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Editor’s blog: A new way to do school

Hats off to the Colorado Legacy Foundation for beating back the acronyms and creating a compelling video to spark a debate about what constitutes quality learning – and teaching.

The foundation, which supports key initiatives of the Colorado Department of Education in the areas of teacher effectiveness, healthy schools and bullying, recently held its annual fundraising luncheon.

Expecting a dry lecture and lots of people rattling off depressing education statistics, I hunched over a very delicious chicken salad and hoped for the best. But then all 900 of us were diverted from our avocados and balsamic vinaigrette to a large-screen video. You couldn’t miss it. It was really loud.

In mid-bite, I was confronted with this question:

“Does your brain only work when your butt is in a chair?”

“Well, actually, no,” I thought to myself, chewing up the fresh greens. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if we found a way to ditch office chairs and cubicles forever in favor of exercise balls and jumping jacks or hourly dance-offs?

And then this question:

“Is there an on-off switch that tells your imagination to only have ideas between 9 a.m.  and 3:15 p.m.?”

Why, actually, no. I often work in the evening hours and may even come up with my best brainstorms while out on a walk or dancing in my NIA class. Shouldn’t students have the same opportunities?

It was such a thought-provoking (albeit perhaps too long) video I wanted to find out more about it. If we were sparked to action during a fundraising luncheon, where should we – parents, students, teachers, leaders – put our energy?

ELO isn’t just a 1970s rock band

So, I asked a few questions of Legacy’s communications coordinator Joe Miller, who informed me that the video was created to highlight the work of the state’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Initiative. Uh oh. Did I just put you to sleep? With an acronym like ELO, it certainly makes sense to do some rebranding lest we – of a certain generation – fall back on a certain 1970s rock band. Then again, the Electric Light Orchestra hit “Hold on Tight” begins with the words, “Hold on tight to your dreams.” Could work.

“We have high hopes for the video,” said Elaine Gantz Berman, a member of the state Board of Education and the Legacy Foundation board who served as chair of the ELO commission.

(Watch the video yourself at the top of this page, or click here).

“People who attended the luncheon were just enthralled with that,” Gantz Berman said. “We’re hoping it’s going to hit the big-time. We hope every superintendent sees it, every local school board sees it, every legislator sees it. It really does provide a very clear idea of what education should look like.”

The Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission met and hashed out ideas for more than a year. The goal was to redefine what education looks like within the next decade. The conversation started out focusing on after-school programs for at-risk students but quickly morphed into a much bigger, all-encompassing way of looking at education for all students, Miller said.

What the report says

As the September 2011 ELO Commission report, entitled Beyond Walls Clocks and Calendars makes clear:

“It is imperative that young people in this day and age acquire a high-quality education in order to succeed in civic and economic life, and to sustain and advance America’s economic and cultural legacies. And while the American education system has indeed adapted and improved over the past two centuries as American culture and citizenry have progressed, the high-tech and fast- paced world of today requires innovative and far-reaching approaches to ensure that all students have opportunities and tools to succeed and thrive.” Isn’t that the truth.

Desired student outcomes under ELO include:

  • Customized and relevant learning experiences resulting in more students attending and staying in school and receiving personalized support to meet their individual needs, leading to improved student outcomes.
  • Learning focused on higher level thinking skills, which address the shift in thinking patterns of digital students.
  • Student ownership and management of their learning progress and needs, resulting in students who are engaged and prepared to handle the challenges of life beyond high school.
  • Increased overall competitiveness of Colorado students, demonstrated by mastery of essential content and skills.
  • Increased connections between instruction in school and the world outside.
  • Guaranteed access for all students to the best teachers and content, through face-to-face and digital means, thereby providing quality choices to all students statewide.
  • Learning opportunities available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and seven days a week.

Does this sound like your son or daughter’s school?

Miller said the commission decided the best way to share the results of its work was through a slightly edgy video rather than another white paper, webinar or press release. (Thank you!) Miller said he’s gotten several requests to share it. People are encouraged to make comments on it, and a work plan is underway to put the feedback into action.

While the video doesn’t get into real-world examples, the report does.

Real life examples of innovative schools

In Aurora, for instance, the Vista Peak P-20 campus created a schedule to meet its needs rather than sticking to the district calendar.

The school schedule includes: 90 minutes of daily planning time for staff; freedom over all instructional minutes; advisories where students work on digital portfolios, developing and managing individual career and academic plans and building relationships and mentorships; and independent study where learning is socially constructed.

The ultimate goal of Vista Peak’s innovations are  to give all students customized learning opportunities, including internships, externships, college visits, credit acceleration, and credit recovery. It also offers various programs in health and wellness, creative arts and financial literacy, along with science symposiums, tutoring, intramural sports, field experiences, challenge-based learning, and language labs.

Another school on the forefront of  ELO is School of One in New York City. The full-time, in- school math program is housed at three New York City public middle schools. School of One serves 1,500 students, with 88 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch.

School of One offers a range of learning modalities, including large- and small-group instruction, small-group collaboration, one-on-one teaching, online instruction, live remote tutoring, virtual instruction and independent practice.

The school uses technology to match students with the teachers. Additionally, School of One has created a learning algorithm that collects up-to-date data about students and available materials and creates a unique schedule for every student, every day. In this way, students’ curriculum is both personalized and adaptive, ensuring they move ahead only once mastery has been demonstrated, according to Colorado’s ELO report.

And it seems to be working. Consider these statistics:

  • School of One students in the 2009 summer school pilot acquired new math skills seven times faster than peers with similar demographics and pre-test scores.
  • Students in the 2010 after-school pilot made significant gains on the norm-referenced test compared to students who did not participate, with gains being reported across achievement levels.
  • Students who participated in the in-school pilot made greater gains on the norm-referenced test than students who did not participate.

There are other promising local examples of ELO in action.

The Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) is another  example of a school operating beyond walls. Technology and partnerships are essential to the school’s mission. Students are engaged in science and technology internships during school and after school hours.

DSST achieved the second-highest longitudinal growth rate in student test scores statewide, and 100 percent of DSST graduates have been accepted into a four-year college.

In case you were wondering, ELO approaches aren’t just for secondary students.

Fort Logan Elementary School began  operating beyond clocks when it added 72 extended school and an additional 126 hours of instructional time in 2010-11. The school uses a “second shift” of educators, including literacy staff, teachers from other area schools and community partners. Based on preliminary plans, the school anticipates totaling nearly 300 extended days and an additional 540 hours over the next few years.

Now is your butt tired?

Hmmmm. My butt’s getting tired now. How ‘bout yours? Before you get up and move, what creative ideas do you have to improve the quality of teaching and learning in Colorado? Share your ideas, and I’ll make sure they get to the right people. And remember: Hold on tight to your dreams.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.