Can a traditional, low-performing school serving a community of impoverished students from families largely disconnected to the urgency of education quickly transform into a place of deep, student-owned, passion-based learning? Many of the schools I visit don’t face these challenges; they have the luxuries of choice, independence, and resources, and only need to overcome their own fears and inertia to cast off the industrial age model. What about the rest of our K-12 schools? Read on!
I spent two days this week with principal Steve Baca and the 6th grade team at Ortiz Middle School on the southwestern outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Steve had contacted colleague Julie Wilson to help in team building and provoking the 6th grade teaching cohort, and Julie kindly invited me in to take part.
Ortiz Middle School students are almost all Latino and poor. As I found out during our work, they mostly live in apartments and trailers; their parents work multiple jobs at odd hours; few families understand or believe in the possibility of higher education even though New Mexico guarantees free tuition to students who perform well in school; and many deal daily with legal and immigration issues, gangs, and drug-related violence. Ortiz has been a failing school. Steve Baca grew up near the school, went to West Point, served his country, jumped out of airplanes at 40,000 feet….and came home to improve schools in his home town.
Like so many others with whom I get to work, Steve and his team have decided, simply, that we need to “do school differently”. My role was to help them build a team identity and working model, and to help them see what is possible in building a learning ecosystem around student engagement, dynamic classrooms, teacher as co-learner, distributed leadership, and the other key elements of transformed learning that I am finding at so many schools. Oh, and Ortiz is a bilingual school, and half of the 6th grade teaching team are native Spanish speakers; a couple are just learning English themselves right now!
We covered the hallway walls with post it notes, flip charts, and butcher paper. We asked “What if?” and “How might we?”; prodded the roles of leadership; built norms and processes of effective teams; and built a common North Star of peak learning experiences that will guide learning every day, not just on the rare occasion of a field trip or invited guest speaker. They have a long path ahead, but here are a few reasons that I know they will be successful, and why you should follow their progress and their lead:
- Steve has given the team complete authority over time, space, and the movement of people within very broad parameters. They control the 6th grade wing of the school and can morph the classrooms and hallways as they see fit. Other than the start and end of the school day, and a lunch period, “time” belongs to the team.
- The team has 90 minutes every day for collaborative work.
- While they operate under Common Core and various mandates for the use of textbooks and citywide curriculum scaffolds, they see these as foundations upon which to build and, frankly, in some cases barriers around which to work.
- The 6th grade team will cycle up with their students and have them for three years; this year’s 8th grade teachers will be next year’s 6th grade team. They can choose when within a three-year window to address some of the learning standards, and they will get to know the students over a much longer period of time.
Mid-way through a group brainstorm, one of the teachers hinted that “we need to see what Mr. Baca thinks about that”. Steve, sitting quietly in the back of the room, crept up and asked me if he could make a comment; I nodded yes. As the discussion continued, he went up to the white board and wrote:
“It doesn’t matter what Mr. Baca thinks. Do what you think is right for the students and I will ALWAYS support you.”
I could launch into the wonderful visions and ideas that this team imagined in our time together, but suffice to say that they have lifted their sites far above the silos of subject and classroom and semester goals. You will soon meet them on Twitter, find their blogs, hear them present their ground-breaking work at a regional or national conference…and you will soon want to go visit Ortiz and find out how they heck they did it. I am going to connect them with the great work being done by other visionary public and private schools that are traveling similar paths like Design 39 Campus in Poway, Los Altos K-8 District, Vista Innovation Design Academy in Vista, CA, Mt. Vernon Presbyterian in Atlanta, Parish Episcopal in Dallas, Hobsonville Point in Auckland, and so many others
By the end of our second day, the team was building the opening week of school. As one teacher said, “The first day of middle school for most kids sucks. We are going to make the first day awesome, and then make every day after that awesome.” I left them with the charge to build that “awesome” first week, and then to carry that same passion for “what might be” to the process of every other week in the school year. I believe they will. This school has the deck stacked against it in every way except one: they have the leadership and collective vision of the possible. Let’s follow them, connect with them, and learn from their journey!