|From Bridges website|
We know we have an innovation challenge. How do we educate students that are over-age and undercredited, especially if they are aging out of the K-12 system with 6th grade skills? It’s mind-blowing to think about how to do this within the current policy environment that values college-readiness as the primary outcome.
Yet there are a few people taking up that challenge. Ephraim Weisstein and his colleagues at Schools for the Future (SFF) are heroically designing around young people’s needs rather than expecting them to fit into a traditional school design. In partnership with the Bridge of Northeast Florida, SFF opened this fall in Jacksonville Florida. Local donors such as Wayne and Delores Barr Weaver and
The Henry and Lucy Gooding Foundation along with support from Mott, Carnegie and Noyce are providing the financial support. This is philanthropy at its best -- local and national foundations co-investing in breakthrough models.
The first cohort of 103 students entering in 8th or 9th grade has only one student reading at grade level. On average they are 2.5 years behind. They are already over-age for their grades and not as emotionally mature as other students in their grades. (I’m having a hard time writing this, as I’m aware that one of the SFF students might read this – and who would want to be described this way. For them to go to SFF means that they value education, possess courage, can persevere in the face of hurdle after hurdle, and are willing to give us a second chance to get it right).
In an interview last month, Ephraim explained the design principles of the school:
Accelerate Maturation: We talk about accelerated learning but this was the first time I’ve heard the phrase accelerated maturation. Starting with the application and orientation process, SFF communicates the expectations for students. Of the 150 students participating in the four-day orientation a little more than 100 made it through. This isn’t screening or creaming. This is part of the educational process. SFF simply says come on back when you are ready and try again.
The next step is intensive response to behaviors. Students are suspended or expelled. Instead there is individual and group counseling. SFF is seeing tremendous growth of students in 4-5 weeks with the goal of having them managing themselves and their studies by 6 months. Bottom line: SFF is paying attention to social-emotional growth as a key to academic success.
Straight Talk: Ephraim described that a key to their schools is taking to students about their past educational experiences. SFF staff helps students understand that they have been caught in a conspiracy in which educators have told them for a long time that they couldn’t do it. Then they flip the conversation to be straight about where students are and what they are going to have to do to succeed. And they commit to doing everything they can to help the student get to where they want to go.
Stretch into Middle School: The first SFF in Jacksonville Florida is designed for grades 8-12. This creates more flexibility and more time for students to catch up. Taking into consideration the policy context it also gives SFF more time to help students prepare for the state assessments.
Design for Short-term and Long-term Simultaneously: SFF is focused on helping Jacksonville students prepare for the FCAT in the short term as it is somewhere around 8th-10th grade function while also focused on college prep. They are helping students to fill gaps with tutoring and adaptive software while also engaging them in college prep curriculum. SFF knows that college prep is much more than just the right curriculum. They are helping students to stretch their horizons.
Providing Students What They Need When They Need It: SFF is pragmatic, keeping students at the heart of their decision-making. They are collecting a diverse set of resources to help students. Blended learning, adaptive software, digital tools, 8-week, engaging thematic courses using hip-hop, memoirs and other high interest contexts. SFF is working with the Concord Consortium to integrate STEM into the curriculum with simulation and probeware for students to do all those really cool things. They are creating the opportunity for students to get A+ certified. With a bit of soft money they are offering work study right at the school.
It’s not School of One….but the idea of bringing together as many options for students is at the heart of SFF.
Competency-Based: Students and teachers stay focused on specific competencies. Everything students do is about learning and demonstrating what they have learned. This allows them to accelerate their pace or slow down to really understand more complex tasks.
SFF is just completing its first semester. So we need to be patient to really learn from their experience. There are plans to open the second school in Detroit next year. So stay tuned.