ReThinkingEdu: Innovative Lessons Learned by Teachers During the COVID 19 Pandemic

In the aftermath of an 18-month crash course in digital tools and remote teaching, teachers and administrators are reflecting on what they hope to take away and apply to their traditional brick-and-mortar classroom settings. Educators across the country have learned how to adapt their instruction to online learning environments, and many have had to completely rethink their content to meet the needs of all students. Teachers are creating learning environments where students can succeed. The changes have resulted in some fantastic innovations!

I was asked to be a guest on a Teacher-Led podcast called ReThinkingEdu. This podcast is three teaching friends exploring and envisioning what education could be. The group Mike Dunn, Julie Cook, and Jeanine Dunn are all experienced educators and school administrators. They keep on the pulse of innovation in education through their own experience and the guest they host on the Podcast. I asked them what Innovations from last year they implemented or observed and I also wondered if there were any lessons learned that other teachers or administrators could benefit from. Below are some of the key moments from our conversation.

Mike Dunn, Ed.D., Dean of College and Career Counseling Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center said the following:

In February of 2021, I came across a book called Difference Making at the Heart of Learning by Emily Liebtag and Tom Vander Ark. My podcast co-hosts (we interview outstanding educators on RethinkingEDU) and I had just finished an interview with Tom and had scheduled our interview with Emily for early March. As an educator with roots in examining history, I have always been keenly aware of the need for teachers to promote critical thinking and relevance in their classroom practices. Students need threads to build their background knowledge and then feel empowered to connect this knowledge to action. In their book, Emily and Tom’s efforts spoke directly to this end and fueled so much of my thinking through the second half of the 2020-21 school year. How would I encourage students to ask themselves: What difference do you want to make in the world, and how can I help you figure out how to get there?

I recently started a new job at Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center in Estes Park, CO, and find myself in a unique position to ask students this very question. As the Dean of College & Career Counseling at Eagle Rock, I am privileged to form a program that centers on students’ dreams and encourages them to identify their motivations and potential actions after graduation. To be clear: this is not an easy task and is complicated even more so by the recent floods in Detroit, hurricane damage in Louisiana and up the East Coast, the constant threat of wildfire on the West Coast, and the challenges posed by withdrawals from Afghanistan. Couple all these issues with ongoing division and threats to individual and community enfranchisement, and the world can seem like a bleak place for young people.

This is what makes my work critically important. As a person guiding young people along their way, I sit at a fulcrum point in their life. This point is one at which decisions are complicated, but ongoing learning is essential. As I enter the 2021-22 school year (and beyond), my task is straightforward: We need young leaders who are not afraid to take risks. We need young people who will stand up for needy communities, ask tough questions, be relentless in the face of classism, racism, and misogyny and realize that action must happen now. We also need curricula and resources that are individualized and designed to connect young people to possibility. College and career guidance could not be more critical, and I am hopeful that my actions, words, and support can help the young people I serve to leave the world a better place.

Julie Cook, Ed.D., Language Arts and Social Studies Teacher, Souderton Charter School Collaborative, Ambassador Teacher for the Powered Schools Network, said the following:

Teachers experienced a lot this past year. It just might take another year to unpack it all. Teachers reinvented school as we knew it, and we turned on a dime. We piloted new technology and teaching approaches. We learned to prioritize what is most essential for students. When this is all over, we know it will not be enough for us to just put it all behind us and go back to the status quo. There is no going back. Even before COVID, teachers understood the inequities that exist in education and our society. We saw school leaving some students behind or out. Before everything that has happened, most of us had ideas about addressing the significant issues of our time. Not all of us were able to move our thoughts forward. This past year, reinvention became necessary, and more teachers in many schools took on leadership roles as we developed plans for remote/hybrid/socially distanced learning. This school year, let’s hope we emerge ready to reimagine school as it could be. That is a big call to action, but we can reimagine school because there has been a shift in the way teachers see themselves. Our classrooms became laboratories of innovation. Teachers became researchers of their practices, looking at existing practices, finding resources and partners, and discovering potential actions, solutions, and connections.

