, the program was created as a separate entity under the umbrella of the district’s High Potential programs.

“Many of our students thrive in the shelter this program provides for students with incredible potential but vulnerable personalities," Peterson says.

Meeting Students’ Unique Needs

Today, Diane Rundquist, the district’s High Potential Services coordinator, is the lead administrator for Navigator. Rundquist, who also has a child in the program, says she has discovered that given the right educational setting, and the use of personalized instructional strategies that honor a student’s giftedness, learning can be fun. All students truly can realize their own potential.

At the core of Navigator is a clear understanding of the needs of these students—all of whom have an IQ of 140 or above. “Highly gifted students need challenge and community,” Rundquist says. “Struggle is a basic human right. Struggling is how we learn about ourselves and how we become resilient. These students need learning opportunities that provide depth and complexity—so the work is interesting to them. They need to fail—so that they find out it isn’t the end of the world when they do. They need intellectual peers so others get their jokes. They benefit from being inspired by one another’s questions.”

To enter the program, parents must apply and students have to pass a simulation exercise where they are observed doing Navigator-type activities. During the simulation, teachers and administrators look for evidence of the following traits: focus in interest areas as demonstrated by a long attention span for the student’s age; intellectual curiosity; ability to delve deeply into curricular topics; intensity; big-picture thinking. It’s important to the Minnetonka staff that students admitted to the program achieve their highest level of success in this most specialized learning environment. Proof of prior academic achievement as reported on standardized test scores is not a prerequisite, though test results are used to assist in designing an individualized learning plan for each student. All students who qualify and for whom the program is a good academic fit are accepted.

Navigator runs at two elementary schools: Excelsior Elementary and Scenic Heights Elementary. Students are grouped in mixed-grade-level classrooms, which combine grades 2 and 3, and grades 4 and 5. Class sizes range from 18 to 25 students.

Several factors set the program apart from more typical gifted and talented programs. Unlike traditional gifted programs, which typically pull students out for a set period of time each week or differentiate instruction within a regular education classroom, Navigator students are immersed in a specialized approach to teaching and learning all day every day. Additionally, the program embraces the idea of going deep rather than simply accelerating content. Students follow a district curriculum, but time is allocated for students to dig deeply, and often collaboratively, into projects or problems that are presented within the context of real-world challenges.

Paying Attention to Social/Emotional Needs

As critical as the academic core of the program is, students’ social and emotional development is just as important. The framework at the heart of each of these classrooms is Art Costa and Bena Kallick’s “Habits of Mind.” These habits (perseverance, thinking flexibly, responding with wonder and awe, managing impulsivity, seeking accuracy, etc.) are woven into every lesson. The goal is to provide each student with multiple opportunities to build real-world skills and develop resilience. Mastering the skills within “Habits of Mind” doesn’t happen for these learners without deliberate design and intention because in typical classrooms they’re usually the best and fastest at everything they do.

Organizational skills can also be a major challenge to highly gifted students. Navigator includes elements that build essential skills such as planning, task initiation, pacing, and so on. Students receive multiple opportunities to develop these skills by planning their own work periods, prioritizing tasks, and taking on long-term projects.

In summarizing the overall impact of Minnetonka’s Navigator Program, Diane Rundquist explains, “I used to think that a program like Navigator may exist to “push” kids. Now I know it exists to feed them.”

Ann McMullan, @Ann_McMullan, is an education consultant based in Los Angeles. A former school district administrator, she is a frequent presenter at state and national conferences and contributor to education publications.

Image: Kinzie+Riehm/Media Bakery


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in edu Pulse are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.