Across the country, 41 innovative schools are transforming K–12 education.
They are doing away with dusty chalkboards, heavy textbooks, one-sided lectures, and bells reminiscent of factory shift-change signals. Some have forgone traditional school buildings altogether.
In place of tried (but not always true) educational standbys, these schools are implementing visionary methodologies and challenging well-established notions about the very nature of primary and secondary education.
Several are empowering students in underserved communities. Many employ revolutionary teaching methods, including flipped classrooms, gamified lessons, phenomenon-based learning, and student-led governance. The schools on this list are also broadening technology use with partnerships between engineers and educators. Some have instituted groundbreaking curricula that drive learning outside the walls of classrooms and even schools entirely. A few have reconceptualized the very idea of a school by creating inspiring learning environments in unexpected places, and by using architectural design to guide learning. From zoos to state-of-the-art tech labs, highly tailored individualized lessons to collaborative group projects, these schools’ sites and sources of learning all share one feature in common: They redefine what education at its best could — and should — look like.
In selecting the schools for this list, our team of Noodle researchers pored over state- and school-reported data; analyzed years of news coverage; examined academic studies on the efficacy of various teaching methods; and listened to the perspectives of students, parents, alumni, teachers, and administrators.
While they vary in how they innovate education, all of the featured schools meet several key criteria: They serve students in grades K–12; are accredited (or in the process of becoming accredited); introduce new curricular or pedagogical approaches; and produce sustainable and positive outcomes for students.
What a positive outcome looks like, however, varies based on the objectives of each school. For schools seeking high college placement rates, student standardized test performance is one important measure of achievement. For schools geared toward improving attendance rates and reducing bullying rates, the elimination of truancy and the creation of a supportive learning environment define success. Schools focused on instilling a sense of responsibility for communities and environments cultivate community-service awareness in their graduates. Whatever the varied aims and outcomes may be, all of these schools facilitate learning in new and exciting ways.
The 41 schools on this list are not only changing the lives of their students, but also redefining the education landscape. We are thrilled to recognize the inspiring work these schools do, and we can’t wait to see what they do next.*
If your school is doing something innovative, we want to hear about it! Nominate a school for inclusion in next year’s list by filling out this short form.
Below is the full list of schools. To read a specific profile, click on the name of the school.
Clairemont Elementary School Clintondale High School Ewa Makai Middle School Francis C. Hammond Middle School Grand Rapids Public Museum School Harvey Milk High School Lake View High School Loving High School MAST Academy Pathways in Technology Early College High School Quest to Learn Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy Vergennes Union High School Visitacion Valley Middle School Wyoming Indian Elementary School The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem Zoo School
AltSchool Avenues: The World School The Center School Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences DePaul Cristo Rey High School Fusion Academy Interlochen Arts Academy The Mountain School Saint Ann's School Shady Hill School Sudbury Valley School THINK Global School
Alliance School Compass Charter School Democracy Prep Public Schools e3 Civic High Evergreen Community Charter School FirstLine Schools Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy Charter Schools KIPP Public Charter Schools Minnesota New Country School Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts STAR School Uncommon Schools
Grades K–3 Decatur, Georgia
How is Clairemont Elementary School innovative?
A public K–3 school in Decatur, Georgia, Clairemont Elementary became one of the first Expeditionary Learning (EL) institutions in the country. The product of a collaboration between Outward Bound and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, EL itself is defined by a curriculum based on learning through collaborative exploration in and out of the classroom. EL schools, like Clairemont or Evergreen Community Charter School, another Noodle innovative school, are founded on 10 principles that emphasize a connection to the natural world, a balance between collaboration with others and competition with oneself, and a thirst for curiosity and self-discovery. In an EL program, students' studies on a particular topic culminate with an "expedition" and a public presentation of lessons learned. EL reorients a typical classroom model and emphasizes that "all members of the school community are learners."
Clairemont, which was founded in 1936, launched its revolutionary EL program in 1994, the second year of the EL pilot nationwide. The model was so successful there initially that all district K–3 schools implemented it; and since 2004, the learning method has been adopted across grade levels districtwide. Because Clairemont showcases best practices — and stellar results — for EL teaching and learning, it was selected as one of 18 EL Mentor Schools (in a network with 160-plus schools). The school also hosts teacher residencies to train educators in EL methods.
At Clairemont, students work together to create outstanding projects that bring their lessons to life. One such project was a PSA about the importance of voting created by third-graders. Another addressed growing and harvesting plants at local reserves.
What are the outcomes of Clairemont Elementary School’s innovation?
Expeditionary learning, on the whole, has been shown to improve understanding of reading and math in middle school students. In 2014, Decatur school performance on college and career readiness tests was the sixth-highest in Georgia. Clairemont Elementary scored the highest of all the schools in the district on the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), surpassing the state average by 37 percent. In 2011, Clairemont was one of 26 schools in the state to be named a Georgia School of Excellence for its outstanding academic record.
How is Clairemont Elementary School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Clairemont’s trendsetting use of EL gives students a sense of ownership over — and investment in — the learning process. The learning-by-doing approach that the school helped pioneer is a component of other highly effective instructional methods, such as project-based learning and the maker movement. Additionally, Clairemont's move to an EL program serves as an example of a successful comprehensive curriculum reform — and of the effective provision of school staff support.
Grades 9–12 Clinton Township, MI
How is Clintondale innovative?
Clintondale, located in a suburb of Detroit, was the first institution to pioneer the flipped classroom model at the K–12 level. A financially challenged public school, three-quarters of whose students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Clintondale sought out a radical solution to its then-failing educational model. Under the leadership of influential educator Greg Green, and thanks to funding from software company TechSmith, Clintondale abandoned the traditional classwork/homework paradigm. Instead, the school turned the standard learning model on its head.
Starting with the entire ninth-grade class, Clintondale had students watch teachers’ lessons at home; then, they would come into school to do “homework” and problem-solving with the guidance of their teachers. As Green wrote in a CNN op-ed: “When students do homework at school, they can receive a meal and access to technology … and an overwhelming amount of support and expertise.” These resources, he noted, enable the school to “provide a level playing field for students in all neighborhoods.” Clintondale’s ninth-graders met with such success using the flipped classroom model that Green led the implementation of this innovation schoolwide. Now, Clintondale is an entirely flipped school.
What are the outcomes of Clintondale’s innovation?
The flipped classroom model has met with early — and continued — success at Clintondale. For the 140 first-year high school students in the 2010 pilot program, results were staggering. The school reduced the failure rate in English Language Arts by 33 percent, in math by 31 percent, in science by 22 percent, and in social studies by 19 percent. In addition, Clintondale saw a dramatic reduction — of 66 percent — in disciplinary actions among participating first-year students.
How is Clintondale’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The positive effects of Clintondale’s flipped classroom experiment have been felt nationwide. Thanks to the school’s pioneering efforts, other K–12 institutions across the country are utilizing flipped classrooms. Green has also spoken and written about the model’s success, including in a TEDx talk. Now, teachers around the U.S. are using the flipped model — and spreading the word about how to implement it to improve student success.
Grades 7–8 Ewa Beach, HI
How is Ewa Makai innovative?
Ewa Makai Middle School has a unique approach to physical education, one that integrates the physical with the technological. In “Tech P.E.,” middle-school students use iPads in gym class to document each other’s progress. They can then check the recorded material to assess their ability to perform certain maneuvers and make adjustments to their form as needed. The recordings provide a way to acknowledge students’ strengths and skills development. The school’s technology department also developed a special app that allows students to download their class performance and track their progress throughout the year.
In addition to using iPads apps, students wear portable heart monitors when they engage in the school’s dynamic P.E. lessons. The school’s innovative integration of fitness with technology encourages students to think — and act — creatively. So, too, do its activities. One lesson includes watching a video that shows dances from around the world; students are then required to create their own video in which they collaborate with classmates to recreate these dances.
What are the outcomes of Ewa Makai’s innovation?
Students at Ewa Makai have expressed great satisfaction — as featured on PBS Hawaii — with the way technology allows them to reflect on their physical endeavors. They also appreciate that they are able to see evidence of improvement throughout the year. Students’ physical-fitness feats also seem to correlate with increasingly strong academic performance. In the 2012–2013 school year (the most recent for which standardized test scores are available), Ewa Makai had reduced the achievement gap in proficiency between high-needs and non–high-needs students by six percent.
How is Ewa Makai’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Ewa Makai is taking traditional notions about technology — that it encourages physical inactivity — and turning them on their head. These days, it’s no surprise to find laptops or tablets in every classroom — but it is unusual to find them in gym class. Ewa Makai has come up with a use for technology that doesn’t replace physical activity, but rather enhances it. The school is, in short, leveraging technology to promote physical activity — and to great effect. Additionally, Ewa Makai has redefined gym class as a site of creativity, with kids creating personal videos that express appreciation of physical movement. The school has, furthermore, enlarged the scope of gym class, giving it the potential to be a more inclusive space for students who are traditionally unable to participate.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching Ewa Makai?
Built in 2009, Ewa Makai is Hawaii’s first public school to be Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, and it was recognized as a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School in 2012.
Grades 6–8 Alexandria, VA
How is Francis Hammond innovative?
Francis Hammond was founded in 2015 as the pioneer middle school program in the International Network for Public Schools. (Before its founding, all International Academy schools were high schools.) This nonprofit group of schools is dedicated to supporting immigrant students and their families. Francis Hammond was specifically created to support middle schoolers who have lived in the U.S. for fewer than four years and who are English language learners (ELL). At Francis Hammond and other International Academy schools, instead of studying English at separate times from other coursework, students have language lessons integrated into their academic curricula. Additionally, students are not divided into groups based on their English proficiency level, but rather work together on collaborative projects. In this way, students fine-tune conversational skills and learn from one another. The network also provides professional training and curriculum development for Francis Hammond and other member schools.
What are the outcomes of Francis Hammond’s innovation?
The program, though in its inaugural year, shows tremendous promise. It has 135 enrolled students this year. The school meets an urgent educational need, given Francis Hammond’s location in an area with a fast-growing immigrant population. The percentage of foreign-born Alexandrians has increased from 24 percent to 30 percent in the past five years, having skyrocketed from just three percent during 1960s. Francis Hammond’s focus on English-only instruction establishes a common ground for all ELL students to interact with and learn from one another, regardless of their first language — an especially advantageous curricular feature given that Alexandrian immigrants hail from a variety of home countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
As an International Academy school, Francis Hammond also has a built-in model for success. International Academy high schools in New York demonstrated marked improvement in student performance, with an 18-point jump in the New York City progress report card from 2007 to 2008. In recent years, the majority of NYC high schools in the network received A's and B's on their progress reports, which measure school environment as well as student progress and performance.
How is Francis Hammond’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Thanks to Francis Hammond’s innovative curriculum and collaborative learning process, ELLs are able to gain mastery in English without compromising the rigor of their academic coursework. Francis Hammond and other International Academy schools differ from traditional as well as bilingual programs, which typically offer instruction in students' first language separate from English-language instruction. At International Academy schools, English is always the language of instruction, and all teachers — regardless of their areas of expertise — are trained in language teaching. This pedagogical style facilitates the use of other highly effective educational techniques, including project-based learning and other interdisciplinary instructional approaches.
Francis Hammond is also a financial trendsetter: International Academy programs do not increase the school district’s per-pupil cost of instruction, since the training and support provided by the nonprofit is paid for by its own fundraising.
Grades 6–12 (at full capacity) Grand Rapids, MI
How is the Public Museum School innovative?
Newly opened in fall 2015, the Grand Rapids Public Museum School transforms a museum into a classroom, in the process bringing education into a new and dynamic space. With a mission “to inspire passionate curiosity, nurture creative problem-solving, cultivate critical thinking, and instigate innovation,” the school offers students unparalleled opportunities to undertake problem-solving and exploration via hands-on activities. Students also gain valuable experience with the collections of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, where classes are held, and which serves as the site of their place-based education.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum School is the newest member of a cohort of Grand Rapids Public School Centers of Innovation that includes University Preparatory Academy and Innovation Central. It is also a theme school, joining the likes of the Zoo School (another Noodle innovative school), the Coit Creative Arts Academy, and the Blandford Nature Center.
At present, the school has 60 sixth-graders, and it will add a grade level each year, ultimately serving grades 6 through 12.
What are the outcomes of the Public Museum School’s innovation?
As a Center of Innovation — a designation that signals a partnership between public and private entities (in this case, among the school, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, the City of Grand Rapids, and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.) — there’s an expectation that the number of students who graduate exceed the statewide average. Other theme schools in the district rank within the top third of all public elementary and middle schools in the state, according to the Mackinac Center Context and Performance Report Card. If it follows suit, as it is expected to do, the Public Museum School will similarly graduate relatively high rates of alumni who are critical thinkers and strong problem-solvers.
How is the Public Museum School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The Public Museum School and other institutions within the Grand Rapids Public School System are redefining what a classroom looks like. Museums, zoos, and other public centers are no longer relegated to field trips, but instead serve as schools themselves. At these immersive sites, students gain immediate access to primary sources that serve as the bases for their academic and creative inquiries.
What surprising thing did Noodle discover when researching the Public Museum School?
At the Public Museum School, students are welcomed each morning by a 76-foot whale skeleton.
Grades 9–12 New York, NY
How is Harvey Milk innovative?
Founded in 2003, Harvey Milk is the first high school designed for, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. The school was established by the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a social services organization created to foster and support at-risk LGBTQ youth. Indeed, many of the students at the school have ties to the organization, having arrived on its doorstep seeking health — specifically, HIV — education, job-readiness training, or basic necessities like warm food. The school now has approximately 100 enrolled students and seven teachers.
Harvey Milk is able to foster close relationships among students coming from very unstable situations (at the time the school was founded, 20 percent of its students qualified as homeless). In fact, its students are so attached to the school that school leaders had to create an “aging-out” policy, requiring that learners move on once they turn 21. In addition to fostering relationships with and among students, the school takes on two essential tasks that allow LGBTQ youth to feel particularly supported: It surrounds them with positive and understanding teachers (many of whom themselves identify as LGBTQ); and the curriculum, while adhering to state standards, incorporates an LGBTQ perspective (for instance, students have read “Bent,” a play about gay people in Nazi Germany, in their English class).
What are the outcomes of Harvey Milk’s innovation?
For kids who have been the victims of vicious hate crimes, Harvey Milk is a refuge, offering a safe space and a community for students who have faced severe abuse because of gender and/or sexual identity. In the 2013 National Climate Survey, 55.5 percent of LGBTQ youth reported feeling unsafe at school because of how they were judged for their sexual orientation. At the time they were polled, one-third of the LGBTQ respondents explained they had missed a day of school in the past month because they felt uncomfortable or unsafe attending class. Meanwhile, in 2014, only three percent of the student body at Harvey Milk reported being bullied.
