Is it possible for a school to make a rapid and dramatic shift away from the assembly line model of education? Is it possible in a public school setting with all of the normal demands, political pressures, and budget constraints? Is it possible in an underserved community and a traditionally underperforming school? I have been keeping on eye on Vista Innovation Design Academy (VIDA), and the signs appear to be pointing in all the right directions.
A year ago VIDA was Washington Middle School: 95% free and reduced lunch, 30% homeless students, 99% Hispanic. Over the summer they converted the school to a design-thinking based magnet school that requires students and parents to make commitments to come to school, work hard, and adhere to a simple dress code. The program will become increasingly interdisciplinary, student-centered, and measured based on a balance of state-required standard exams and more authentic student assessments. Most of the Washington MS student elected to stay, and applications from around the district skyrocketed, bringing greater diversity to the student community. All of the teachers signed on to help build a new curriculum and program; many have visited the Stanford d.school and the Nueva School design thinking training program.
Principal Eric Chagala told me this week that the school has undergone a radical change in just the first few months. They have had just one student suspension this year compared to “countless” suspensions at this time last year. Major behavior issues have largely disappeared; the police have been absent from campus this year. For a school with the history of Washington/VIDA, these are major indicators of positive change.
I visited yesterday to observe an all-school design challenge taking place over two days. The challenge, undertaken in every classroom is to “imagine how we might develop a middle school culture that best meets the needs of everyone involved at the school”. This is the second major design challenge of the year; the first involved designing school T-shirts for the dress code. As we poked into a number of classrooms I saw whiteboards filled with brainstorms of “user groups” and issues ranging from bullying to sexual harassment to littering. Student groups were listing questions they wanted to ask on a series of “empathy interviews”, and the interviews were beginning out in the lunch area.
A unique element of the challenge that I have not seen before and worth stealing: during the day every student had access to a virtual chat room staffed by students where any student could post a question and receive a response in near-real time. We visited the computer lab where a mixture of student ages and genders were busily keeping up with the queries and fanning the all-school discussion back channel.
Were all classrooms humming with the passion of a design challenge as much as we would like? No; I offered to come back and do some classroom observations and give the faculty feedback that I know they will entertain and embrace. Much of what I saw was still teacher-focused. As in most schools, there were missed opportunities for students to get out of their seats, work much more actively, collaboratively, and visibly. The students were still responding to, not co-creating the experience.
But I am utterly convinced that all of those will come, and in very short order. Eric and his team have put the pieces in place: committed faculty are “really tired and need the Thanksgiving break”as they re-build the entire curriculum on the fly. Courses are being built around projects, inquiry, and hands-on experience. The humanities programs are already radically more interdisciplinary, and that model will soon spill over to math and science. All students are spending time in the growing makerspace. The students and teachers are rapidly adopting a new vocabulary and skill set of problem solving based on design thinking methodology. Parents are starting to come to monthly on-site events. The school has become a desired location for a wider range of families who have the choice to choose what is best for their children’s future.
Stay tuned; follow @VIDASharks along with @Design39Campus, and @LASDK8, three California schools/districts that are keeping in touch with each other and making dramatic changes from which we can all learn!