If you work at an independent school and think that what your school does in preparing students for their future is worth $20,000-$50,000 a year, read on. If you work at a public school and think that the politics, demographics, and inertia of public education commit public education in America to either mediocrity or a lifeless pursuit of higher test scores, read on.
Innovation Charter Academy is a public charter about forty minutes northwest of Boston. It was started about 16 years ago as a middle school, and added a high school five years ago. It is now housed on what was the building and grounds of a monastery, which became a small Wang outpost and then a satellite of Boston University before Innovation bought it and started turning it into a 5-12 school. The library is housed in what used to be the chapel, and they just put in a turf athletic field. It is starting to look like an East Coast prep school, which it is, except it is free. They now have 660 students, on their way to about 800 students in the next two years.
Their students come from the surrounding 10 towns; they are admitted by lottery with the only advantage being for siblings of students already there. They don’t get the brightest kids; they get a random selection of those who apply. They get about twice as many applications as they have open spots. In their two graduating classes so far, 100% of the seniors have received acceptances at four-year colleges. The stipend they receive from the local districts varies, but averages about $10,000 per student per year. That pays for everything, including expenses that the public schools do not have to pay. When snow piles up they call a vendor and pay extra; the regular public schools are plowed by the public works crews. When the sewer lines need replaced, they find money in the budget. They have to take care of all of their own administrative expenses. So, if you back out those expenses, they have well less than $10,000 per student per year to apply towards salaries and instructional expenses. Teachers generally make less than their counterparts in the regular public schools. And it is free for those who attend.
I spent about three hours with Middle School director Melissa Kapeckas and High School director Greg Orpen and found very little to separate this school from a fairly well respected independent prep school and a lot to separate it from many regular public schools. The charter has two basic guidelines for the program: project-based learning and systems thinking. They also have four essential student outcomes or values that drive what they do and how they do it:
- Effective communication
- Problem solving
- Community membership
Melissa stressed that the faculty work constantly to get these four core values into the language of what they teach and to get students to understand why these are central to their learning. They re-enforce the message so much, the students use this language when they are talking to each other.
The charter is 17 years old, so the founders were not recent converts to teaching these important skills. Melissa said that they are not feeling too much tension as they move to the Common Core Standards because the CCS has moved standards closer to what they have been teaching all along. I asked Melissa what she thinks lies at the heart of their success, their ability to generate improved student outcomes with less money than other public schools and vastly less than independent schools. Her answer sounded almost exactly like what I heard from Chris Lehman at Science Leadership Academy in Philly.
- Incredible staff who want to be at the school and enjoy learning from each other.
- A mindset that they will always grow and always change; never satisfied and always refining their teaching practices and programs.
- Setting continuous goals; thinking about what is next.
- Creating a sense of community with and through their core values.
As the school has grown they have had to adapt to retain faculty, many of whom were young and single when the school started. They have reduced the number of preps for each teacher and increased collaboration in teams to spread the curriculum development load. Their teacher loads are comparable to regular public schools and they have about 25 kids in a class. They modified the schedule to have an early student release three out of four Wednesdays at 12:45, so teachers get a good chunk of time to work together. They intentionally play down any sign of red tape; if teachers want to do something, it gets done, and teachers feel a lot of ownership of their work.
As we toured the main building, it struck me that in many ways this school looks like any mainstream public schools. The rooms are a bit crowded and the furniture is non-descript. Students may be using netbooks from one of the carts but there is hardly a surplus of technology. The art rooms are pretty basic; the library is gorgeous but not long on books. In other words, this is a school that is succeeding by what takes place, not where it takes place, or ancillary trappings.
Greg cited four areas of focus of the High School program:
- Teacher-created curriculum (few textbooks are used in either middle or high school)
- Students invested in projects
- Public presentations
- Reflective tasks and thinking
Before the high school opened they had the discussion about AP’s and decided they were contrary to the values and focus of the charter. Some students take the tests but they do not offer the courses. They do not want Innovation Academy to just be a smaller version of the regular public high schools; they want to focus in different ways and offer a real alternative. Here are some of the highlights about what sets them apart:
- Each student decides their own essential question and project in the Fall
- Vet the questions with a faculty advisor
- Find outside mentors, resources, or experts
- Develop their research
- Participate in a full Senior Project class in Spring term
- Presentation to both internal and external audience before graduation
- Any student can take any class for honors
- Take on added responsibility or work load
- Usually submit a proposal for an honors project
- Usually are assessed on an expanded rubric for the course
Greg says the faculty like keeping honors students in main track courses as it raises the level of work and discussions for the whole class and does not segregate “slower” students. Students decide if they want to expend the extra effort in a class because they are passionate about it, not because an adult decides they should be tracked in a higher grouping. The decision process also creates dialogue between students and teachers, and keeps teachers interested in what students might want to create and learn.
- Students get an overall grade for the class
- Each grade is based on three “strands” developed by each department
- Strand grades show up on the report card and transcript, which is helpful to the student, families, and college admissions to get a more full picture of the student as an individual.
I asked Greg the same question I had asked Melissa: how do you get better results? Greg turned it around with a question he always gets asked at admissions open house: “What kind of kid comes here?” His response: “We are not interested so much in who a student is when they come here. We are interested in who they are when they leave. We want kids who are truly engaged and care about something.”
Greg said Innovation does not really track college acceptances; they have only had two graduating classes and both met the goal of 100% acceptances at four-year options. “If we do our job the students will be attractive to a wide range of colleges. Colleges are increasingly understanding that rigor can be represented by more than just two letters.” Innovation Academy clearly measures their success by how well the students reflect the mission of the school and the essential outcomes.
Two things were completely clear to me. They are achieving similar (not identical) outcomes with vastly fewer resources than other schools, and they are really serious about looking for ways to improve all the time, in every class. I think that pretty much defines successful innovation.