Many students who came to the school as runaways find themselves able to focus on their education without the potential distraction of bullies or hallway heckling, and they discover a larger community of teenagers with similar experiences and backgrounds. Indeed, the school’s results hold long-term promise for LGBTQ youth. In 2012, the Center for American Progress reported that 67 percent of same-sex white couples, 40 percent of same-sex African-American couples, and less than 25 percent of same-sex Latin@ couples had pursued post-secondary education. In 2014, by comparison, 60 percent of Harvey Milk graduating students went on to advanced programs or colleges.
How is Harvey Milk’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Harvey Milk has ignited a debate about whether schools should create segregated spaces for students of unique backgrounds and circumstances. Critics claim that by establishing such schools, educators and administrators aren’t tackling bullying and systemic homophobia at its roots.
Advocates and supporters of Harvey Milk claim the school is able to teach empathy, warmth, courage, and confidence to students who would struggle to develop these qualities anywhere else, since many are homeless or runaways. The school’s students attest to how special it is and how comfortable and secure they feel there; few LGBTQ students in more “traditional” educational settings would likely say the same. Whether or not more specialized schools to empower marginalized students are built to follow suit, Harvey Milk’s ability to create an empathic culture, provide knowledgeable mentors, and establish a curriculum infused with lessons relevant to its students’ identities has proven to be successful and can serve as a model for how other institutions can help empower disenfranchised students.
What surprising discovery did Noodle make while researching Harvey Milk?
The school gained much attention when it was sued by state senator Ruben Diaz, Jr. in 2003. Diaz’s lawyer claimed that the school’s $3.2 million expansion was “taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich,” and, moreover, that the school had violated the law by establishing an institution exclusively for gay students. These claims are untrue: 85 percent of the students at Harvey Milk qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and students of all sexual orientations and backgrounds have always been welcome to attend the school. In the end, the city settled with Diaz by altering the school’s description to read as more inclusive. The NYC Department of Education was still able to finance the school’s expansion.
Grades 9–12 Chicago, IL
How is Lake View innovative?
Lake View High School bills itself as a "neighborhood school" within the Chicago Public School (CPS) system. It is an early college science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) high school that enables students to earn college credits while completing their secondary education. The school offers four tracks — STEM, humanities, music/visual arts, and world language — though its overall STEM focus integrates computer science, design process, and project-based learning into all areas of the curriculum. Through this approach, students in every track develop technological literacy, critical thinking, and collaborative skills.
The school offers more than 15 advanced placement classes, as well as an extensive array of extracurricular clubs and sports teams. It has ongoing partnerships with Northwestern University, DePaul University, Microsoft, and Lumity (a local nonprofit providing digital support to Chicago philanthropies) in order to facilitate the integrated use of technology, college and career mentoring, and technology-oriented extracurricular and summer activities.
What are the outcomes of the innovation?
Lake View, which received one of the district’s highest ratings for safety, is nestled within Chicago's School District 299, whose population is predominantly black and Hispanic, with a significant percentage of low-income families. Many schools throughout the district have historically poor student outcomes. By contrast, Lake View’s graduation rate for the past four years has far exceeded state and district averages. In addition, 65 percent of graduates enroll at four-year colleges, and the school boasts an extraordinary number of student achievements: five Posse Scholarship winners in its 2013 class, two Gates Millennium Scholarship winners in its 2014 class, and more than $15 million dollars in college scholarship money earned by its last two graduating classes.
How is Lake View’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Lake View's emphasis on a comprehensive and practical form of technological literacy woven into the curriculum — including for non-STEM specialists — is a model for other high schools to emulate. Many advocates of technological literacy equate the skill set with “coding,” a designation that can be limiting. By contrast, in making computer science, problem-solving, and project-based learning integral to the entire curriculum, Lake View demonstrates that technological literacy can be an important part of a versatile and well-rounded education — from which students go on to accomplish great things.
What surprising discovery did Noodle make while researching Lake View?
In an instance of the difficulties that sometimes emerge in K–12 accountability systems, Lake View High School was actually placed on probation in 2013 for failing to meet growth and attendance standards, despite students’ strong performance across the board. This is widely recognized as a quirk of the then-prevailing performance metrics used by CPS and not reflective of the school's continual record of achievement — in fact, this experience helped prompt district leaders to draft a new set of performance policies for the 2014–2015 school year.
Grades 9–12 Loving, NM
How is Loving High School innovative?
In addition to conventional academics, Loving High School offers career and technical education (CTE) opportunities. These programs provide participants with training in a choice of career clusters that include health sciences, STEM fields, and construction and architectural trades. Practical application is the foremost concern in the career-oriented Programs of Study (POS): Construction and architecture students, for instance, build a home as part of the curriculum. The school's career-oriented offerings are available in partnership with local businesses and professionals, and students may also take more advanced coursework at New Mexico State University–Carlsbad. The combination of a traditional high school education, career classes, and practical experience enables students to earn college credits and pursue a well-defined path toward skilled work, further technical training, or additional education upon graduation.
What are the outcomes of Loving High School’s innovation?
Loving High School boasts an on-time graduation rate above 95 percent and a college attendance rate of close to 60 percent — in a rural district that is overwhelmingly economically disadvantaged. While student standardized test scores are lower than statewide averages, these do not fully capture the school’s achievements in preparing students to succeed in both higher education and the workforce; moreover, 100 percent of students taking the exam were economically disadvantaged, and a significant proportion were also English language learners (ELLs).
In 2010, Loving High was cited alongside the much-larger Newark Vocational High School in New Jersey as an example of a superbly successful CTE school that had dramatically improved student outcomes. For the school’s stellar record of preparing students for success, U.S. News & World Report awarded Loving High School a Bronze ranking in 2015.
How is Loving High School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Loving High School’s innovative curriculum is one of the best arguments for the value of technical and vocational training. An education that makes explicit the pathways between education and work — even in medium-tech but high-demand fields, such as nursing and construction — motivates and guides students toward career paths that, given the school's rural location and families' economic hardships, they might otherwise have found entirely out of reach.
What surprising discovery did Noodle make while researching Loving High School?
The town of Loving, New Mexico has only 1,400 permanent residents, of whom 191 are students at Loving High School.
Grades 7–12 Key Biscayne, Florida
How is MAST Academy innovative?
MAST Academy — short for Maritime and Science Technology Senior High — is a magnet middle and high school providing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education to populations typically underrepresented in these fields. The school, situated on a barrier island between Miami and Key Biscayne, is in a prime location for maritime study. It was founded in 1990 to support students interested in maritime sciences, offering specializations in Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Maritime Studies and Culture, and Marine-Related Industries (MRI). As of this year, in addition to offering the Maritime and Science Technology program, it also offers three different Cambridge curricula: Cambridge General Studies Program; Cambridge Global Studies Program; and Cambridge Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It offers 18 AP courses and several dual-enrollment courses. The school has a vast array of extracurricular activities, including a National Ocean Sciences Bowl Competition team, a steel drum band, and several sports. It also has the only Coast Guard JROTC in the nation.
What are the outcomes of MAST Academy’s innovation?
MAST Academy is consistently recognized as one of the nation’s top-performing schools. The school boasted a 100 percent graduation rate in 2013–2014, and has been awarded the U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon Designation.
MAST Academy has an active community outreach program with a mobile school laboratory that provides educational programs for children in grades 5 through 8, often at no charge to other participating schools.
How is MAST Academy’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
MAST Academy has long been at the forefront of career-focused learning. It emphasized STEM education a decade before that became the focus of modern curricula. The school’s continued focus on a specialized, career-minded curriculum for high schoolers made it so popular within the district that MAST ultimately expanded its student body to include students from the neighboring Key Biscayne district. Its success inspired another such school; MAST served as the model for the Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Monmouth, NJ.
Grades 9–14 (not a typo!) Brooklyn, NY
How is P-TECH innovative?
Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), founded in 2011, is the result of a public-private partnership among the New York City Department of Education, City University of New York (CUNY), New York City College of Technology (City Tech), and IBM. In conceiving of the school, industry and education leaders came together to design a public, six-year, high school-to-college program focused on information technology and other STEM fields. Students will graduate with an associate's degree and a wealth of practical work experience in technological occupations.
P-TECH intensively supports and mentors its students, providing all learners with personalized paths that guide them through the curriculum according to their individual needs and achievement. Such tailored attention ensures that students are academically capable and successfully prepared for both the job market and further education.
What are the outcomes of P-TECH’s innovation?
Since P-TECH did not open until 2011, its first cohort is not scheduled to graduate until 2017. That said, in June 2015, six students graduated two years early with excellent prospects, including offers of full scholarships at a variety of colleges — or the opportunity to head directly into jobs with starting salaries of $50,000 or higher. A significant proportion of P-TECH's students have already completed college-level coursework, and more than 80 percent of fourth-years have taken part in paid internships at IBM.
How is P-TECH’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
In just a few short years, the success of the P-TECH model has already led to the creation of 40 other schools across the U.S., four of which IBM will lead as an industry partner.
What’s more, P-TECH's approach has the potential to address both the lack of cultural diversity in the technology industry (since 96 percent of P-TECH students are black or Hispanic) as well as the trend in recent years of shortchanging vocational and technical education. In the scramble to make four-year college readiness a universal benchmark, education leaders often overlook the substantial demand for skilled technology work that doesn't necessarily require a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, P-TECH demonstrates that professional training at the high school or associate’s level does not preclude a four-year college education; on the contrary, the school expects many of its graduates to continue on to earn bachelor’s degrees.
What surprising discovery did Noodle make while researching P-TECH?
President Obama endorsed the school in his 2013 State of the Union address, and he personally visited later the same year.
Grades 6–12 (at full capacity) New York, NY
How is Quest to Learn innovative?
Established in 2009 with its first sixth grade class, Quest to Learn is a NYC public school created in collaboration with the nonprofit Institute of Play. The founders, a group of game designers and classroom teachers, set out to use game design and systems thinking as the basis for the school’s pedagogical approach. They harnessed the principles of game design — that is, a problem set, immediate feedback, and a motivational structure — to engage learners in academic content.
While the original focus of the school was on digital games, the scope soon broadened to include all kinds of game play. Designers worked with teachers to create Common Core–aligned curriculum modules in which there is an overall mission — or, a semester-long area of study — that students must investigate by working through a series of smaller “quests” (problems to solve) on their journey to reaching a final defined goal. For example, in a unit on cellular biology, middle schoolers play different roles to help Dr. Smallz, a scientist who has mistakenly shrunken himself and is now lost in the body of a dying patient, find his way through the various anatomical systems. The goal of the mission is both to discover how to save the patient and to help Dr. Smallz escape his patient’s body. In the process of pursuing this quest, students learn cellular and organ structures, systems functions, and the effects of feedback loops. There are seven quests, ranging in duration from one to three weeks, each focused on a different body system. Students are assessed through a final presentation in which they must argue for a treatment choice to save Dr. Smallz’s patient.
From its start with sixth grade, the school has added a level each year and will graduate its first high school class in 2016. It attracts students from all over New York City, though it gives preference to families from its immediate district. The student body is racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, and nearly a third of students qualify for special-education supports. Quest continues the game-learning approach in its after-school programs, as well as in a summer camp and professional development offerings for teachers.
What are the outcomes of Quest to Learn’s innovation?
By traditional measures on statewide assessments, Quest to Learn’s scores have been close to or above citywide averages in recent years. For example, in the school’s 2012–2013 Progress Report, overall student performance was awarded a B grade, while student progress (that is, movement from one year to the next) on the same measures was given a C rating. According to its own website, 56 percent of Quest students scored better than the citywide average on the 2013 ELA exam, while 43 percent did so on the science exam.
That said, such measures may not offer the right tools to determine whether Quest’s innovations are successful. If, as the Institute of Play asserts, the challenge facing education stakeholders today is one of engagement, then an approach that delivers the content students must learn in K—12 schooling through activities that most are passionate about may hold promise to increase their interest and ensure that the learning sticks. And Richard Arum, a New York University professor of sociology and education who is studying Quest to Learn’s achievements over time, noted in a January 2015 article in The Hechinger Report that student results on the College and Work Readiness Assessment show that the school is providing kids with the skills “to collaborate, think critically, and master 21st-century competencies like systems thinking and design thinking.”
How is Quest to Learn’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Design and systems thinking impart the vital problem-solving, critical-thinking, and collaborative skills needed in 21st-century workplaces. By understanding the compelling nature of games and applying the principles of their creation to a traditional learning environment, Quest and the Institute of Play have developed an educational approach that leverages activities that kids find inherently engaging to teach them core academic content. For educators, administrators, and policy leaders, this school offers a model for how to challenge, motivate, and engage learners. The skills these students develop — inquiry-based, problem-solving, creative thinking, and collaborative — are, moreover, the very abilities that 21st-century employers seek.
Quest to Learn’s methods also illuminate infrastructure problems in schools across the country. While other schools may opt to draw on game and design theory (their technological capacity notwithstanding), implementation of Quest to Learn’s full curriculum requires certain digital resources. For instance, the school incorporates Minecraft into its curriculum and uses a private social network for communications, assignments, and digital citizenship instruction. In short, schools seeking to implement Quest to Learn’s pedagogical methods may first have to address a lack of broadband access, or district policies prohibiting the use of social networks in schools. Ultimately, beyond disrupting how students learn, this school is also making clear which tools students need to learn well.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching Quest to Learn?
The school also has its own private social network, QLink, through which students are taught — and may practice — digital citizenship skills, such as resolving conflicts without resorting to online bullying.
Grades 5–12 Vail, CO
How is Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy innovative?
Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy (VSSA) opened in 2007 as the first public school to offer specialized instruction for elite snow sport student-athletes in grades 5–12. The school accommodates students' travel and training schedules, and while winter mornings are spent on the slopes with the Ski and Snow Club Vail (SSCV), afternoons are reserved for the classroom (except Mondays, which call for a full day of academic instruction). In the fall and spring, students engage in academic pursuits full-time.
Innovation at VSSA goes beyond the school’s dedication to supporting students' athletic goals. In order to accommodate the frequent travels and demanding training schedules, the school adopted creative ways of effectively delivering lessons, including via a computer-based flipped classroom model for all students, not just those on the road. Collaborative project-based work and video conferencing are also keystones of the school’s learning methods. Students at VSSA become self-directed by learning in these ways, and they also have the option to explore their education further through programs such as dual-enrollment classes at Colorado Mountain College, and through paid and unpaid internships with local businesses.
What are the outcomes of Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s innovation?
Geoff Grimer, Academic Director for VSSA, explains that when kids “own” their educations, as students at the school do through their self-directed learning, they can truly thrive; and the success of students and alumni from VSSA supports this claim.
The school boasts increasing enrollment, a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio, and an 80 percent participation rate among parents and guardians in the PTA. And even as far as test scores are concerned, VSSA students do exceptionally well. Grimer explains that they score an ACT average of 26, five points above students nationally. Alumni from the school have gone on to attend top colleges, including Middlebury, Harvard, and Williams.