At Souderton Charter School Collaborative, a K-8 school in Montgomery County, PA, teachers adopted a researcher’s approach with renewed energy this past school year. We wondered, “What are we doing? What is working? What can we do? Let’s try it!” We applied this lens to everything from new tech platform rollouts to SEL activities to PBL design within our middle school team. As a school community, we also took the opportunity to consider how we work together across teams, make decisions together, and better prioritize a learner-centered approach.

At the start of this school year, we see some of our students will need extra help. Still, instead of remediation, we intentionally decided to focus on acceleration, using pre-teaching to catch students before they fall. We’re working to rethink competencies and dream up more authentic learning experiences with our students. For example, we’ve designed a project-based unit based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, where students address goals facing our world in the coming decade, including creating Sustainable Cities and Communities, Ending Poverty, Clean Water, Quality Education, Clean Energy, Gender Equality, and more. We’re launching podcasts and channels and writing change letters, policy briefs, and business plans. Students are change agents working on real problems and offering solutions.

In the middle of all the fun, we’re creating contingency plans. Just in case the pandemic forces a return to different configurations, our early efforts to prioritize relationships, establish community connections, and navigate our learning platforms will help us ensure that our community of learners includes everyone. We’ll be ready.

In other words, we reworked and reimagined everything. Yes, we are tired! But the new school year has us full of optimism. The idea that teachers can bring about changes in our classroom, our schools, and beyond might be the most significant takeaway in education at this moment.”

Jeanine Dunn, Ed.D., Coordinator of Adult Learning Systems and Middle School Math and Science Souderton Charter School Collaborative said the following:

I have been in the field of education for 20 years. I work at Souderton Charter School Collaborative, a highly successful k-8 suburban charter school that services 240 students. I am also an adjunct for Eastern University, where I teach instructional strategies and methods to our up-and-coming teachers. In 2017, I convinced Julie Cook, my teaching partner for the last 17 years, to join me in the pursuit of obtaining a doctorate in education. We often get asked why we would do such a thing – it is a lot of work and a lot of money, so what would we be getting out of it, or what did we want to achieve by earning an Ed.D? We were tired of having the same conversations repeatedly. The education system was/is broken, and we needed a new avenue to act. Through our doctoral program at Northeastern University, we were blessed with meeting some incredible educators who were just as passionate about changing the field of education as we were. In one of our educational entrepreneurship courses, we met Mike Dunn and Matt Downing and soon found ourselves launching design studios for teachers and a podcast called ReThinkingEdu. We have amazing conversations with people worldwide about how a school can and should be done differently. It has been great to take what we’ve learned and apply it to our classrooms.

Julie and I helped create the middle school program at our school and have much autonomy in curricular design. Technology has always been integrated into our program, but we took it to a whole new level when the pandemic hit. We sought out tools that would support all students and give each one a voice. We made sure every student had a Chromebook and used Google to ensure students had access to the curriculum (Classroom, Forms, Jamboard, YouTube, Sites, etc.). Google Classroom housed everything we did – from unit websites, assignments, class discussions, and assessments. Some other tech tools we found super helpful were Flipgrid, Soudtrap, Nepris, Streamable Learning, and WeVideo. We utilized these different platforms to provide students with the opportunity to socialize, collaborate, create, investigate, and critically reflect – all of which were important to the social/emotional learning of our students.

As we head into the next round of the pandemic, we will continue to emphasize the importance of social/emotional learning because we know authentic learning will only occur if students feel safe, connected to others, and happy. We have built time into our schedule for advisory meetings, counselor check-ins, and mental health breaks. Students (and teachers) need time to re-acclimate themselves to in-person learning, work on team building and collaboration. If we can focus less on test scores and more on meeting the needs of each student, we will be able to get through this pandemic together and set our students up for a successful future.


Mike, Julie, and Jeannine are just three examples of heroes in the classroom! The pandemic has changed and reshaped the way many professions go about their business. No place is this more evident than in the education system. I applaud their efforts and look forward to documenting the innovations of other educators across the country. If you want to hear some of the best ideas for your classroom, go to ReThinkingEdu and take a listen!

Launch of Open-Source Library at

Trillions of dollars are spent on school construction each year, in each case, trying to create effective learning environments. But are they solving the right problems? According to the World Economic Forum, the top skills for 2025 include complex problem-solving, working with people, self-management, innovation, originality, and critical analysis. Are we creating spaces to support the skills that will make learners successful?

