School change is messy and often uncomfortable (those who have watched my TEDx talk or worked with me know that I resist over-using the term “hard” to describe school change). Each school is different, and the challenges and opportunities of innovative, value-driven change are greater for schools that are resource limited. At different schools the limiting resources may be money, demographics, inadequate facilities, community support, political consensus, or a combination of these. We can find examples of innovative private and charter schools where learning is beginning to transition away from the industrial, assembly line model; these examples are harder to find in large public schools with underserved student populations, distressed economic conditions, low levels of public funding, and conflicting political winds that combine to obstruct change.
That is why I am delighted to report on the evolving Vista Innovation Design Academy (VIDA)(@VIDASharks) in Vista Unified School District in the north end of San Diego County. VIDA, which through no coincidence at all means “life” in Spanish, is in a transition to a choice school from an existing, long-standing middle school. I won’t get the exact figures right, but the student population is 90% minority (mostly Hispanic), 90+% free and reduced lunch, and includes a significant number of homeless students. Current class sizes are in the mid-to-high 30’s, and I believe California is still in the bottom three in the country in terms of financial support per student. Bottom line: like Design Innovation in Cleveland (@Eric Juli), if we can reimagine and rebuild “school” at VIDA, we can do it anywhere.
I first linked up with VIDA via principal Dr. Eric Chigala on a Twitter chat and immediately connected him with the founding team at Design 39 Campus in Poway, just 20 miles away. Since then, the two teams have committed to an informal, ongoing collaboration. Eric invited me to the third such gathering of the teams, a mini-Edcamp format hosted at VIDA.
In 20-minute blocks we powered through issues like time, space, school culture, teacher concerns, developing all-school themes, resource alignment, assessment, building leadership capacity and more. Each session could have been the core of a two-hour conference workshop or a two-day retreat program, but how much better to develop the capacity for constant innovation and organizational empowerment through high-frequency meetings amongst colleagues who are working on the same issues, gathering to share knowledge, failure, and success in near-real time?
Going from passionate imagination to actualization of a very different learning system at VIDA is going to be messy, uncomfortable, and, I use the word sparingly, probably hard. But/and the opportunities are extraordinary. As a choice school, parents and students know what they are getting into and make a commitment to the vision of the school. Sited in an urban environment, they have the opportunity to access their own community as a critical element of engaged learning, turning what some perceive as a weakness of location and demographics into a decided strength like we see in schools like Science Leadership Academy in downtown Philadelphia.
Why am I confident that VIDA will successfully make this transition? Because many, perhaps most, of the critical elements of effectively innovating organizations, and particularly schools, are in place. They appear to have the visible and public support of district leaders, particularly Superintendent Dr. Devin Vodicka . They have a forward-leaning, dynamic site leader in Dr. Chagala who “gets it” in every way I can see. They have a passionate group of teacher/leaders who have seen what is possible, have crossed the mental Rubicon that “school” can and should be vastly more engaging and focused on the individual student. During our short time together we exchanged a wide range of ideas, many of which were new to the VIDA team. I did not see a single indication of fear or inertial resistance; rather they took notes madly. The critical growth mindset is firmly rooted within the VIDA team.
My big takeaways from the day: The Design 39 Campus team of teachers could form a high-priced consulting group TODAY, and nearly every school I have worked with would gain enormous value from their knowledge of how to transform learning and a school organization. This time next year we will be able to say the same thing about the VIDA team. It just reenforces one of the key lessons from my last two years of work: if we just show great educators what this transformed experience looks like, and give them the time and resources to dig into it, dramatic change can take place in our schools, regardless of the inertial forces opposing it, in a few years, not a decade or more.
Stay tuned for more. Whether you work at a public, charter, or private school, we all have an enormous stake in the future of public education. 80+% of American students go to some form of public school. A successful transition of public schools off the assembly line rails and into a learning ecosystem evolving for the needs of tomorrow, is utterly critical to a future of social and economic promise.