The athletic outcomes are perhaps even more impressive. Seventy-five SSCV student-athletes have qualified for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Teams, including 12 Olympians who participated in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
How is Vail Ski & Snowboard Academy’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
For young athletes dedicated to their sport, focusing on academics can be difficult. This tendency can lead to unfortunate situations, such as the 20 instances of academic fraud that the NCAA began investigating at colleges over the past year. A recent survey of 147 student-athletes shed some light on why many may be struggling in the classroom. When asked how much they valued academics on a scale of 1–10, most student-athletes said 9+, but believed that their teammates would only give academics an importance of 7.8.
Daniel Oppenheimer, one of the researchers who conducted this study, explains that this disparity breeds a kind of peer pressure, referred to as pluralistic ignorance, which causes students to act in accordance with the perceived norms (in this case, that teammates ostensibly don’t care about academics) as opposed to their own personal values (that they themselves do care).
At VSSA, because athletics are seamlessly incorporated into the school’s academic calendar, and because students are surrounded by motivated student-athletes who care about school as much as sports, they grow in an academic environment that is not subject to the peer pressure that researchers observed in this study. This unique model, which allows students to cultivate their own academic passions in a setting in which they are surrounded by positive role models, could be advantageously incorporated into student athletics on a wider scale.
Additionally, elite training academies can also run many thousands of dollars, making such accommodations out of reach to many students. VSSA found a way to keep student-athletes engaged in their schoolwork at a low cost to their families — yet another lesson that could be applied in schools nationwide.
Grades 9–12 Vergennes, VT
How is VUHS innovative?
Chief among Vergennes Union High School’s many innovations is the option for students to participate in the Walden Project. Based on the work of Henry David Thoreau, the project affords students the opportunity to examine the world and discover how they can contribute to it “from a developed sense of social, environmental, and personal awareness.” To supplement the curriculum and enhance students’ community perspective, the school also brings in scientists, writers, artists, and others as guest speakers.
Beyond this innovation, VUHS has four building-wide initiatives for the 700 seventh- through 12th-graders in attendance. The first is morning meeting, in which students gather with their advisors in groups of 10 to 15 students. Children stay with the same teacher for seventh and eighth grades, and then move to a different group for the high school years. The second is callback, in which anyone (student or teacher alike) can literally call a student back to work on classwork that the learner may not have fully understood; there is time set aside each day for callback meetings. Third are proficiency-based graduation requirements (PBGR), for which students must create and maintain portfolios that document their individual “skills, knowledge, and enduring understanding as an autonomous, lifelong learner.” All seniors present — and must defend — these collections of scholarship prior to graduation. Finally, the school emphasizes habits of work (HoW), or standards that students should meet, above and beyond content knowledge. The school provides students with a HoW rubric, and takes students’ HoW grades seriously: These form the basis for decisions about academic eligibility for athletics and co-curriculars. Even if students have sufficient content grades, they may be asked to sit out if they don’t meet the institution’s stringent HoW standards.
The school also requires that students adhere to five guidelines for success: presence, integrity, respect, kindness, and self-challenge.
What are the outcomes of VUHS’s innovation?
Vergennes students are indeed present, in all senses of the word — and there are stats to prove it. In the 2013–2014 school year, the schoolwide attendance rate was nearly 97 percent. The four-year graduation rate is 91 percent, five-year rate 96 percent, and six-year rate 97 percent. In terms of standardized test performance, VUHS students perform on par with students across the state of Vermont. That said, what they get out of their education — the opportunity to cultivate a deep appreciation for the world around them — cannot be measured solely in test scores.
How is VUHS’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The school’s innovative Walden Project has received national attention as a highly effective way to engage students who have not always thrived in traditional educational settings. The school is also helping drive larger efforts to ensure that high school students achieve financial literacy prior to graduation.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching VUHS?
In 1979, the school’s board ordered the library’s removal of The Wanderers by Richard Price, and the restriction of Dog Day Afternoon by Patrick Mann. (The latter ended up in the principal’s office, due to the lack of a “restricted materials” shelf in the library.) These mandates brought a challenge — in Bicknell v. Vergennes — from the VUHS librarian and others. The board’s decision was ultimately upheld by the district court and again on appeal.
Grades 6–8 San Francisco, CA
How is Visitacion Valley Middle School innovative?
Last year, Visitacion Valley Middle School made national headlines when NBC Nightly News ran a feature on the school. Of note was its meditation program, Quiet Time, which was developed in partnership with the Center for Wellness and Achievement for Education, funded by the David Lynch Foundation.
In 2007, Principal Jim Dierke instituted two 15-minute periods for stillness or meditation at the start and end of each school day. While there is no obligation to participate, all students and teachers have the opportunity to be trained in transcendental meditation techniques for relaxation and self-awareness. Additionally, the school offers extensive support services to students as part of its Wellness Center, an essential resource for this vulnerable student body — Dierke explains that most students at Visitacion have a family connection to someone who has seen a shooting, shot someone else, or been shot. The Wellness Center provides comprehensive care to students and their families, including mentorship programs, restorative practice circles after interstudent conflict, individual therapy, family case management, and support groups for different populations, ranging from an all-girls group to one for survivors of trauma.
Visitacion is also the first middle school in which the R.O.C.K. (Real Options for City Kids) after-school program was implemented. Its yearlong (and Saturday-inclusive) programming gets students involved in community service, outdoor adventures, athletic competitions, and curriculum enrichment.
What are the outcomes of Visitacion Valley Middle School’s innovation?
This area within the San Francisco School District has a high percentage of immigrant families and faces troubling gang violence. Eighty-four percent of the student body is socioeconomically disadvantaged, and Visitacion students had previously exhibited low attendance and high violence rates. Since the Quiet Time program commenced, however, suspension rates fell from 28 percent to four percent — the latter of which is less than half of the district average — and expulsions dropped to zero. Currently, there is a 98 percent attendance rate. Teachers are also benefitting from the program: Teacher turnover dropped to zero after three years of Quiet Time, and 100 percent of the faculty are compliant with the minimum qualifying standards set by the No Child Left Behind act.
While test scores are still below district expectations, students in the Quiet Time program have showed significantly higher improvement on statewide tests than peers who were not participating in the program.
Inspired by the success at Visitacion, other schools in the Bay Area have begun implementing Quiet Time at their schools and observed comparable improvements.
How is Visitacion Valley Middle School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Students who live in dangerous neighborhoods or come from at-risk populations face personal challenges that may make focusing on academics difficult. Many school administrators believe a supportive home environment is the most important factor in student success, yet this is not available to many children.
The ed space has long grappled with how best to support students facing such struggles, and Quiet Time provides a feasible model. The program requires few financial, environmental, and logistical resources, and the benefits that Visitacion’s students have attained through this initiative have motivated many other schools to follow suit. Visitacion took a chance on implementing a program that emphasizes the importance of holistically caring for students, and in the process, created a model with the potential to transform education in underserved communities. Ultimately, this scalable method, which could be easily instituted across the country, could be a way to close — or reduce — the socioeconomic achievement gap.
Grades pre-K–5 Ethete, WY
How is Wyoming Indian Elementary School innovative?
Wyoming Indian Elementary School, which is located in the Wind River Indian Reservation, emphasizes the dual importance of cultural connectedness and academic achievement. First opened in 1957, the school revolutionized its approach to math intervention in 2006. It is one of the few schools in the state that utilize services provided by First People’s Center for Education, as an unfortunate lack of funding prevents other schools from enlisting the organization’s services. This nonprofit works with teachers to help them understand and adopt the best pedagogical practices for teaching math to American Indian students through a program called called “Strength in Numbers.” At Wyoming Indian Elementary, students who are falling behind their peers participate in Math Recovery Intervention with a trained specialist, and sessions are recorded to enable educators to identify ongoing weaknesses and gain insight into the strategies that learners use to solve math problems.
The method fosters deep conceptual understanding, rather than just rote memorization or completion of basic written mathematical functions, in an effort to bring struggling students’ achievement up to grade level. (Some have likened it to the Common Core standards, though this method preceded the standards by about a decade.) The intervention services rely on games and hands-on activities coupled with close, individual attention from highly-trained educators. This approach aims to help learners master math skills and ideas that had eluded their understanding when the content was taught more abstractly. Classroom educators who have themselves received training in Strength in Numbers note that its success can be seen in students’ ability to apply concepts learned in one area of math to an entirely new type of problem and, most importantly, to explain how they solved it.
This year, Wyoming Indian Elementary was approved for a restructuring plan that further prioritizes individual learning, an initiative that aligns with the successful approach used in First People’s partnership with the school.
What are the outcomes of Wyoming Indian Elementary School’s innovation?
First People’s Center for Education cites statistics from the Wyoming Department of Education as proof of the program’s success. Between 2005 and 2012, the elementary school saw achievement levels on third-grade math assessments rise from 23 percent performing at the Advanced or Proficient level to 71 percent. And while the two most recent years’ test scores recorded a dramatic drop, this is believed to be a function of Wyoming’s adoption of the more rigorous (from a reading-comprehension standpoint) Common Core–aligned annual exams.
How is Wyoming Indian Elementary School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The achievement gap has been widening for American Indian students, due in part to large class sizes, lack of Native teachers, and ineffective instructional practices. Given this, the collaboration between Wyoming Indian Elementary and First People’s Center for Education — based on a combination of innovative pedagogical practices and individual attention to students — demonstrates the possibilities for success with this method in underresourced schools. The Wyoming Indian Elementary model also demonstrates that instructional practices emerging from careful observation of children’s needs enable educators to realize significant successes in addressing the learning challenges of their students.
Grades 6–12 New York, NY
How is the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem innovative?
The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem was founded in 1996 as the first single-sex public school to open in the U.S. since the 1960s. Begun through the work of Ann Rubinstein Tisch and the Center for Educational Innovation, the school's goal was to bring a rigorous, college-preparatory public middle and high school education to girls living in high-needs communities. Most of the school’s sixth- through 12-grade students come from low-income households, and many will be the first in their families to attend college. The school is committed to empowering girls and developing their competencies in four main areas: college and career awareness, STEM education, health and wellness, and leadership abilities. It also has a significant community service requirement.
Beyond TYWLS’s demanding academics, the school’s leaders focus heavily on the path to college, which is critical for students for whom higher education has rarely (if ever) been a part of their family histories. To that end, TYWLS participates in another Tisch undertaking, known as the College Bound Initiative, through which full-time college guidance counselors are placed in high-needs schools. Counselors work one-on-one with students as early as middle school to help them explore colleges and understand the path to enrollment. These staff members also teach students about financial aid opportunities and support them through the application process.
What are the outcomes of the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem’s innovation?
One hundred percent of East Harlem graduates have been accepted to college — in all 14 years since the school graduated its first class of seniors in 2001. According to the school’s website, its students achieve four-year college degrees at three times the rate of their peers. The average college financial aid package is close to $20,000 for TYWLS graduates, and the broader network has raised more than $200 million in financial aid to help low-income graduates pay for college. Those students from the overall network who participate in the College Bound Initiative earn bachelor’s degrees at twice the rate of peers and enroll in a wide array of colleges.
The school is considered a great success, particularly given the predominance of underachieving public schools in its surrounding area. In the now-defunct NYC Progress Report from 2012–2013, the middle school received an overall grade of B, while the high school was awarded an A. Likewise, the school’s latest Quality Review describes the overall learning environment in highly positive terms.
How is the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Through its single-sex environment, rigorous approach to learning, and intensive guidance counseling supports, TYWLS demonstrates that girls from low-income communities can reach high levels of achievement in fields that are still dominated by boys. The focus on college counseling from the middle school years onward — not to mention the school’s impressive acceptance rates — underscores the need for improved training and staffing of counseling offices in public schools in general, and the importance of providing students from high-needs communities with early opportunities to envision themselves attending college.
More broadly, the success of the East Harlem program has spawned a renewed interest in single-sex education throughout the U.S., with more than 500 public programs open today. TYWLS itself has expanded into a network of schools across Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. There are also affiliate schools in Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Texas, and elsewhere in New York State.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem?
The school and its students have gotten attention from some high-profile women. In 2014, Nene Sy, then a senior at TYWLS, interviewed First Lady Michelle Obama at the Women in the World Summit. In 2014, NBC Nightly News covered an annual event known as Brag Night in which career coach Peggy Klaus taught girls to “trumpet their successes” in an effort to raise their confidence and prepare them to describe their accomplishments in job and college interviews. The school has gotten a shoutout from then–U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey was the keynote speaker at its 2001 graduation ceremony.
Grade 6 Grand Rapids, MI
How is the Zoo School school innovative?
The public Zoo School, which serves sixth-graders only, accepts 60 students from within and outside the Grand Rapids district for an intensive year-long program at the John Ball Zoological Garden. In addition to following the required sixth-grade curriculum, students feed the zoo animals, raise salmon, sample water, and even go on two camping trips during the year. Students at Zoo School also take classes in forestry, astronomy, zoology, chemistry, and physics. Zoo School courses emphasize experiential and project-based learning. At the end of the school year, students are required to present an individual project, which encourages them to hone their research and presentation skills. Additionally, like all Grand Rapids Public Schools, the Zoo School practices Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), a proactive mode of disciplining children that focuses on teaching social skills and using data to solve problems.
What are the outcomes of the Zoo School’s innovation?
The Zoo School ranks in the top five percent of Michigan’s schools in its measures for student growth and achievement. The demand for the lottery-assigned spaces in the school has grown so much that the district has announced a plan to turn the Zoo School into a fully-functioning middle school, serving students in grades six through eight. The district has recognized the school for helping students develop independence, self-esteem, and creative thinking. To enhance the school’s impact even further, the district is committed to raising $40 to $50 million in support of the Zoo School’s expansion.
How is the Zoo School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The Zoo School is a real-world example of just how effective experiential learning can be. A meta-analysis of 40 years of studies about experiential learning bears out the effectiveness of this mode of instruction. The meta-analysis shows that experiential learning leads to more positive outcomes than can be found in control groups, or in groups engaged in traditional forms of learning. Given students’ successes after just one year at the Zoo School, an expansion promises to multiply the positive outcomes. What’s more, because the school is public, it makes innovative experiential learning opportunities available students across and beyond the Grand Rapids district, regardless of family resources.
Given the known benefits of experiential learning, the Zoo School is trailblazing a path for other districts interested in capitalizing on its benefits. As the ed space continues to figure out how to implement a sustainable model of experiential learning in its schools, the Zoo School, which fully integrates experiential learning into every aspect of each child’s education, provides a successful model. Even schools that take place in traditional facilities could learn from the Zoo School’s successes and seek to implement offsite programs at zoos and other community spaces.
Grades pre-K–8 New York, NY; Palo Alto, CA; San Francisco, CA
How is AltSchool innovative?