The answer is often no! Many schools maintain a “cells-and-bells” model of isolated classrooms and rigid corridors that get in the way of effective learning. In other cases, schools incorporate a handful of design ideas that look like they might support creative problem solvers but fail in the details.

Rather than starting from scratch, we invite you to share in an Open-Source Library of Design Patterns for creative learning environments. This web-based application was specifically designed to help school communities create learning environments that are deeply aligned with their mission and vision.  Each Design Pattern aims to solve a common problem encountered by schools working to create vision-aligned learning environments. Each pattern includes an annotated sketch, a problem and solution statement, illustrating photographs, and links to go deeper.

The concept of Design Patterns was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language,” where he writes:

“The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment and then describes the core of the solutions to that problem in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over without ever doing it the same way twice.”

Each Design Pattern aims to solve a common problem encountered by schools working to create vision-aligned learning environments.

Randy Fielding

You can find 70+ freely available design patterns at School leaders, teachers, students, designers and community partners can use these patterns to identify the core elements to support their vision and goals for learning.

Design Patterns can be assembled to form an integrated ecosystem that includes the school’s vision, educational program, and physical space. Many schools will incorporate 20 or more patterns in their design–together they form a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

The library of design patterns continues to grow, and school design teams are invited to join our journey, contributing their ideas for new patterns to expand our collective knowledge base.

This is the first in a series of weekly Design Patterns blogs published at We welcome your participation!

Flipping the Script: A Case Study in Student Agency and Youth Entrepreneurship

“Artists need some kind of stimulating experience a lot of times, which crystallizes when you sing about it or paint it or sculpt it. You literally mold the experience the way you want. It’s therapy.”

— Erykah Badu

“It was the weekend and I was in the studio, and there was a blank canvas in front of me. The fear was exhilarating, and I remember being in that room and turning on Erykah Badu and being in that space alone. The song was Other Side of the Game. I hear this powerful bass line and then Badu’s voice reverberates through my entire body. It was such an important moment. It was crazy because right there I realized this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, this is who I want to be, I want to be in my own studio painting, telling my story. I think about that moment every day, it reminds me to keep moving, to get this for myself, to get my hustle on.”

–Eseroghenerukevwe (Ese) Faith Ovbagbedia reflecting on a moment that occurred during her Senior Capstone journey. 

During the 2020-21 school year, like millions of youth around the world, Eseroghenerukevwe (Ese) Faith Ovbagedia embarked on a very different kind of senior year. She paired that experience with a personal and educational journey all her own in the Art Culture and Community Capstone course at Hawai’i Preparatory Academy. Ese’s Capstone product was a series of two paintings titled Shades of Brown. These 70×50 inch paintings in acrylic, displayed a woman of color’s body being manipulated and molded by hands. The hands represent how society shapes and impacts how women’s bodies, especially women of color, are viewed and judged. Along with her art pieces, Ese also created a digital brand and marketplace for her work.

To me education is not as powerful if it doesn’t impact who you are as a human being, if it doesn’t give us [students] the opportunity to explore who we are and our process. We need to flip the script on schools.

Eseroghenerukevwe (Ese) Faith Ovbagedia

Knowledge of Self

Ese grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. She shared, “In Lagos, hustle is the most important word – that word really built the foundation of who I am and who I am becoming. There is this drive in my people, and this is a huge super power for me. My father is a lawyer, my mother started her own business, and I could see them grow as people and I could see that hustle-nature in my parents. This sets an example for what I can do, and that I can manifest my dreams into realities.” Over the course of the school year, Ese consistently tapped into her identity and story to develop her project. She states, “I’m still discovering who I am, but I can tell you now that I am a Nigerian, I am an artist, that we are all artists releasing our creativity in different ways. The Capstone process really helped me to do and see that.”

