A School Engaging in the Steep Part of the Innovation Curve: University Prep, Seattle

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A School Engaging in the Steep Part of the Innovation Curve: University Prep, Seattle

It’s one thing to hear a school boast that it is “innovative” or to see that word splashed across their website.  It is quite another, and still rarer than we would like, to find a trove or artifacts at at school that, together, paint a real picture of sustained, intentional, innovation.  The later is what I found when I toured University Prep School in Seattle, and spent the morning with their head of school, Matt Levinson. Twenty minutes on a school’s website and I can usually tell if they are on the arc of change from traditional to post-industrial, but it takes wandering around, asking provocative questions, and poking into classrooms for me to fill out that “innovation rubric” or scorecard that I first built several years ago.

Here are some of those “artifacts” that I found at University Prep:

  • Their strategic plan is remarkably simple and contains almost none of the numerous, common, banal, and therefore relatively meaningless clauses that we find in so many school strategic plans.  It lays out just a handful of key goals that will specifically impact learning, and each of those goals is now a north star for integrated teacher-admin-student (with parent advisor) design team who are tasked to investigate, design, and produce prototypes in one year.
  • They have doubled their pool of qualified teaching candidates in just two year, particularly amongst people of color.  As Matt says, they have “changed the supply network” by reaching out to historically black colleges and universities, increasing their presence at job fairs, and very loudly stating “this is who we are and we are looking for the right match.  If that is you, seek us out”.
  • A teacher who told us that an alum who graduated just two years ago visited last week and told him, “The school looks and feels very different than just two years ago (in very positive ways)”.
  • When several students had the courage to tell their teachers “I don’t see myself in this curriculum”, the faculty stopped, gathered, listened deeply to the students, and almost immediately began re-crafting units with greater attention to the racial, gender, ethnic, and interest identification of their students.
  • In the first year that the school has offered online courses (through Global Online Academy), almost 15% of the student body have signed up to take at least one online course next year.
  • Every member of the faculty is on a continuous looping three-year self-growth plan, which includes significant funding for every teacher to design and pursue professional growth that is aligned to the school’s rubric of the “characteristics of good teaching”.  It does not matter how senior; the expectation is that we all can and must continue to grow as educators.

Matt told me that he wants every member of his team to feel comfortable with “launching ideas or pilots that are 75-80% baked, when most traditional teachers are really only comfortable when something is 97% baked”.  Those are bold directives, but University Prep appears to me to be one of those schools that is building culture, not just trying things.  By hiring, supporting, and expecting teachers to break out of the traditional shell, innovation happens. As detailed in a blog by Richard Kassissieh, Academic Dean and Director of Strategic Program Initiatives, the UPrep Next Generation Learning Strategic Plan is being enacted by design teams that are tackling big pieces of the school operating system.  These teams of diverse stakeholders sound exactly like those I have worked with other schools to set up when they are serious about aligning “what they do with what they say they value” in their forward-looking visions.

Today, University Prep is not a school at which others might say “Wow; that is SOOO different than my school”.  But they are absolutely on the path to becoming one of those schools, and, in my opinion, in the very near future.  They are passionate about some qiuite lofty goals that imagine an education richer in both themes and action related to social justice, student well-being, global citizenship, and deep learning in the community that will be vastly more sustainable with this cultural foundation that is reflected in artifacts that truly stand out to this observer.


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