Founded in 2013 in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, AltSchool has a roster of financial backers who would be the envy of any startup: Andreessen Horowitz, Mark Zuckerburg, Pierre Omidyar, and Peter Thiel's Founders Fund. The school was created by former Google engineer and Aardvark founder Max Ventilla, who sought to update the education system to prepare his children to graduate into the world of the 2030s. Ventilla argues that parents wouldn’t accept transportation and a health care system that are stuck in the 1900s, so he is seeking to treat education, which has changed relatively little since the Industrial Revolution, with the same reinvigorating spirit.
The school has garnered such attention from investors because of its focus on personalized learning and its dedication to developing new software that could be employed widely across the ed space. When a student enters an AltSchool, teachers create an individualized Learner Portrait, which details the student’s interests, strengths, and passions. This is then integrated with the school’s learning objectives, which are tailored to students’ individual needs. Once these elements are combined, students receive weekly “playlists,” which detail goals and activities they must complete. To complete the list, students spend about 30 percent of their day on their devices (laptops or tablets), working on game-based learning applications that help them develop academic skills. In addition to this time, students also work collaboratively on projects and take weekly field trips, whether these are in-class “trips” facilitated by outside experts who teach a new topic or outdoor adventures to new parts of the city.
The AltSchool network consists of microschools, each a single room of 20–25 students in grades pre-K through 8, plus two teachers. In this way, the network is a throwback to the one-room schoolhouse, with which schools were integrated among commercial storefronts. Four new AltSchools opened this fall, and the network now totals eight campuses distributed around San Francisco, Palo Alto, and New York City.
Monitoring students is an important part of the AltSchool model, and this is done in a variety of ways. Cameras are installed in classrooms so teachers can evaluate the effectiveness of activities, and there's even an app for parents to follow student progress. Parents, teachers, and students also meet to evaluate students’ portfolios of work and modify learning plans.
AltSchool is a private B-corporation, or Benefit Corporation, meaning that it in addition to turning a profit (AltSchools are private, for-profit schools), the organization aims to have a positive impact on society, which is part of a B-corporation’s legal documents. Its yearly tuition currently runs just under $21,000 — a price that, while high, is generally lower than that of top private schools in the areas in which AltSchools are located. It is also worth noting that 40 percent of AltSchool students are on some sort of financial aid (and teachers do not know which of their students are receiving financial help).
What are the outcomes of AltSchool’s innovation?
In the two years since its founding, long-term outcomes have not emerged yet — but with the starry profiles of the network’s investors (and immense backing budget), AltSchools are ones to watch in the coming years. While it is difficult to gauge how students will do once they finish at the schools, the reputation that AltSchools have built has made them attractive to investors — with $100 million raised in May — and prospective families alike. The new AltSchool that opened in Brooklyn this fall received 900 applications for the 60 available spots.
In testimonials about their experiences with the school, parents explain how kids are thrilled to go to class, and cite the gains they see in curiosity and intellectual engagement at home. One mother describes how her six-year-old went from being a timid public school student to a thriving AltSchool learner who was excited to receive her own books and bookshelf from her teacher.
AltSchool teachers seem to be especially enthusiastic about the network’s pedagogical methods. Whether in testimonials on the AltSchool site or in news articles published in external outlets, teachers often talk about how the AltSchool system really allows them to get to know their students, and how closely they work with engineers who are always at the school, trying to understand how they can improve the technology so that educators themselves can spend more time focusing on students.
How is AltSchool’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The reason that so many investors are interested in collaborating with AltSchool is because the network is looking to do more than create a collection of microschools. The main goal of the organization is to create software that consolidates and facilitates the many facets of K–12 education — from admissions to enrollment to teaching to connecting with parents. The goal, in turn, is for this software to be widely implemented in schools across the country and possibly the world. The AltSchool team is composed in equal parts of educators, engineers, and operators, all working together to see how the product they create works in their own classrooms. The AltSchool network is certainly not the only group trying to solve these problems — there are many education technology companies trying to address school needs via streamlined platforms — but it is the only organization to have created schools around its product, with the ultimate objective of improving education and the world at large.
AltSchool is also innovating the way we think of school networks. As opposed to opening several large schools that need massive infrastructure efforts and expensive land acquisition, the AltSchool microschools, TechCrunch explains, offer low-cost, small-space solutions to the increased demand for schools in urban areas.
*This link will lead you to the Dogpatch AltSchool, the first school founded in the network. To find an AltSchool in your area, use the Noodle school search.
Grades pre-K–12 New York, NY
How is Avenues’s innovative?
Boasting an immersive bilingual program that pairs English instruction with either Mandarin or Spanish, this Manhattan institution — split into an Early Learning Center, Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School — aims to prepare children for the global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
At the moment, Avenues’s sole location is in New York City, but its leaders hope eventually to establish 20 other campuses across the world, all synced in their curriculum and principles so that students studying in London one semester could easily transition to Buenos Aires for the next, or follow their parents on a trip to Delhi or Mexico City. The first two international campuses will open in Beijing and Sao Paolo in 2017, and 14 campuses are on track to be created by 2021.
Even with its single campus, Avenues is already preparing students for international possibilities with the required World Course. The program, created by the Director of International Education Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Fernando Reims, is a component of each grade level at Avenues and enables students to learn about world religions, developmental economics, and more. Eventually, once additional campuses open around the world, students will work collaboratively with peers on global projects. While all of these academic innovations come with a steep price tag — annual tuition is $43,000 — the for-profit private school provides $4 million in financial aid each year.
Avenues was founded by former president of Yale University and former dean of Columbia Law School Benno Schmidt, media and education mogul Chris Whittle (who recently left Avenues), and creator of Greenberg News Networks Alan Greenberg. Schmidt and Whittle had previously worked together to found (in 1992) Edison Schools, a for-profit organization that managed public schools for districts throughout the U.S. and the U.K. — one that is widely credited with having begun the charter school movement.
What are the outcomes of Avenues’s innovation?
Avenues has yet to graduate its first high school class (though it will in spring 2016), so it is difficult to judge its students’ preparedness for college and beyond. The demand, though, for what Avenues has offered thus far is clearly high among many families: The school’s enrollment has exceeded expectations (by about 32 percent), impressive success that has allowed Avenues to expand its initial pre-K–9 offerings to include grades 10, 11, and 12.
The school’s brochures outline its “primary educational objectives”: core academic skills, global preparedness, an area of specialized study, values, life skills, fitness, and entry into higher education. In a great many of these domains, Avenues has already made big strides. For instance, in the academic realm, students apply what they learn through creative projects, such as invention conventions and theater performances in both English and Mandarin. To foster a global perspective (beyond meeting the school's language requirements and taking the World Course), students have dozens of opportunities to travel internationally, and the school has already led trips to Ecuador and Beijing. As far as specialized study is concerned, students select a subject they will focus on mastering beginning in ninth grade, and ultimately create a related capstone project, such as a thesis or portfolio, in 12th grade.
Several parents interviewed for a local newspaper explain that they’re happy with how receptive teachers and administrators are to feedback — going so far as to alter the schedule of the school’s signature language immersion programming to address parental concerns. Other parents note the success of the program as their kids Skype with friends in Mandarin and are able to chat with native speakers.
How is Avenues’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
While several universities have set their sights on creating a global network of campuses, this idea is still relatively new to K–12 education — and Avenues is leading the way with its ambitious plans. Whereas a couple of other Manhattan private schools have opened some international campuses, the scope of Avenues’s expansion is unrivaled. Once it reaches full capacity, this network could allow seamless exchanges not only for students and families, but also for teachers and administrators, thus giving these education professionals the ability to share best practices around the globe. The possibilities of such international connections are thrilling: Avenues students in Paris and Moscow could compare how their countries commemorate World War II, while a teacher from Avenues Rio de Janeiro could create a Portuguese language program in Sydney or Seoul. A global exchange at this scale could set the standard for future international K–12 educational networks.
Grades K–12 Somerset, NJ
How is the Center School innovative?
The Center School is a private, nonprofit school that serves students with learning, behavioral, and emotional challenges. It opened in 1971, the result of a collaboration of educators and parents who sought improved educational experiences for students with learning disabilities. From its initial small staff and student body, it has grown to serve about 100 children and young adults at the elementary, middle, and high school levels; the school also offers a transitional work readiness program.
The school is committed to providing students with a high-quality education and positive learning experiences to ensure their academic and social growth. Accordingly, its curriculum aligns with New Jersey learning standards and includes traditional academic subjects and electives in such areas as performing arts, information technology, and woodshop. The overall learning approach is both highly personalized and self-paced. Social-skills instruction is woven into the broader curriculum, and the school uses a ticketing system known as “Bulldog Bucks” to encourage and reward positive behaviors. In addition, it hosts parent workshops throughout the school year to provide therapeutic support to groups of parents and guardians.
The school accepts children from more than 50 districts across New Jersey, many of whom have had unsuccessful educational experiences in their local communities. These learners struggle with various disabilities, such as severe dyslexia, oppositional defiant disorder, sensory integration dysfunction, or depression, as well as behavioral challenges resulting from prior bullying experiences. The student-to-teacher ratio at the Center School is 5:1, and there is an overall student-to-staff ratio of 2:1.
What are the outcomes of the Center School’s innovation?
Students and parents alike express a sense of relief and gratitude at having found their way to a school that is able to address their learning, social, and emotional needs. Some students return to their districts after two or three years at the Center School, while others remain until they graduate and enroll in two- or four-year colleges, enter the workforce, or join the military. The fact that so many districts throughout the state contract with — not to mention the fact that so many students endure long commutes to attend — the Center School further attests to its efficacy.
How is the Center School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The Center School demonstrates that students with significant academic, emotional, and mental health struggles can, with adequate positive supports, develop the skills and knowledge to thrive in many settings. By serving children from all over the state without the constraints of district boundaries, moreover, this school demonstrates the efficacy of allowing greater mobility for students to ensure that their learning and developmental needs are met successfully, as well as the flexibility to permit them to change programs as their learning issues evolve.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching the Center School?
The school boasts a FIRST robotics team. It is one of only two special-education schools across the country with a high school–level team.
Grades K–12 Santa Monica, CA
How is Crossroads innovative?
Founded in a set of small Santa Monica bungalows in 1971, Crossroads School was developed by Dr. Paul Cummins, Dr. Rhoda Makoff, and a small group of teachers and parents. The school was a pioneer for social-emotional learning and holistic education; Cummins even wrote a book about his pedagogical approach, called For Mortal Stakes: Solutions for Schools and Society.
The school — whose name was inspired by the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken” — characterizes its five main commitments as academic excellence, the arts, the greater community, diversity, and the physical well-being and full human potential of each student. For instance, the school is committed to giving out $7 million in financial aid to ensure that it is accessible to all students who are interested. When it comes to a devotion to the greater community, Crossroads was one of the first schools to have community service as a graduation requirement. At present, students must complete a total of 45 hours of service to graduate, including one 25-hour project, one 15-hour project, and 10 additional hours of service.
Arts carry equal weight with academics at Crossroads, and students participate in “life skills” courses meant to develop self-esteem, responsibility, and decision-making skills. In these classes, students often explore identity, culture, and self-reflection through group therapy (“Council”), writing activities, and guided meditations. During their senior year of upper school, students attend a five-day retreat at the Ojai Foundation.
Environmental leadership is also a critical component at the school, and all students are required to complete a place-based natural education class, called “EOE” (Environmental and Outdoor Education). These classes often take the form of week-long excursions, including camping and studying poetry in the Owens Valley. The school recently completed construction on a large Science Education and Research Facility, which includes a native plant garden and a monarch butterfly preserve.
The tight-knit community and open curriculum at Crossroads both draw phenomenal teachers, whom students all call by their first names. These teachers are so influential that at times they get write-ups in the Los Angeles Times. For instance, Jim Hosney, a respected film and literature teacher, taught at the school for 25 years, and actress Zooey Deschanel, an alumna of the school, has gone on record as theorizing that “everything in Hollywood is directly or indirectly influenced by [him].” It should be noted that Crossroads is one of the few K–12 schools in the country to offer critical studies in film.
What are the outcomes of Crossroads’s innovation?
The school’s graduates go on to do remarkably well, with 98–100 percent continuing on to pursue higher education. Because the arts are so deeply woven into the curriculum, many graduates become lauded filmmakers, actors, writers, musicians, and visual artists — joining the likes of Crossroads alumni Kate Hudson, Maya Rudolph, Zosia Mamet, and Baron Davis.
Throughout its history, the school has accomplished many impressive feats, such as cultivating a renowned chamber orchestra (which played at the inauguration of the Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall) and receiving the Columbia University Scholastic Press Award for several publications. Its holistic approach to student development, which also focuses on encouraging learners to lead active and healthy lives, has led the school to win several athletic championships, including two state championships in the Upper School.
The school's curricular trailblazing has also led to recognition from higher education institutions. The school was one of the first to opt out of the Advanced Placement program and create its own high-level courses, which have been so successful that the University of California system has approved them for Honors credit.
How is Crossroads’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Crossroads is a part of the Progressive Education Network, and as one of the first private schools to devote itself to social justice and holistic education, it has served as a model for other progressive schools across the country and as a source of inspiration for educators. For instance, Vicky Shorr, writer, political activist, and co-founder of the Archer School for Girls, spoke about Crossroads founder Cummins's vision: “It's easy to look at the kind of progressive education that has become the norm in top schools throughout Los Angeles and assume that it's always been that way, but it hasn't. When Paul Cummins founded Crossroads School, in 1971 … private school was for the rich, the white, the privileged. But Paul Cummins thought it was time for that to change.”
Crossroads has been among the first of several schools to institute various initiatives, from doing away with AP courses in favor of its own rigorous offerings to eliminating cheerleading squads (which students believed encouraged gender discrimination). The school was also one of the first to invite thought leaders to present on and discuss issues of microaggression, diversity, and activism, believing that these conversations are not meant solely for higher education, and that they begin at the root of our learning experiences.
Grades 9–12 Cincinnati, OH
How is DPCR innovative?
DePaul Cristo Rey High School (DPCR) is a Catholic college-prep school that was established in 2011 to serve low-income families seeking a rigorous education for their children. Accordingly, DPCR recruits students (of all faiths) who qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program, and admits those whose household income does not exceed 75 percent of the median per-capita household income in Hamilton County — a threshold that translates to about $36,800 annually.
Beyond its rigorous academic curriculum, DePaul Cristo Rey's Corporate Work Study Program sends out four-student teams to fill the equivalent of a single full-time job. Each student works five days per month in jobs at various major corporations, local businesses, and nonprofit organizations in an effort to develop workplace skills and reinforce knowledge acquired in the classroom. The students’ earnings help to defray the cost of tuition, and are combined with other sources of financial aid and family contributions that are determined according to what each household is reasonably able to pay. All students receive a laptop computer and must attend a summer training program to prepare them for work in business settings.
What are the outcomes of DPCR’s innovation?
DePaul Cristo Rey graduated its first class in May 2015, and all members of that class were accepted to college. The network of schools uses the ACT’s Educational Planning and Assistance System (EPAS) to measure yearly student growth. Since opening in 2011, DPCR has consistently ranked among the network's top five schools in reading and English growth from freshman to sophomore year.