It was vital that Ese and other Capstone seniors were given time and space to work on their learning process. Ese was given time and a framework to engage in multiple cycles of ideation, research, project management, product development, and presentation. In a beautiful essay, Paul Graham, one of the founders of Y Combinator, writes that, “The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself… The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not ‘think up’ but ‘notice’.” Ese was able to utilize her skills and life experiences to represent two problems that impacted her directly: colorism and body shaming.This ultimately led to her project becoming so much more than something to complete for school. Ese shares, “To me education is not as powerful if it doesn’t impact who you are as a human being, if it doesn’t give us [students] the opportunity to explore who we are and our process. We need to flip the script on schools.”

Ese's painting

An Extension of Oneself

Ese writes, “Because my capstone was something I found myself working on constantly outside of class, it became a part of my life in a sense that it’s not just school anymore, it’s real. At first when I started the Capstone course honestly it was like yeah this is school work, but then once it tapped into this huge part of me and my identity it became an extension of myself. When you are creating something that powerful, it no longer feels like an educational trap.” By building out an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) that broke down the many steps that went into her art and digital storytelling, Ese was able to produce a legacy and guide for other students to follow. To coin a term used by educator Ron Berger, Ese was able to create an “artifact of excellence” that functions as an example, an inspiration, and a standard for Capstone products at HPA. Most importantly, Ese’s product and vision live on in her brand and business, and the love she has for her craft continues to grow. Ese is now at Loyola Marymount University as a Studio Arts major.

Ese’s journey is a case study in how rooting education in the identities and life experiences of learners can build up their confidence and sense of belonging. She reflects, “The whole project showed me what I can do, that I am capable of creating a life-size piece of work and sharing it with the world. It showed me that I have a voice, and I can use it, and I should use it. It showed me that people want to hear my story and want to learn more about my culture and my identity. It gave me this room to realize that a lot of people have a voice, and I have something to say, and it gave me that platform to release in a creative way. I’m proud that I was able to make adjustments, to give myself a break when I needed to, proud of my time management, and extremely proud to turn it into something bigger. I’m really proud to embody the hustle of my family.”

Real World Learning Case Study: Kansas City Region

Dubbed the City of Fountains, Kansas City, MO is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, its kindness and of course….the BBQ. Separated by only a state line, over 75 high schools from 31 different school systems across Missouri and Kansas collaborated to develop the Real World Learning initiative. 

One of the largest regional high school improvement projects in the country, the Real World Learning initiative was developed to ensure that all students are ready for life beyond high school. Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the sponsor of the Real World Learning initiative, recognized that the diploma was no longer enough and convened superintendents and business leaders to craft a new framework for students. 

After conducting a landscape analysis of the region, the data showed that the post-high school preparation wasn’t equitable across states and systems due to some students having great access to authentic learning experiences and others very little or none. As a solution, regional stakeholders collaborated to form community agreements called Market Value Assets (MVAs).

MVAs are a collection of experiences that a student has access to during their high school years. The goal of Real World Learning is for all students to earn one or more MVAs by 2030. The MVAs include:

  • Work experiences: internships and client-connected projects
  • Entrepreneurial experiences: starting a business or launching an initiative
  • College credit: at least nine credit hours
  • Industry recognized credentials

The collaboration between states and the inclusion of diverse stakeholders will allow Real World Learning to have the maximum impact on schools in the Kansas City region.

Rashawn Caruthers

The goals of Real World Learning were timely and important for the future of teaching and learning in the Kansas City region. The framework was structured, but flexible enough for school systems to personalize learning based on community needs. As a result of equitable funding distributed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, districts were able to analyze needs and identify priorities that would help them reach the goal of every student earning one or more MVAs by 2030.

We learn from the Real World Learning initiative the equity that comes from creating a regional approach to learning that prepares students for life beyond high school.

This case study was produced by Getting Smart in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation’s Real World Learning initiative (visit The goal of the initiative is to provide students with authentic learning opportunities and skills that result in them being prepared for life after high school. The initiative is supported by regional stakeholders in Kansas City, MO that includes school systems, business executives and community leaders. 

This School Year, It Will Take A Village

By: Julia Freeland Fisher

George’s* initial months of COVID schooling followed an all too familiar path: once a strong student, as a seventh-grader flung into a virtual classroom last March, George started to fall behind in reading and history. He needed help, but was too anxious to ask for it over Zoom where his peers would overhear. Some days he didn’t want to show his face on camera. And his go-to outlet, a travel baseball team, was canceled for the season.  