The network is noted for its superb performance in raising achievement and broadening opportunity for underrepresented students from urban communities; 88 percent of those from the class of 2013 network-wide enrolled in some form of college education (and more recent cohorts have approached 100 percent graduation and enrollment). Graduation and matriculation rates have also steadily increased with every successive year as the model has been refined.
How is DPCR’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
DPCR found a novel way to address three educational challenges at once: the need to integrate real-world professional training with school curricula, the need for academic rigor, and the need for affordable educational options. By partnering with companies, nonprofits, and academic institutions, the school found a way to provide top-notch academic and professional training effectively and affordably for students who would not otherwise have had access to these opportunities — or to the personal and professional networks available through both school and work.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find while researching DPCR?
DePaul Cristo Rey High School is one of the newest among 30 similar Cristo Rey network schools across the country. The group is itself extremely young — the first school opened in Chicago in 1996, with the express purpose of serving the needs of families with limited means.
Grades 6–12 33 campuses (now or soon to be open) across CA, CT, IL, NJ, NY, and TX
How is Fusion Academy innovative?
Fusion Academy grew out of Michelle Rose Gilman’s work tutoring and mentoring students in the late 1980s in her California community. By 2001, her academy was fully accredited, providing a nontraditional, alternative, one-on-one education to middle and high school students.
Fusion offers a personalized approach to college preparatory coursework for learners who want scheduling flexibility, while also focusing on the social-emotional aspects of student development. Students may attend classes year-round, and full- or part-time, according to schedules that are similar to those typical of college life — that is, from early morning through the evening, Monday through Thursday, with optional programs available on Fridays. Courses take place in classrooms on Fusion campuses, and are structured as one-on-one meetings between an instructor and a student. In addition to these sessions, students are required to complete their homework at the academy’s Homework Cafe under the supervision of a Fusion teacher who confirms its completion before kids depart. With a quiet area and another section that is communal, this space serves the dual functions of a study hall and social meeting area for campus students.
Fusion’s innovative ethos permeates each campus. On the Brooklyn campus, for instance, the space is warm and wacky, with drawings and printouts as well as jokes and lesson plans plastered all over the walls. The lighting is low and flattering, and the comfort level high. Despite the academic rigor, students feel at home there, perhaps because of the individualized attention they receive.
While Fusion classes meet state standards, they are adapted to students’ individual interests and pacing needs. In addition to traditional core academic courses, the school offers arts programming, physical and health classes, world languages, computer programming, therapy support, extra tutoring, and mentoring, although specific courses vary by campus. While Fusion affords students a great deal of flexibility — in terms of how many credits they take per semester, or how long they remain enrolled — students who earn degrees are still required to meet the same state standards as their counterparts at traditional high schools.
At Fusion, a for-profit private school, teachers and administrators meet quarterly to assess students’ goals and commitment to their coursework and to adjust their instructional approaches accordingly. Students’ proficiency in their classes is measured periodically using an untimed, online adaptive assessment tool called Measures of Academic Progress (MAPs). In addition, instructors share progress reports with student and parents every three weeks.
What are the outcomes of Fusion Academy’s innovation?
Fusion attracts kids who need flexibility due to other commitments — like sports or acting careers — as well as those whose original schools did not provide them with the supports needed to address their learning disabilities or bullying issues successfully. Fusion alumni have been accepted to a range of colleges across the U.S., and Gillman has said that close to 70 percent of Fusion students enroll in four-year colleges. According to a Fusion representative in New York City, moreover, all but one of the students who graduated in 2015 were accepted to college, and the sole exception was a student who did not intend to pursue higher education.
How is Fusion Academy’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The emphasis on tailoring education to individual student needs, creating a flexible learning program, and recognizing that learners’ social-emotional experiences may affect their academic growth speaks to a wider recognition that students’ development in schools is fostered more effectively when is it treated in a less compartmentalized manner. Fusion seems to understand that the singular, institutional model of education that has persisted for more than 100 years does not work for all children — and students who attend tend to agree, and to benefit immensely from the one-on-one attention they receive. Fusion meaningfully models the effectiveness of personalized education and provides a paradigm for what that looks like.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching Fusion Academy?
Each Fusion Academy has a hand-decorated surfboard unique to that location.
*This link will lead you to Fusion Academy in Solana Beach, the first school to be founded in the Fusion network. To find a Fusion school in your area, use our search tool.
Grades 9–12 Interlochen, MI
How is Interlochen innovative?
To say that this nonprofit, private, boarding fine arts high school (and its companion summer camp and adult education program) has been successful in honing the skills of talented performers and artists would be an understatement. Interlochen students create exceptional artistic and academic contributions on this campus.
Students who attend Interlochen are asked to select one of seven artistic majors: comparative arts, creative writing, motion picture arts, dance, music, theater arts, or visual arts. They pursue their artistic passion alongside other artist-classmates, and each program has unique supports to help budding writers, actors, and musicians pursue their passion. For example, music majors can specialize in a particular instrument, vocal music, composition, or songwriting; and this year, the academy’s students will be performing in the New York Philharmonic’s 2015–2016 season.
Visual arts majors are taught by both full-time faculty and artists-in-residence, and have access to specialized studios in which they can explore different media, including photography, printmaking, and fiber arts. Comparative arts majors combine interdisciplinary studies in writing, music-making, acting, dancing, and visual arts creation, and students present a project to the community at the end of their junior, senior, and (optional) post-graduate years.
Its academic curriculum, geared toward college readiness, blends traditional courses with artistic studies in an 8:30 a.m.-to-5:20 p.m. school day. Classes are taught by accomplished faculty members; only 10 of the 80 do not hold advanced degrees. In addition to standard coursework, students have the option of taking classes focused on ecology, genetics, women in literature, and “reconstruction and the rise of modern America.” The school's Intermester program enables students to participate in short-term, interdisciplinary programs outside of their chosen focus and in collaboration with peers.
Tuition for boarding students stands at $55,000, while day students pay $34,660 (plus additional expenses depending upon the program of study). It is worth noting, however, that the school provided more than $10 million in financial aid to its 496 students in the 2014–2015 academic year alone.
Its expense and rural location may suggest that the school’s residents and students are relatively homogeneous, but Interlochen hosts kids from 31 countries and 47 states — a level of geographic and ethnic diversity that rivals (or bests) most colleges. It also invites students to take advantage of exchange programs to various locations in Asia, Australia, and Europe. The school's English language learners (ELLs) have access to resources that provide both linguistic and social support to students new to American life or to English-language instruction.
What are the outcomes of Interlochen’s innovation?
If you’re into television, movies, or music, perhaps a list of names associated with the school will suffice: Josh Groban, Vince Gilligan, Ben Foster, Terry Crews, Ed Helms, Felicity Huffman, Norah Jones, Mike Wallace, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens, Dermot Mulroney, Rumer Willis, and Jewel (Kilcher). And this list doesn’t even include the countless musicians, actors, broadcasters, dancers, entrepreneurs, designers, and inventors whose names you may not know but whose work you’ve seen, heard, or used (like Larry Page, Interlochen alumnus and co-founder of Google). While not all of these individuals graduated from the high school, they’ve all been associated with the institution in some way, whether as residents of the boarding school, students at its non-degree-granting college, or participants in its summer camp programs.
Interlochen Arts Academy has also turned out more Presidential Scholars in the Arts than any other U.S. institution (the school itself was the recipient of the National Medal of Arts) and sends grads to top-tier colleges and conservatories every year, such as Princeton University, Sarah Lawrence, Berklee College of Music, and Juilliard. Its mean SAT scores last year were 588 (critical reading), 568 (math), and 572 (writing), while the mean composite ACT score was 26. The school has also had between two and four National Merit Scholarship finalists every year since 2010.
How is Interlochen’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Despite the proven benefits of arts education, many schools are cutting funding for such programming, rather than embracing these offerings. Interlochen has not only managed to celebrate creativity and artistry, but the school has also coupled the arts with rigorous academic development. It stands as an example to other schools of the inspiring heights students can reach when they are allowed the space to pursue their passion surrounded by other enthusiastic faculty and classmates.
Grade 11 Vershire, VT
How is the Mountain School innovative?
The Mountain School is an alternative school affiliated with Milton Academy. It enables 11th-graders, who hail from public and private schools across the country, to spend a semester of tightly-packed days cultivating the food they eat and working closely with professors in rigorous courses that involve experiential learning and public speaking. Students develop close relationships with faculty members, since they all live and work together on the Vermont farm. In addition to taking standard courses such as a foreign language (like Spanish or Chinese), physics, and English, one of the required courses is environmental science, which is offered not in the classroom, but outside in the fields and forests. Although students should be mindful of coordinating Mountain School courses so they are in the appropriate sequence (given their home school’s requirements), all courses that students take at the Mountain School easily transfer as AP or honors credits; the Mountain School’s curriculum sometimes even allows students to get ahead of their classes back home. Unsurprisingly, access to technology is minimal at the Mountain School — there is no cell phone service, and there is limited Internet access.
The program accepts 45 students from different states and backgrounds and encourages them to form close bonds with each other. Each student is assigned an advisor, who works with no more than four students per semester. Advisors and students meet at least once a week for half an hour to discuss their experiences in the program. Admission to the Mountain School is need-blind. While the tuition rate matches that of Milton, the school encourages students to apply for financial assistance if they need it.
What are the outcomes of the Mountain School’s innovation?
Among the greatest benefits of attending the Mountain School is the strong alumni network — and regular alumni events — that graduates enjoy. Additionally, program alumni have access to a unique funding opportunitiy in the form of a grant called the Garden Hill Fund, which sponsers former Mountain Schoolers who create projects for the benefit others. Beyond these tangible benefits, students report experiencing significant personal growth and cultivating strong lifelong friendships.
How is the Mountain School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
With each cohort of students, the Mountain School demonstrates just how effective low-tech learning methods can be. In a survey of its graduates, the Mountain School reported that most attendees in 2012 had not farmed, camped outside, or lived with a group of peers prior to attending the program. These experiences are rare for many teens, and while the ed space tends to embrace opportunities created by technological advances, the Mountain School directs students in a different direction — by helping them get in touch with nature and with one another through an intense living and learning experience. The Mountain School’s impact and influence attest to the intellectual, social, and emotional growth that an environmentally-immersive educational approach can facilitate.
Grades preschool–12 Brooklyn Heights, NY
How is Saint Ann’s School innovative?
Saint Ann’s School, an independent (nonsectarian) Brooklyn school for 1,080 students ages preschool through 12th grade, is letter and number grade–free. School leaders have made this characteristic central to the institution’s very mission: “So that every child will flourish, we eschew grades, rankings, and prizes in favor of ongoing dialogue and teacher reports.” Rather than assigning scores to students, teachers craft — twice each year — highly personalized qualitative prose assessments that capture students’ talents, strengths, challenges, and opportunities. The school is dedicated to helping learners cultivate creative expression, and offers a broad curriculum that includes a range of language classes, performing and fine arts offerings, athletics, interdisciplinary studies, and more. From printmaking to Mandarin and Greek, Saint Ann’s courses are designed to spark critical thinking and deepen multidisciplinary understanding. The school also offers a sense of community and stays open seven days per week.
What are the outcomes of Saint Ann’s School’s innovation?
While students do not receive grades in their classes, they do earn high scores on the standardized tests they take. The Saint Ann's school profile (no longer available online) provides a detailed report on student performance, and it is impressive. While the school does not offer AP courses, its students do take AP exams. Among the 83-person class of 2014, 29 members were AP Scholars with Distinction, AP Scholars with Honor, or AP Scholars. In addition, 24 percent of students received some recognition for National Merit performance. Median SAT scores are 730 for writing, 720 for critical reading, and 670 for math — all well above national scoring levels. And the school sends a great many students to top-tier colleges and universities. Among the 2014 graduating class, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale got two alumni apiece, Brown seven, Columbia six, and Penn and Cornell one each — to name just a few. (Saint Ann's students' 2015 college acceptances can now be found on the school's site, as well.) In other words, the lack of GPAs among graduating students does not seem to diminish their college admission prospects.
How is Saint Ann’s School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
With the increasing prominence of standardized tests, Saint Ann’s provides a powerful reminder about — and antidote to — the (limited) efficacy of scores and rankings. By considering each student as an individual, and by seeking to cultivate that person’s unique strengths and talents, Saint Ann’s models what a well-rounded education can look like. It also proves that schools don’t always need to teach (or grade) to the test for students to ace standardized exams. Colleges recognize the school’s effectiveness in preparing students for postsecondary education — and Saint Ann’s student admissions statistics reflect this.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching Saint Ann’s School?
Saint Ann’s celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this month. In recognition of this milestone, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sent the school a letter, hundreds of alumni gathered together, and Saint Ann’s issued an archival booklet that included such gems as an early school budget — in which salaries ranged from $500 to $11,500 (the latter for the headmaster).
Grades 3–8 Cambridge, MA
How is the school innovative?
Shady Hill School’s unique form of instruction is called “Central Subject.” Each year, from grades three through eight, students learn about a particular theme by examining it through different lenses. For instance, each year at Shady Hill the third-graders study whales and whaling, the fourth-graders study Ancient Greece, and the fifth-graders study China. Students cultivate their knowledge of history, literature, writing, and geography in relation to their yearly theme.
Additionally, students take other courses, such as math, science, art, and music, with world-class teachers, who are often attracted to Shady Hill for its renowned graduate-level Teacher Training Course. Shady Hill is also committed to faculty and student diversity. The school proactively recruits faculty of color and encourages students to form affinity groups, in which they can come together with others from similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. Research has shown that affinity groups minimize the isolation that students of color feel, and Shady Hill sponsors the affinity groups Children of Color as well as Rainbow Kids, among others. Teachers also create custom-made multicultural learning materials that speak directly to the school’s student body; they use these teaching tools in lieu of mass-produced, general audience–oriented textbooks.
What are the outcomes of Shady Hill’s innovation?
Shady Hill graduates go on to attend some of the country’s top high schools, including Milton Academy (with which the Mountain School, another Noodle innovative school, is affiliated) and Phillips Exeter Academy. Noted alumni include filmmaker Maya Forbes, mindfulness expert Ellen Langer, Olympic gold medalist Bob Cleary, and politics and public policy scholar Rachael Cobb.
How is Shady Hill’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Shady Hill is helping pioneer an innovative form of interdisciplinary education within the U.S.: phenomenon-based learning. While this method, in which students examine specific themes through multiple disciplines, has gained popularity in Finland (a country often touted for its progressive and successful education system), it has not widely taken off in this country — yet. Shady Hill’s impressive curriculum is helping to change that. In the process, Shady Hill is graduating alumni who are poised for success in an increasingly connected world, and serving as an inspiration for other schools looking to adopt innovative pedagogical methods.
Grades pre-K–12 Framingham, MA
How is Sudbury Valley School innovative?
Sudbury Valley School (SVS) was one of the first free, democratic schools to open in the United States. Since its founding in 1968, numerous Sudbury schools have opened across the country. At SVS, learning is entirely self-directed by students; they are free to engage in whichever activities they'd like — from reading on their own to forming a band with other students or playing video games — as long as they do not break any rules. Students establish rules during School Meetings, where members of the school community — both staff and students — decide on issues affecting the school, from hiring staff members to deciding on the budget. Each student and each member of the staff (who are adults meant to guide students through their learning) has one vote. This democratic setup means that the 200-plus students, who vastly outnumber the 10 or so adults on staff, can determine how the school is run. Students also take turns sitting on the Judicial Committee, a group of students and staff members that functions like a jury in addressing disciplinary issues.
What are the outcomes of Sudbury Valley School’s innovation?
Former students seem to agree. According to the results of a 1986 study, 75 percent of SVS alumni successfully pursued higher education, and as a whole, benefited from high employment rates. These numbers have only improved over time. The 2005 book The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni surveyed 119 graduates about their post-SVS lives. Respondents discussed their experiences in higher education, in their careers, and in their relationships with others. Eighty-two percent of respondents reported pursuing formal study after their time at SVS. Those who did not attributed their choice to a feeling of readiness to pursue their professional careers. Of those who did pursue higher education, many attended top-tier schools such as UC–Berkeley, Wesleyan, and Columbia University; moreover, 80 of the 119 respondents went on to attend graduate school. Graduates also reported the nonacademic influence that SVS had. Respondents wrote that their alma mater had a positive impact on their attitude toward relationships with others, and that it fostered independence and self-realization.
How is Sudbury Valley School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Since the founding of Sudbury Valley School, about 40 other schools promoting the Sudbury model have opened around the world. These have helped popularize a combination of unschooling — a movement that removes children from the structures of traditional education — and civic education. (In a study of 232 families who practiced unschooling, the reported benefits of this learning model included an increased sense of curiosity.) The civic education component in particular has established a model for integrating citizenship into learning; students who attend SVS and other free, democratic schools are encouraged to become responsible, active members of society. Finally, SVS models how a private education can be affordable for middle-class families. It and other free, democratic schools tend to have much more affordable tuition than other private schools, and some even use sliding scales to adjust costs depending on a family's income, a practice that allows them to draw relatively diverse student bodies.
Grades 10–12 The World
How is THINK Global School innovative?
With no campus or brick-and-mortar facility to speak of, THINK Global School (TGS) is anything but traditional. The approach it takes blends world-schooling with the peer and faculty network of traditional schools. Its high school students study in three different countries each year — one for each term — as they work toward an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. Instruction is almost entirely in English, though the school offers foreign language classes in Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. In addition, students have to learn the basics of languages native to the places in which they’re living for the semester. This year, students will travel to Sweden, Bosnia, and Italy. Last year, they experienced educational opportunities ranging from visiting the Acropolis Museum in Athens to taking biology lessons in the Costa Rican rainforest.
As students travel, they learn in all kinds of environments, including city streets, tribal villages, and science labs around the world. Learning is further facilitated by a heavy investment in technology, with each student receiving a MacBook Pro, iPad, and iPhone to complete classwork. These resources are enhanced by a Guest Speaker series, which has put students in touch with influential leaders like Prince Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, and World Wildlife Foundation president Yolanda Kakabadse.
Community service is another fundamental component of the TGS philosophy. In each country, students participate in advocacy and charity projects that connect them to the community in which they are living. In the past, these have included creating a film documentary of the Japanese earthquake-relief efforts and constructing schools in India. In addition to fostering relationships with people around the world, TGS students build close relationships with one another through their travels, as well as with their teachers and advisors. Students are each assigned a personal advisor who works with them to identify passions, arrange academic assistance, and provide emotional support.
What are the outcomes of THINK Global School’s innovation?
This program takes global learning to a whole new level: Students are face-to-face with residents of various countries, learning about new cultures and acquiring skills constantly. Though local flavor seeps into each semester of study, graduates receive high-quality, comprehensive college prep, and many have gone on to study at elite colleges all over the world, including Georgetown and Harvard in the United States, King’s College in the U.K., and the American University of Paris in France.
On an episode of the school’s podcast, alumni discussed what life is like six months after finishing TGS. They described the necessity of becoming accustomed to a less nomadic academic experience, yet still having an easy and exciting transition to life at their respective universities and appreciating the incredible opportunities afforded to them by TGS.
How is THINK Global School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Schools are increasingly talking the talk about global education, but no one seems to be walking the walk quite as much as TGS. Even the most exceptional study abroad programs at the college level do not offer this breadth and depth of international experience.
Perhaps the relevance of the THINK Global model to the larger education world is its rejection of what we think of as school — that is, its way of showing us how limited our conception of education is. Insisting on constant movement, stimulation, and inspiration, its programming flaunts how exciting this approach is. Most schools successfully bring lessons to life by incorporating an experience, such as a field trip or project, into an educational unit; but TGS weaves unending education into three years' worth of enriching encounters that teach students not only to embrace and interact with other cultures, but also to strive to improve any community they join.
Grades 7–12 Milwaukee, WI
How is Alliance innovative?
The first school created expressly as an anti-bullying institution, this Milwaukee, Wisconsin charter was founded in 2005 with the aim of educating students in a safe, accepting environment. Alliance also became the first gay-friendly middle school when it added grades seven and eight a couple of years later. The school’s anti-bullying culture is not the only thing that makes it unique; the 175-student, teacher-led (but student-centered) institution is also democratic, meaning that “students and teachers are empowered to make the school the best place it can be.”
What are the outcomes of Alliance’s innovation?
Many students who have endured long histories of bullying and trauma find an accepting, respectful atmosphere at Alliance, where learning can happen because the threats of physical and emotional violence have been eliminated. Tina Owen, the school’s founder and lead teacher, characterized Alliance’s unique contribution to education in a TIME article: “I always felt these kids could survive in other places, but they could thrive here.” And thrive many do. After all, they experience a school environment free from the harassment that is prevalent across the country. According to a 2013 report from the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), nearly three-quarters of students reported being verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation, and one in five reported being physically assaulted in school during the past year primarily because of their sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender. Students at Alliance, by contrast, do not experience this type of harassment. (That’s why some students travel great distances to attend Alliance in lieu of their local schools — or instead of forgoing school altogether.)
In part, however, because Alliance’s students have had their educations compromised by bullying — which often leads to poor performance, missed school, or both — the institution’s overall accountability rating is listed as: “fails to meet expectations.” Bullying, though, is not the only challenge that many students have faced. According to the most recent report card (from 2013–2014) cited above, 76 percent of the school’s students are economically disadvantaged, and 28 percent have disabilities. In addition, Owen has noted that a quarter of the students are homeless or in foster care, and 100 percent have been habitually truant at some point.
In the case of Alliance, success is rightly measured not just in terms of test scores, but also in terms of student personal growth and safety, both of which are core to the school’s mission. Alliance, however, is in the difficult position that many charters find themselves in; according to a 2013 article in The Hechinger Report, “some educators worry that the original premise of charters — to experiment with new ways of teaching and to serve the neediest students — could be in jeopardy” due to the increasing emphasis placed on assessment scores. If you ask many students about how their Alliance education has affected them, they respond with praise. Several students were interviewed in a People Magazine article; one, then-13-year-old Kat, whose grades had suffered in a previous school where she was bullied, became known at Alliance as a student who loved baking and songwriting, and who earned mostly A’s. Her story is typical of others we have read.
For all that it does to enable students to thrive, Alliance has been honored with the Silver Award as a High Achievement Charter School of the Year, the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association’s Platinum Award for Charter School of the Year, and the Fair Wisconsin Organization of the Year Award.
How is Alliance’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
While conversations about bullying have made their way to the national level, few schools have taken such active steps to eliminate this scourge altogether. Alliance models what a safe educational haven looks like, and the school has received national recognition for its innovation. In addition, Alliance has garnered significant press coverage, and it (together with Harvey Milk School, also an innovative school on this list) was cited as the model for the Social Justice High School – Pride Campus in Chicago.
Grades K–5 (at full capacity) Brooklyn, NY
How is Compass Charter School innovative?
Compass is a charter school located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The school was founded in 2014 with two kindergarten and two first grade classes, having received more than 800 applications by the time it opened. It will eventually grow to be a K–5 school, with two classes per grade level. Its student body is notably diverse, with a composition of 44 percent African American, 37 percent European American, 12 percent Asian American, 6 percent Latin American, and 1 percent Indian American students.
The school grew out of a year-long journey, The Odyssey Initiative, during which three educators set out to identify best teaching practices across the United States. Through a Kickstarter campaign and money earned from second jobs, Todd Sutler, Brooke Peters, and Michelle Healy traveled to more than 40 states and visited more than 60 schools, observing, interviewing, and filming teachers, administrators, parents, and classes to learn what works well in public, charter, and private K–12 education. What emerged from this investigation was a set of principles and practices that — once married to their convictions about social, racial, and economic justice — became the foundation of Compass.
As they planned their school, Sutler, Peters, and Healy began with the question, “What do we believe about children?” The answers to this query shaped the pedagogical, curricular, and staffing decisions they made for the school. As educators, they are committed to progressive education that brings direct research and real-world experiences into their students’ learning.
Among the approaches that the founders consider important for children’s education is the structure of looping, in which students remain with the same classmates and teachers for two consecutive years. In this way, educators are able to develop a deep understanding of their students’ academic and social development over time, and can accordingly attune their teaching to each learner’s individual needs and growth.
In addition, all Compass classes are staffed by two teachers, one trained in special education and one in general education. This structure enables a collaborative approach and permits all classes to be fully inclusive. The school also provides social, emotional, and behavioral supports, as well as an array of services for children with learning disabilities.
What are the outcomes of Compass Charter School’s innovation?
Children spend time investigating the community around their school to deepen their understanding of the topics they’re studying, as well as to foster awareness about and bonds with the neighborhood in which their school is located. The teachers and school leaders use an integrated curriculum that is focused on sustainability, broadly defined to include not just environmental issues, but also justice concerns. Arts, music, and physical education are woven in throughout children’s days, and are integral to all of their academic experiences. For example, classroom teachers and arts specialists co-plan study units and regularly co-teach classes.
While progressive education is available in many public and private schools, Compass has succeeded in bringing a rigorous, engaging model of it to a racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse school community. Although it’s early to draw definitive conclusions about the school’s outcomes, its first NYC School Survey from 2014–2015 shows promising results from parents and teachers alike, with 99 percent and 97 percent positive responses, respectively. These figures exceed the citywide averages in each of the six categories assessed.
Compass’s school day runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Monday through Thursday, and children attend from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays to allow for extended weekly staff development. School leaders are committed to collaboration and professional growth among their staff, and this scheduling ensures that these priorities are a structural component of the school community.
How is Compass Charter School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Compass has taken some of the most engaging educational practices available to children in socioeconomically advantaged communities, and woven them together with principles of equity, empathy, and caring for community. The result is a school whose parents, teachers, and students are dedicated and engaged. Compass Charter School’s commitment to academic rigor, social-emotional growth, inclusion, and diversity provides a promising model for public, charter, and private schools alike for what a well-rounded K–12 education could — and should — look like.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching Compass Charter School?
By the time Compass opened in 2014, the founders had visited the homes of 95 percent of their students in an effort to begin establishing ties with families and forming deep bonds with students. This is consistent with the school leaders’ belief in understanding the broader lives of their educational community so that they can tailor their teaching to meet each learner’s needs.
Grades K–12 Baton Rouge, LA; Camden, NJ; New York, NY; Washington, D.C.
How is Democracy Prep innovative?
Democracy Prep Public Schools (DPCS) are a charter network with the motto, “Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!” The first school opened in 2006, the work and vision of influential educator Seth Andrews; by 2009, it was ranked New York City’s top middle school.
Andrews set out to create a college-preparatory program for children living in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods. He believed it was possible to raise the educational achievement levels of low-income learners while simultaneously increasing civic understanding and engagement in traditionally disenfranchised communities.
The success of the first school led to a growing network that now includes 17 sites — across New York City, NY; Camden, NJ; Washington, DC; and Baton Rouge, LA — serving more than 5,000 students. The network was also awarded a grant by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 to expand to a total of 25 schools, and is considering new sites in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, and Oklahoma.
In addition to founding new schools, Democracy Prep has also made a name for itself as a turnaround agent — that is, an organization that transforms a failing school into a thriving one. To that end, it became the first charter organization to take over the failing Harlem Day Charter School in the summer of 2011; and within one year, Democracy Prep’s newly-renamed Harlem Prep Charter School had stunningly risen from the third percentile of New York City schools to the 96th. Today, the network has schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, some newly established and others turnaround institutions.
As its name suggests, Democracy Prep encourages deep civic engagement, an activity that it has made a central component of the rich curriculum. Students attend school for eight or more hours each day, and the academic year runs for 190 days, 10 more than New York district schools are in session. A child who begins at a Democracy Prep school in kindergarten and continues through 12th grade will have received an additional decade of schooling as a result.
All children — or scholars, as they are known — are given two hours of math, three hours of literacy, one hour of science, and one hour of social studies instruction each day. In addition, the schools require learners to take classes in areas like art, music, health, and physical education. At the high school level, speech and debate are among the offerings, as are a variety of advanced placement classes open to all students. Scholars must also take four years of Korean language instruction and pass the related Regents exam to graduate.
Like many other “No Excuses” charter schools, Democracy Prep sets rigorous standards for learning, uses data to guide instructional decisions, and expects students to adhere to defined community values — which, in this network, are known as DREAM: Discipline, Respect, Enthusiasm, Accountability, and Maturity. That said, what further distinguishes this network are three specific commitments that are integral to its accomplishments.
The first is the intentionality of its efforts to foster civic engagement and to equip families with the tools to play a part in public decisions affecting their children’s education and communities. For example, each election season, elementary and middle school students run “Get out the vote” campaigns in their local areas. Democracy Prep boasts the youngest people ever to testify in front of the New York City Council and the New York State Senate and Assembly. In fact, the American Enterprise Institute relied on the network’s experiences to issue a report on civics education. Andrews also created a related organization, Democracy Builders, to help drive community engagement by giving families the tools needed to advocate for great public schools for all kids.
Another aspect of Democracy Prep’s approach that sets it apart from other charters is that the network actively recruits students who are English language learners (ELLs) or who have special needs, many of whom are poorly served in their local schools. And these students follow same curriculum and must meet the same requirements as others in their schools.
Finally, Democracy Prep funds the operation of its schools through local, state, and federal dollars, investing most of these monies in teachers and classrooms while limiting administrative staff. Philanthropic money that the network raises goes to other initiatives, such as expanding the network or covering the expense of private facilities. This structure is significant because it supports Andrews’s thesis that it is possible to finance rigorous, successful, college preparatory schools for disadvantaged students through public sources.