But George was lucky enough to have someone waiting in the wings: a mentor named Linda, whom his school, Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Bucktown, had paired him with the year prior. When he began to falter, George’s teachers called on Linda. She knew that in sixth grade, George had thrived on one thing: checklists. If he could cross something off his list, Linda told his teachers—like passing the test, finishing the project, turning in the assignment—pride would beam out of him, a huge grin on his face.

It wasn’t just his teachers that banked on Linda’s support: when George began to struggle, George’s mom started checking in with Linda almost daily. During a particularly difficult week, George’s mom told him to look out the window: Linda was there, outside, waving.

It was gestures like these, a system of checklists, and the collective support of his mom, his teachers, and Linda, that helped George get his seventh-grade year back on track.

Many hoped that this school year would return to normal. But students are gearing up for more unknowns. The number of school districts across the country launching new plans for hybrid learning more than doubled from July to August.

One thing, however, is utterly knowable: like George, the millions of students who returned this fall need a community of positive relationships. “Every student deserves a team of learning guardians,” said Phyllis Lockett, founder and CEO of Chicago-based education nonprofit LEAP Innovations. “Given the very broad spectrum of students’ learning and social-emotional needs, especially this year, we need to mobilize a broader set of caring adults to support each student.”

Years ago, researchers began to highlight just how critical relationships are in helping students thrive. Boston University researchers Jon Zaff and Shannon Varga found that contrary to the belief that young people need merely a single strong mentor, they, in fact, benefit from a web of close connections. And researchers at the Minnesota-based nonprofit the Search Institute have found that as the number of strong relationships in a student’s life increase, so does academic motivation, social and emotional skills, and his ability to take responsibility for his actions. And risky behaviors, like alcohol and drug use, decline.

Every student deserves a team of learning guardians.

Phyllis Lockett

In other words, the old adage that “it takes a village” rings true in the research. And if COVID taught us one thing, it’s that students will need an entire village, both inside and outside of school, whom they can lean on and learn from in the year ahead.

That’s a tall order. Even prior to the pandemic, schools’ ability to weave webs of support was constrained by punishing adult-to-student ratios. The average student: teacher ratio hovers around 16:1. And the average guidance counselor: student ratio is a staggering 464:1. Those hardly amount to the relationship-rich environments young people need.

Luckily, some innovative approaches suggest how schools might overcome these limits. For example, schools can modernize the traditional “parent-teacher conference.” Achievement First’s Greenfield School in New Haven, Connecticut has “Dream Teams,” composed of students’ parents, caregivers, extended family members, or neighbors. Teams meet frequently to consult with students about their goals and to solve challenges together.

Students themselves are also a magnetic resource hiding in plain sight. During the pandemic, students have reported missing their friends the most. Schools can capitalize on that, and offer more structured ways for students to support one another. For example, the Atlanta-based Forest School enlists peers as “Running Partners”, pairing students with an accountability partner to help them stay on track.

And schools can deploy modest staff capacity to coordinate in-and out-of-school connections. For example, the nonprofit City Connects assigns coordinators to meet with teachers to discuss each and every students’ individual strengths and challenges. Based on these individual assessments, coordinators connect students to services in their communities and monitor those connections throughout the year.

Amidst surging case counts, students like George might have to endure another year of awkward Zoom rooms. School leaders are spending this fall swirling in the logistics of determining where and when students will learn. But these well-intended operational gymnastics risk a major blindspot: determining who students can turn to throughout the year. Schools’ focus on logistics may accomplish some modicum of reliability. But relationships will drive resilience. They are the not-so-secret sauce that helps students get by and get ahead.

*The student’s name in this piece has been changed to ensure student confidentiality.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the Director of Education Research at the Christensen Institute.

The New Fundamentals: Tools to Optimize Remote and Blended Learning and How Educators Can Use Them This Year

By: Giancarlo Brotto

Despite starting the school year face to face, schools across the country have been forced to resume remote instruction as infection rates among children reach the highest they’ve been since the pandemic began. And even in many schools that remain fully open, there are high rates of students who are learning from home because of illness, quarantine or concerns from their families about their risk of infection.

As schools again find themselves incorporating remote and blended learning options into the school day, the education community has work to do to improve the quality of the experience for teachers and learners alike. An international survey conducted last year found that compared to other countries, teachers in the U.S. and Japan report that remote teaching was less effective than in-person instruction. That information comes as district leaders anticipate continuing to offer remote and blended learning opportunities once the pandemic subsides: 10% of K-12 leaders will continue offering these models post-pandemic, and 20% will consider offering a fully remote learning environment, according to one study.

That begs the question: if these models are here to stay, what can teachers and support staff do to optimize remote and blended learning this school year — and every year after?

With remote and blended learning continuing to be part of our short-term — and possibly long-term — strategies for instruction, we need to support teachers as they let edtech work in service of the instruction, and not the other way around.

Giancarlo Brotto

To begin, they can focus less on the bells and whistles of edtech tools. These resources have now been part of instruction for portions of three school years, which should make them less of a spectacle and more of a routine part of the instructional day. Given that reality, teachers should feel supported to return to the fundamental strategies of what makes learning work for students, then design tasks and incorporate digital tools to deliver them. Here are a few tangible ways that educators can use edtech tools in the classroom immediately:

  • For example, we know that learners use their prior knowledge and experiences to discern new information, so the question becomes how to leverage edtech to best make that happen. Educators can use SMART’s Lumio software or other journaling and graphic organizing tools to direct students to the graphic organizer, where they reflect on previous knowledge of a subject before they begin learning new concepts.
  • Learners also have varying degrees of attentiveness, but can all benefit when presented with new information in manageable chunks. Teachers are tasked with designing learning experiences and presenting materials in such a way that they’re not overloaded. Holding the attention of learners in non-interactive activities may pose a challenge — watching videos longer than 8 minutes long, for example. Teachers can use edtech tools such as the animated educational site BrainPop to break down material into smaller segments and incorporate interactive tasks that require students to activate their minds.
  • Edtech is transforming literacy instruction, as well. Normally, to get a full picture of a child’s fluency, a teacher must observe the child reading aloud, a time-consuming process for an educator with 20 to 25 developing readers in their class. But software that uses automated speech recognition systems, like the kind created by the Irish voice technology company SoapBox Labs, can be a huge timesaver for teachers and give them deeper insights into students’ reading progress. The student reads to a computer, which not only can assess their pronunciation and comprehension, but can screen for speech and reading disorders. “Voice technology is the next frontier in assessments, because it allows for more frequent testing — and more immediate interventions,” said Dr. Patricia Scanlan, SoapBox’s founder and executive chair.    

Teachers also can use blended technologies to make learning more visible. Educators can use tools such as Lumio to watch their kids complete activities or play “games” in real-time through shared workspaces. Teachers can assess their students’ progress, then provide feedback and individualized instruction based on their needs. That’s especially helpful when teachers are introducing a new idea or skill and are seeking confirmation that their students are “getting it.”    

Even before the pandemic exponentially expanded the use of edtech in K-12 classrooms, these innovative new tools were having a tremendous impact on how students learn. With remote and blended learning continuing to be part of our short-term — and possibly long-term — strategies for instruction, we need to support teachers as they let edtech work in service of the instruction, and not the other way around.

Giancarlo Brotto is a global education advisor for SMART and co-founder of Catalyst, a global community for education change agents.

Career and Vocational Training Gets a Virtual Reality Upgrade

By: Braden Becknell

Across the country, school districts are doubling down on workforce readiness, helping students begin to bridge the gap between the classroom and their future careers. In Texas, where I live and work, students are now required by the state to identify a career track before even entering high school. While districts must often rely on career aptitude tests and other similar tools to help students with this important decision, a handful of rural schools in South Texas have shown a flair for innovation in solving the decades-old challenges of career and technical education.

Five junior high and high schools have now partnered with Coastal Bend College to use virtual reality as a tool for career exploration, giving students a real glimpse into potential future career paths. Built in collaboration with an immersive learning startup called TRANSFR, the program allows learners to sample a wide variety of jobs in interactive virtual environments. Students who previously could only see themselves within a handful of careers — those of their parents or those most common in their community — are now able to not only visualize but also experience new pathways and possibilities for themselves.