What are the outcomes of Democracy Prep’s innovation?
In New York City, Democracy Prep schools have achieved noteworthy success; the 2013 graduating class has taken a total of 410 Regents exam and achieved a pass rate of 95 percent. Democracy Prep Charter High School was awarded an A on the city’s Progress Report in the 2012–2013 academic year, the last period for which this assessment is available. According to the Democracy Prep website, its middle school, Democracy Prep Charter Middle School, received an A from the New York City Department of Education each year between 2007 and 2013, including in the 2012–2013 academic year, during the advent of the more difficult Common Core–aligned state assessments.
With the dual goals of college enrollment and civic engagement, Democracy Prep sets demanding graduation requirements, as well. Students must receive two college acceptances and pass the U.S. Citizenship Test to receive their diplomas. Significantly, every student in the network’s first graduating class was accepted to 10 or more colleges, with 215 different institutions of higher education offering admission to these scholars. And when Democracy Prep first began in NYC, it surveyed the school’s parents and learned that only nine percent of them were registered to vote. That figure had risen to 78 percent by 2013.
How is Democracy Prep’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Democracy Prep’s focus on civics education as both a domain of instruction and a tool for transforming communities offers a model for others schools that recognize the need to address systemic inequities and a lack of citizen engagement. Much of social studies learning in other schools remains largely disconnected from the experiences of students and families, and Democracy Prep has developed an approach that brings these principles to life and empowers children and parents to advocate for change through democratic practices.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching Democracy Prep?
Education and hard work are highly respected in South Korea, and Andrews, who taught English there, was influenced by these values. He believes that the country’s transformative experience emerging from its state of poverty and disarray following the Korean War can be instructive for Democracy Prep students, as well, which helps to explain the inclusion of Korean culture and language studies in schools’ curricula.
*This link will lead you to Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Central Harlem, the first school to be founded in the Democracy Prep network. To find a Democracy Prep school in your area, use our search tool.
Grades 9–12 San Diego, CA
How is e3 Civic High innovative?
This San Diego charter, e3 Civic High, is located within a public library. Not only does the co-location afford resource access to underserved students, but it also makes a statement about the kinds of institutions that schools — and libraries — ought to be. Additionally, the school is dedicated to providing project-based instruction, cutting-edge technology, and, of course, research-facility access. Its location within the San Diego Public Library further enables the school to offer students opportunities for civic engagement. In addition to a range of in-depth academic offerings, e3 Civic High extends study abroad opportunities and academic support options, including twice-weekly tutoring sessions.
What are the outcomes of e3 Civic High’s innovation?
Because the school is relatively new (it opened just two years ago), long-term outcomes data are not yet available. That said, early indications are promising. The charter was created with the express purpose of installing a much-needed high-performing school in downtown San Diego. The school’s very design was created with that objective in mind; and for that accomplishment, it earned a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold award of honor for its sustainable and creative learning environment. It is setting a new standard not just for what a school could look like, or where one could be located, but also for what an institution of learning could feel like for the students who attend.
How is e3 Civic High’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
This innovative charter school embodies the values it teaches. To help cultivate environmental awareness, e3 Civic High is itself sustainable. To give students unparalleled access to resources, it opened within a major urban public library. In the process of establishing a values-driven institution, e3 Civic High also created a new framework for thinking about what a K–12 school is — and what it could be: a school served by and serving a public library. Moreover, e3 Civic High models how thinking creatively facilitates learning. That lesson is, perhaps, the most important of all for its students — and for the education world at large.
Grades K–8 Asheville, NC
How is Evergreen school innovative?
In 2012, Evergreen was one of 78 schools in the nation to be recognized as a “Green Ribbon School,” a title given both for its high performance and its dedication to environmental education and action. The K–8 school’s sustainable initiatives include: stream and creek clean-ups, “leave-no-trace” ethics on all school outings, rooftop solar panels, a greenhouse, a composting system, and an aquaculture program.
In addition to the school's architectural embodiment of environmental values, its programs encourage students to learn holistically by participating in outdoor activities that pique wonder and curiosity in the face of nature. These principles are incorporated through a partnership with Expeditionary Learning, an organization that works with schools like Evergreen and Clairemont Elementary School, another Noodle innovative school, to implement a pedagogical approach based on Outward Bound’s experiential model. In this vein, Evergreen students go on place-based expeditions that allow them to put into practice what they learn in the classroom, and most classes take an overnight trip at the end of the school year. These experiences help students develop problem-solving skills and independence by allowing them to form their own theories and conclusions through self-directed learning.
Older students are asked to think critically about how environmental concerns affect their community and the larger society. They apply this learning as they discuss current events, government, social studies, and business. For instance, seventh-graders have explored agricultural techniques used to grow food in environments faced with scarcity. Students interested in taking this environmental education a step further can participate in the Evergreen LEADER (Learning Environmental Action, Developing Expertise and Responsibility) program. This initiative lasts all three years of middle school, with students selecting an environmental topic of interest in sixth grade, learning about it through seventh grade, and creating a project that raises awareness about it in eighth grade.
In addition, the school has an established diversity plan, believing that students, faculty, staff, and board members should represent different backgrounds, and that the curriculum should be developed with social justice in mind.
What are the outcomes of Evergreen’s innovation?
In addition to the Green Ribbon it received in 2012, Evergreen has been recognized twice (in 2010–2011 and 2011–2012) as a North Carolina Honors School of Excellence for having higher than expected growth — this recognition is given to fewer than eight percent of the state’s schools. This year, the school did not meet its growth goals, but students still scored higher on state tests than the North Carolina average. For instance, while 80.8 percent of Evergreen students scored at or above proficiency levels in reading, the state average was 56.3 percent (for math, the numbers were 64.7 percent for Evergreen and 51.1 percent for the state average).
Graduates from Evergreen go on to accomplish many impressive feats, from gaining admission to schools such as Interlochen (also a Noodle innovative school) and Phillips Academy to traveling around the world, sometimes through initiatives like the Rotary Youth Exchange Program. Graduates also maintain their dedication to sustainable development after leaving the school. Evergreen’s alumni page notes the story of Eowyn Lucas, who won a grant for making her high school cafeteria more environmentally friendly, and that of Kira Bursky, who created a film called “Tree Hugger,” which was shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
How is Evergreen’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
It could be argued that with only 78 schools receiving Green Ribbons, the K–12 space is sorely lacking in sustainability education. Not only has Evergreen made environmentalism a focus in its curriculum, but it has also found a way to transform its students into environmental activists who take the school’s focus on sustainable development and apply it in their future lives and larger communities. If more schools cultivated a sense of environmental responsibility in the way that Evergreen has, the world — and not just the ed space — would be a better place.
Grades pre-K–12 (elementary/middle and high schools) New Orleans, LA
How are FirstLine Schools innovative?
The FirstLine Schools charter school network has pioneered a number of educational innovations, including personalized learning initiatives and emphasis on teacher professional development. Still, it is probably best-known for its partnership with chef, food activist, and National Humanities medal winner Alice Waters, who founded Edible Schoolyard New Orleans (ESYNOLA) in 2006.
The network, which consists of two K–8 schools (Arthur Ashe Charter School and Samuel J. Green Charter School), two pre-K–8 schools (Phillis Wheatley Community School and Langston Hughes Academy), and one high school (Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School), serves 2,400 students in a garden- and food-centric environment. All schools provide students with hands-on experience gardening and cooking the food they’ve grown. The Phillis Wheatley Community School — formerly called the John Dibert Community School — further empowers students and their families with Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters curriculum, which is based on experiential food education.
The collaboration between ESYNOLA and FirstLine Schools has led to a comprehensive health and wellness initiative that began in 2012, when network leaders implemented more stringent food-quality standards throughout the five schools. The partnership has also extended the food-based education that students receive to include their families, with cooking classes and food-based events that are open to the community. Additionally, FirstLine Schools began offering free recess workshops in order to promote increased physical activity throughout the day, and free fitness classes are offered to students and their families after school.
What are the outcomes of FirstLine Schools’ innovation?
FirstLine partnered with the Prevention Research Center at Tulane University to assess the impact of the food-centric curriculum, and found that in addition to increasing access to fresh produce, the initiative led students to become more involved in preparing food at home.
During its pilot year, FirstLine’s Wellness Initiative garnered all five schools the Gold Award of Distinction for the HealthierUS School Challenge, in recognition of Excellence in Nutrition and Physical Activity.
With a focus on the development of the whole child, FirstLine Schools have made significant progress in helping students improve academically — beyond their feats in the garden, kitchen, and playground. While there is still progress to be made in increasing the number of students who perform at the Basic level or above on the iLEAP and LEAP tests, FirstLine students have made impressive strides over the past several years and are, in the network’s apt characterization, on “strong upward trajectories.”
How FirstLine Schools’ innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
ESYNOLA is the first affiliate of the Edible Schoolyard (ESY) program, which launched in Berkeley, CA in 1995. The success of ESYNOLA was crucial for demonstrating that an education grounded in students’ relationship to food can happen anywhere — and indeed, it helped create a thriving school network in post-Katrina New Orleans. The success of the affiliation resulted in the founding of five other programs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Greensboro, Brooklyn, and Lake Placid.
*This link will lead you to Samuel J. Green Charter School, the first school to be founded in the FirstLine network. Use the Noodle search tool to find other FirstLine schools in New Orleans.
Grades K–12 New York, NY
How are Promise Academy schools innovative?
The Harlem Children’s Zone — and its keystone Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy Charter Schools — takes a community-centered approach to education, believing that by transforming the lives of children at an early age, they can transform a community — in this case, that of West Harlem — and raise it out of poverty. The organization grew out of a truancy prevention program, run through the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families. With the leadership of influential educator Geoffrey Canada, who would become President and CEO of HCZ, Rheedlen turned P.S. 194 into a community center, offering excellent after-school and weekend programming for young students.
Instrumental to HCZ’s growth and success was the subsequent opening of three new institutions: The Baby College, a parenting workshop; Harlem Gems, a preschool program; and Promise Academy, a charter school. Through these initiatives, it is easy to see how Harlem Children’s Zone enacts change in education from the roots: Not only do preschool-aged kids get the support they need, but so do their parents. Canada has gone on record as saying that without ample support, the achievement gap starts at day one. Harlem Children’s Zone is the embodiment of his plan to close that gap forever.
HCZ has continued to expand the comprehensive programming that accompanies students at every stage of their lives, from collaborating with local public schools and offering supplementary tutoring to creating a College Preparatory Program and an Office of College Success. These latest additions help to ensure that children who go through the HCZ journey will have full support as they pursue higher education.
Promise Academy is a cornerstone of HCZ’s educational programming. The students who attend these charters face many challenges: 81 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the majority will be first-generation college students. To ensure that its scholars succeed, the school provides an entire suite of supports: breakfast, lunch, and a snack during school; dental, medical, and psychological services on the schools’ campuses; data-driven instruction that allows teachers to individualize lessons; and Student Advocates who work with children one-on-one and collaborate with parents, administrators, and teachers to provide guidance to HCZ scholars.
Elementary school students begin every day with the Promise Academy creed: We will go to college. We will succeed. This is our promise. This is our creed. Promise challenges children with rigorous academics, framed by the Common Core standards of learning. Students deepen their arts education through a unique partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center in which kids play in a jazz band and receive private lessons from renowned musicians.
As students move into middle school, Promise places a greater emphasis on social-emotional learning, having students meet in gender-divided groups to discuss issues such as conflict resolution, stress, and self-esteem. In addition, middle schoolers are encouraged to attend offsite activities, such as the Model United Nations Summit, with the aim of encouraging global thinking and engagement.
High school, as the creed states, is a time to prepare for college. Through the Bard Early College Program, ninth and tenth graders can take demanding pre-college courses, strengthening their research, writing, and analytic skills. The Academy preps all high schoolers for standardized tests with special courses and one-on-one tutoring, and builds their application portfolios through school sports and special community service projects. In 2013, Promise Academy saw 98 percent of seniors accepted to college, with nearly $1 million awarded in scholarship funds.
What are the outcomes of Promise Academy schools’ innovation?
Because the organization has only been around for about 10 years, it is difficult to measure its effect on poverty. That said, Promise Academy has reported significant numbers in this timeframe: an overall 92 percent college acceptance rate; 881 HCZ graduates going on to college, and 100 percent graduating; and students receiving nearly $20 million in scholarships.
Dr. Roland Fryer of Harvard University and Dr. Will Dobbie of Princeton compared outcomes for Promise Academy students with those of peers who were not selected in the school’s lottery. In their most recent study, the researchers found that the charter’s students were 71 percent less likely to have a teen pregnancy and that the incarceration rate of its scholars was lowered by 100 percent.
Why is Promise Academy schools’ innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
HCZ views education as central to solving larger societal issues, especially those related to poverty. Its model has been lauded by President Obama, who used the Harlem Children Zone’s structure as inspiration to launch a “Promise Zone Initiative” that seeks to revamp other neighborhoods sorely lacking in education, health, and community support.
HCZ is notable for its all-encompassing view of education, founded on the conviction that children can only succeed in the classroom and life when they have support inside and outside these settings. The Promise Academies and the Zone’s related programs instantiate this belief by providing services to ensure the mental, physical, emotional, and educational well-being of students from early childhood into young adulthood. In a system where education is often treated as a process that occurs in a vacuum, Harlem Children’s Zone expands the concept of schooling and contextualizes it within the larger community, in turn fostering lifelong bonds among its members: The community supports children who will learn, grow, and return to strengthen the neighborhood from which they gained so much.
*This link will lead you to the first Promise Academy that Harlem Children’s Zone founded. Use the Noodle search tool to find other Promise Academy schools in Harlem.
Grades pre-K–12 AR, CA, CO, DC, FL, GA, IL, IN, LA, MA, MD, MN, MO, NC, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA,TN, and TX
How are KIPP schools innovative?
Founded in 1994 by influential educators Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two Teach for America alumni, the KIPP network of free, open-enrollment public charter schools includes 183 schools spread across 20 states and Washington, D.C. The leadership is not shy about the fact that it holds students to a high standard; after an in-home consultation, students, parents, and teachers sign an exhaustive pledge called the Commitment to Excellence in which students promise to do their best, teachers pledge to make themselves available to kids and their families, and parents agree to punctuality, nightly homework checks, and open communication with the school community.
KIPP schools also have extended school days, weeks (classes on Saturdays), and years (with an academic calendar that extends into late July). Administrators exercise significant autonomy over discipline in a no-excuses system, as well as a relentless focus on excellent standardized test results and other quantifiable outcomes.
In addition to these approaches, KIPP schools also value character development, which it breaks down into seven strengths: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity. Teachers are encouraged to incorporate lessons about character into their classes by pointing out positive examples, modeling positive traits, and using a character growth card to track students’ progress.
Admission to KIPP schools is based on a lottery system, and the network reports that its schools serve about 70,000 students. Of these, 87 percent come from low-income households, and 96 percent are African-American or Latin@. About 10 percent of students receive special education accommodations and services, while close to 17 percent are English language learners (ELLs).
What are the outcomes of KIPP schools’ innovation?
Due to its prominence in the education world and bold achievement markers, KIPP has been the subject of a major longitudinal study from Mathematica Policy Research since 2008. The most recent results are from September 2015, and they suggest solid progress. At the middle school level, KIPP students do better on state assessments in reading, math, science, and social studies than public school peers who started at a similar academic level. For example, after two years of attending KIPP schools, students’ average math test scores increased by .24 standard variations — roughly the same as jumping from the 40th to the 50th percentile on state math exams. Similarly, results on reading tests suggest that KIPP students performed .18 standard deviations better than traditional public school peers — the equivalent of a boost from the 37th to the 44th percentile. Importantly, the researchers reportedly controlled for factors like external motivation from parents. They have characterized the study’s findings as large and widespread enough (that is, measuring outcomes across enough students at all grade levels and subjects) to be considered statistically significant and educationally meaningful.
KIPP’s own Report Card for 2014 boasts a 94 percent high school graduation rate (compared to a 74 percent average for non-KIPP, low-income students), an 82 percent college attendance rate, and a 45 percent college graduation rate (the last of these is significantly higher than the nine percent rate for non-KIPP students from similar low-income households). Graduates of the program’s schools have gone on to attend colleges all over the country, including at highly selective institutions, such as Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, and Rice University.
How is KIPP schools’ innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
While the opt-out movement has led to increased skepticism regarding standardized test results and their relevance to education, the fact remains that such outcomes still affect educational opportunities throughout elementary, middle, and high school, as well as future college and career successes. KIPP’s focus on rigorous academics, character-building, and family engagement for students from underserved communities demonstrates that high achievement need not be determined by zip code.
Despite these results, KIPP and the other no-excuses charter schools (those characterized by extended days, strict disciplinary policies, and high academic expectations) are part of an ongoing debate in education reform. Supporters argue that KIPP and schools like it are doing a great deal to serve families who may have few or no successful educational options in their local districts, affording parents the choice of a school that can boast substantial achievement outcomes. Critics of no-excuses charters, however, believe that the schools’ regimented disciplinary methods breed docile graduates who may not know how to flourish in a 21st-century work environment that demands critical questioning and assertiveness.
KIPP has distinguished itself from other no-excuses charters, however, by subjecting its student outcomes data to an independent, longitudinal study (the Mathematica research mentioned above). In general, the network has consistently made efforts to examine its practices and seek ways to improve. For instance, in 2011, 33 percent of KIPP middle school alumni were graduating from college, a percentage that was only three percent higher than the national average. Since that time, the network has made efforts to improve college graduation rates (which, in 2015, now stand at 45 percent), implementing a new KIPP Through College mentorship program, and continuously monitoring and analyzing its progress. KIPP’s persistent commitment to improvement and its willingness to look squarely at its own shortcomings offer a model that other schools, regardless of their philosophies, can learn from.
*This link will lead you to the KIPP Academy Middle School in Houston, the first school to be founded in the KIPP network. Use the Noodle search tool to find a KIPP school in your area.
Grades 7–12 Henderson, MN
How is Minnesota New Country School innovative?
When they decided to create a new charter school, the founders of Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) considered whether or not the components of a typical high school actually benefited students. They then designed a school that is a clear break from tradition, except for the fact that it is located in a modern-day version of a one-room schoolhouse.
At MNCS, students work in an open environment, and they all have their own workstations and computers. They aren’t taught in classrooms by teachers, and there are no bells segmenting the day, since the founders of MNCS believed that learning shouldn’t be interrupted at arbitrary intervals. Instead, students spend their whole day developing their own independent projects (that meet state standards) and earn credit based on the knowledge they demonstrate during presentations to their teachers, who are referred to as “advisors.” These projects become increasingly rigorous and include a 150-hour junior project and a 300-hour senior project. The projects encourage students to cultivate their own interests and to become autodidacts while also making them responsible for large deliverables.
Even the school’s administrative structure is innovative because of its lack of hierarchy; there are no principals, and faculty belong to a co-op that decides how the budget is distributed each year.
What are the outcomes of Minnesota New Country School’s innovation?
MNCS’s outcomes, like the school’s methods, do not always neatly map to empirically high test scores — though the gains that students make are impressive. For instance, though 40 percent of students enter the school at two years below their grade level, they make significant and rapid academic progress, as demonstrated by their national assessment scores. In 2011–2012, MNCS students scored higher than average on the national Measures of Academic Progress, which assesses reading, and on the Hope Survey, which evaluates nonacademic skills such as problem-solving. Performance on state-level exams is mixed, however: While in 2015 MNCS students were on par with students across Minnesota in reading proficiency (59.8 percent proficiency vs. 59.5 percent statewide) on state assessments, they were well below state average in math proficiency (32.4 percent proficiency vs. 60.2 percent statewide).
That said, as this article in The Hechinger Report points out, the school achieves significant success in areas not fully captured by standardized tests. For instance, MNCS has also proven very effective for students with ADHD. According to that same Hechinger Report article, in 2012 all graduating seniors had plans to attend two- or four-year colleges. MNCS aims to help students develop skills that will serve them well in higher-education settings and far beyond. The school aims to promote innovation by cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit in students. According to its director, students have exceptional opportunities to develop communication and time-management skills, among others, during their time at MNCS.
The MNCS model was so successful among students in grades 7–12 that an MNCS elementary school for grades K–6 opened in August 2013. The elementary school serves 85 kids from 13 surrounding school districts. While these younger students are not in a one-room schoolhouse like their older counterparts, the elementary school employs a pedagogy inspired by the upper school’s project-based curriculum. Despite the fact that it’s only been a couple of years since the elementary school opened, there is already a waiting list for several grades.
How is Minnesota New Country School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
MNCS has model the effective implementation of project-based learning, an instructional method that gets students actively involved in problem-solving activities, contextualizes knowledge, and encourages students to pursue their passions. Project-based learning has been the subject of considerable research. Many believe that it is an effective way to reduce dropout rates among students frustrated with the apparent disconnect between curricula and real-world applications.
In addition to its demonstration of the effectiveness of project-based learning, MNCS has made a significant impact on the ed space by popularizing the co-op teaching model, in which teachers decide how to allocate a lump sum of money they receive to pay for salaries and school expenses, a practice that affords them ownership over the school’s operations. The Gates Foundation has, drawing on the MNCS example, since invested millions of dollars in creating schools with similar structures.
Grades 8–12 Washington, D.C.
How is the Richard Wright innovative?
Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts was founded in 2011 and serves students from grades 8 to 12, focusing on producing “well-versed media contributors.” As such, the school’s main concern is on written and spoken communication. Its students receive a classics-based education with specific attention to Latin and Greek texts — the first of its kind in a high-risk area of Washington, D.C. In addition, students take foreign language classes, as well as direct their own learning in journalism-related programs that include writing, television production, radio production, vocal recording, video, and filmmaking. This media learning is put to practice outside the classroom as well, with students participating in projects like reporting on the Mother’s Day Tea at the White House or creating moving public service announcements for National Save our Sons Night.
The normal academic schedule is augmented with after-school activities — generally an hour for “academic camps” and an hour for media programs. The former is a period in which kids receive extra instruction in core academic subjects and think about their goals for that day; the latter involves researching, writing, and producing media-related projects. Students also get laptops when they enroll for use both at home and in their classes.
The school serves an overwhelming majority of students of color (about 99.1 percent of whom are African-American); most come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Without this charter, these kids may lack access to production facilities like those at Richard Wright, and the school’s highly specialized programs give them the ability to learn marketable media skills.
What are the outcomes of Richard Wright’s innovation?
Since the Richard Wright school was only founded in 2011, it is still too early to determine whether the school truly prepares its graduates to be knowledgeable media creators and producers. While the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board ranks Richard Wright in its second tier of charter schools (meaning that it meets education requirements but is not classified as high-achieving), the school’s performance rose 12 percentage points in a single year, demonstrating a commitment to improvement. Some of the measurements that affect its achievement designation are based on students’ test scores, and with 64.3 percent of the inaugural student body having a reading proficiency that is at least three grade levels below that expected for their age, the school is only starting to make up for the unfortunate learning deficits these students have faced for years.
The D.C. Public Charter School data did show promising progress for the school, too. In the 2013–2014 school year, 96.5 percent of ninth graders were on track to graduate, and 86.9 percent of students had re-enrolled in the school, signaling that students are motivated to come back to Richard Wright, which is setting them on a solid path toward academic and professional success.
As for learning essential media skills, the students’ media prowess has allowed them to be guests at the White House several times, whether they cover an event as press with fellow reporters or they attend educational programs like a Careers in Film Symposium.
How is Richard Wright’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
Text-based, audio, and video media are not going away. It's important to develop a sense of media literacy as early as possible, and providing these skills — in combination with a traditional academic grounding — to underserved and underrepresented populations will help to increase a multiplicity of viewpoints within the next generation of journalists and consumers of media. Richard Wright is the first public charter school to make this its explicit mission; and it aims not only to teach students journalistic literacy, but how to use media in an ethical, intelligent, and responsible way.
Grades pre-K–8 Flagstaff, AZ
How is the STAR School innovative?
The STAR (Service to All Relations) School opened in 2001 to serve students who are members of the local rural community and Navajo Nation. It is the first public charter school to exist completely “off the grid”; it is powered by 245 solar panels and two wind generators. The school produces enough energy to provide phone service, Internet, and electricity without having to rely on outside sources. In fact, STAR Charter cannot rely on external support because of its location bordering the country’s largest American Indian reservation. The school, which also has a “Farm to School” program, practices a place-based curriculum that is grounded in the Navajo tradition of valuing relationships — among the students themselves, with the environment, and with the local community.
What are the outcomes of the STAR School’s innovation?
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education recognized STAR Charter as a Green Ribbon School for promoting and practicing sustainability.
As the only school in the district, it provides an education to about 130 students in the region who wouldn’t otherwise have access to formal pre-K to eighth-grade learning. The school’s predominantly low-income student body has a 96 percent attendance rate and meets the state’s annual measurable objectives in reading and math.
How is the STAR School’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The STAR School provides an example of how even a lack of infrastructure needn’t prevent students from receiving an education. The school’s ability to generate its own power means it can direct funds toward instruction rather than operational costs. In the process, the school makes the concept of sustainability an inherent component of the learning environment and curriculum. The school demonstrates what it means to be resourceful — literally and figuratively — and in the process, cultivates environmental awareness and commitment among students.
What surprising discovery did Noodle find when researching STAR School?
The STAR School’s students will soon expand their environmental awareness beyond the planet Earth. Kiril Kirkov, a Coconino Community College student, received funding from the NASA Space Grant Program at Northern Arizona University to bring the elementary school students to the CCC campus twice a month. There, they will be able to work with astronomy experts and use scientific equipment to study the stars.
Grades K–12 (elementary, middle, and high schools) Boston, MA; Camden, NJ; Newark, NJ; New York, NY; Rochester, NY; Troy, NY
How are Uncommon Schools innovative?
Uncommon Schools are a three-state network of 44 charter schools geared toward closing the achievement gap for low-income students. To this end, Uncommon Schools aim to help their students graduate from college — and that is why higher education is spoken about early and often, and an appreciation of it is seamlessly integrated into the school structure. For instance, classrooms are named after universities. There are Columbia, Rice, and Williams classrooms, among others; and students learn the songs and histories of their respective classroom schools. At Excellence Girls Charter School, one of the Uncommon Schools in New York and the subject of an earlier Noodle spotlight, students begin writing practice college essays and applications in elementary school.
The network’s pedagogical strategies come from the creator of its Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices project, Doug Lemov. Lemov wrote Teach Like a Champion, which analyzed the practices and pedagogical methods of high-performing teachers across the United States. Uncommon Schools train their teachers based on Lemov’s findings and philosophy, and the network holds professional development workshops for teachers from various schools across the country.
Uncommon Schools seek to inspire scholars who come from underserved backgrounds. The student body at Uncommon Schools is composed of 97 percent black or Latin@ students, and 83 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches. These students take part in rigorous academic and social learning. A typical day at Uncommon Schools is longer than average (as is the school year). As students enter the building to begin the day, they are greeted with a handshake by school leaders, a practice that fosters a respectful relationship between teachers and students. Afternoons are filled with enriching activities, such as book clubs, musical theater, and capoeira. Classes run late, with some ending at about 4:00 p.m.
What are the outcomes of Uncommon Schools’ innovation?
The goal of Uncommon Schools is for students — many of whom are from low-income backgrounds — to earn bachelor’s degrees. And the schools have made impressive strides toward achieving that goal; in 2013, 100 percent of the schools’ graduating seniors were accepted into four-year colleges. Between 2004–2012, 80 percent of alumni were in the process of earning bachelor’s degrees.
Additionally, Uncommon students tend to have higher scores than low-income — and in some cases, higher-income — peers in their states and cities. For instance, 34 percent of Uncommon students in New York City scored at the Proficient or Advanced level in English and Language Arts (ELA) on their 2015 New York State Exams, as compared to the state average of 31 percent and city average of 30 percent. In fact, Leadership Prep Ocean Hill tied for first place in the state for its students’ math scores on state tests, with 100 percent of third- and fourth-graders scoring Proficient. Graduates of Uncommon Schools in New York City have gone on to a number of selective colleges and universities, including Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, and Lafayette.
The success of the Uncommon Schools’ approach is not limited to New York. In New Jersey, a higher percentage of students at North Star Academy succeed on their NJASK state assessment than their peers across the state — 91 percent of students at North Star qualified as Proficient or Advanced in math, as compared to the 75 percent of the students who achieved one of these levels statewide. North Star proficiency rates in ELA were also higher than the state average by 13 percentage points. On the four Uncommon Boston campuses, students again scored higher than their peers across the city and state. The most dramatic gains were realized by eighth-graders in math, who earned scores of Advanced or Proficient at nearly double the rate of their peers across the city, and 1.3 times the rate of their peers statewide.
How is Uncommon Schools’ innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The 2015 GradNation report, analyzes the country’s high dropout rates, noted that while in most states, 85 percent of middle- and high-income students are graduating high school, that number drops by 15 percent for low-income students. But schools nationwide can learn from Uncommon Schools’ successes: Given that Uncommon students graduate at a rate five times higher than their low-income peers, the network serves as an object lesson in the efficacy of emphasizing college preparation from a young age.
One of the biggest contributions that Uncommon Schools has made to the larger education space is a methodological approach to understanding and creating better teaching practices — a problem whose solution has long been elusive. Using Lemov’s close examination of pedagogical methods that have proven positive effects, education leaders may develop a better understanding of which practices truly help students thrive.
*This link will lead you to the North Star Academy in Newark, NJ, the first Uncommon School in the country. To find Uncommon Schools in your area, use the Noodle school search.