Using virtual reality for career exploration brings careers to life, and puts learning directly in the hands of students.

Districts have good reason to introduce students to career pathways from an earlier age. Fewer than half of high school students believe they are prepared to go to college or start their careers after graduation. Just 34 percent of U.S. 12th-graders report feeling engaged in school. Only 44 percent of 11th-graders say they feel excited about the future. Schools are working hard to get students more engaged and looking forward to life after graduation.

This has proven particularly challenging in rural schools like those that have partnered with Coastal Bend. For many students, career paths can appear somewhat limited. Prior to participating in the virtual reality program, the students we work with tended to provide the same answers when asked what careers they were considering. The majority said they were likely going to find work in education, healthcare, or oil and gas. While these are all fine career paths, discussions with students revealed these answers were often less about passion or even aptitude but familiarity. These are simply the jobs they saw around them.  

While many tend to think about the cutting edge of education innovation as something that happens at major research universities and large school districts, it turns out rural community colleges and school districts have a thing or two to teach the sector about breaking down historic barriers between high school, college, and the world of work.

Braden Becknell

The virtual reality program is helping open students’ eyes to what else is possible. They are able to try out jobs that are common in their communities as well as jobs they never would have considered pursuing. For some students, the experience serves as confirmation that they were on the right path all along. For others, it helps them realize that a job they always thought they wanted isn’t a good fit at all. They can then explore new and exciting career paths.

Surveys given before and after the simulations show the program can dramatically boost the confidence students have about their career options. Students also become more engaged in their classes, knowing they are now working toward a destination they are enthused about. Some come away from the experience so excited about the future they decide to participate in their school’s dual enrollment program and get a jump start on preparing for college and their career.

VR training

One student who participated in the program always knew he wanted to join the army, but he had little idea about which track within the military he should focus on. Virtual reality helped him discover a love for firefighting. Another student, who is from a low-income family, is now interested in exploring a career in hospitality, a field he never would have considered otherwise. Before participating in the virtual reality experience, he had never seen the inside of a hotel.

These rural Texas schools are betting on this state-of-the-art technology to help students better plan for the future and become more engaged in their education. And it’s paying off, providing schools with tools to bridge the gap between the classroom and careers. While many tend to think about the cutting edge of education innovation as something that happens at major research universities and large school districts, it turns out rural community colleges and school districts have a thing or two to teach the sector about breaking down historic barriers between high school, college, and the world of work.

Braden Becknell is the Director of Workforce Development and Continuing Education at Coastal Bend College.

Surviving the Extremes at the WPS Summit

Armed with swag and ready to learn all about competency-based systems, attendees from across the country poured into the Marriott Westminster for the Westminster Public Schools (WPS) Summit. The room buzzed with anticipation.

The WPS Summit is a three-day conference focused on competency-based education. Located in Denver and in its third year, the summit provided an opportunity for teachers and education leaders to visit schools at all levels, engage with national speakers and deepen their knowledge during breakout sessions. This year’s theme of “Surviving the Extremes” focused on the pivots that educators made during the pandemic and the pivots that will be continued so that students are prepared for the VUCA future.


Featured speakers for this year’s event included Dr. Mark Elgart, Cognia;  Dr. Robert Marzano, Marzano Resources; Dr. Scott McLeod, CASTLE and members of the WPS staff. Sessions were grouped by focus areas centered around shared vision, leadership, competency-based design, learner-centered classrooms and continuous improvement. Participants also had the opportunity to visit WPS schools from elementary to high school, including the innovation school Metropolitan Arts Academy.

From the beginning, summit participants were challenged to imagine a knowledge revolution. Emphasizing that education has shifted and the focus needs to be more on adding value through knowledge, Dr. Mark Elgart led a keynote about the importance of going beyond being informed. “Kids are in creation mode. They have to be knowledge workers, which means someone who can learn and adapt to a shifting workplace.” The conversation at the conference regularly returned to this theme: continuing to change the competency definition to ensure that students were able to pivot in the workplace.

Participants were able to choose from over 35 breakout sessions during the summit. Sessions were personalized and presented by various stakeholders, from practitioners to vendors. Sessions contained valuable lessons — for example, in “Providing Effective Feedback to Teachers in a CBE Classroom,” attendees were able to learn not just what effective teacher feedback looks like in a competency-based system, but also what it means to coach vs. evaluate. “I start with hopes, fears and expectations when first talking to my teachers. I ask them what they expect from the process and I convey my expectations as well. I make sure I’m very clear on what I’m coaching on,” said Shannon Willy, a WPS administrator.

Other sessions centered around supporting educators in using a competency-based system toolkit to increase student agency and industry validation of competencies. Participants walked away with concrete examples of how to use tools such as The Parking Lot, Affinity Diagram and Power Voting that they could immediately implement in their classrooms. They also learned how to connect career and technical education programs to competencies to ensure that students met standards, received credit, gained internships and earned industry certifications.

Students who benefited from the enhanced career and technical education programs were present to share their experiences. “I took both the Inventor and Revit test and now I have an internship with an engineering company. We use Revit every single day. Being able to take the credential test helped set me up for success. It was hard. That test was really, really hard. They’re amazed that I know some of the same things that engineers do. Everyone is looking for experience. The fact that you can show them a credentials test is amazing,” said one WPS Graduate of the Class of 2020.

Attending the varied sessions not only allowed for participants to hear from students and teachers but also helped to make the connection between a traditional education culture to one that is built on a competency-based approach. Participants were able to understand that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education and the value of students showing what their “genuis” is in a way that outweighs a letter grade.

School Visits

To enhance the conference experience, participants were able to tour local Westminster schools. During the school visits, participants heard how students and teachers interacted in a competency-based system. Teachers explained the proficiency scales and students as young as kindergarten explained their data notebooks and showed how they access their learning platforms. During the Metropolitan Arts Academy tour, participants saw firsthand the energy of the administrators and heard the passion from the students. “It’s nice to be at a school where my identity isn’t tied to my grade,” said an 8th-grade student leader at the Metropolitan Arts Academy.

Participants were able to understand that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to education and the value of students showing what their “genuis” is in a way that outweighs a letter grade.

Rashawn Caruthers

With plenty of educational options to engage in, from math to dance to drama, the love of learning and the positive relationships were apparent. Instantly welcomed into the schools’ culture, participants were able to engage in stretching exercises with the drama class, paint galaxies with the art students, learn about Cesar Chavez through a virtual reality session, and watch students build bridges out of toothpicks and glue.

Students couldn’t wait to welcome visitors to their school. “She (the designated greeter) has been waiting all day to say welcome and hello,” said a kindergarten teacher who serves “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse” students. Middle school students served as tour guides, talking about their art-filled morning meetings, the buddy system where the middle school students are paired with elementary students, and their passions for music and art. Participants also heard 4th graders having high-level pre-writing conversations making sure they noted what they heard and saw when describing their rollercoaster experience with their class. “Something I saw was people recording and people with their hands up. Something I heard was people yelling.”

Students understood their goals and how to communicate their progress at any point. They understood the competency-based terminology and how to effectively use the tools to manage their workload. With competency-based components in place such as agency and individualized student plans, students and staff have learned to document their success, collaborate as much as possible and measure everything they do.

Visited Schools

The presenters, the sessions and the school visits created a powerful learning environment for all participants. With the added benefit of being able to have a personalized session of how best to implement or maintain a competency-based system, the experience felt well-rounded and impactful. The many opportunities to connect, create new networks and share experiences and resources created momentum and a sense of community that was openly received by all. We definitely recommend adding this conference to your list for next year!

Personalized Instruction: The Key to Academic and Career Success

By: Noemi Y. Perez

The Immokalee Foundation was established 30 years ago to support education and professional development for students in Immokalee, Florida, where more than half of the children between the ages of five and 17 live below the poverty level. Like many other low-income communities across the country, the children of Immokalee have more responsibility and less support than most of their middle-income peers. And, because many of these children’s parents are migrant farmworkers, they have additional challenges that are complex and unique: they live far away from a large town center with opportunities for entertainment and employment; their parents work from dawn to dusk harvesting food to feed our nation; and they often have to help with younger siblings.  They may even have a job to help pay their family’s bills.

Even so, The Immokalee Foundation is making a difference for these kids in a way that will not only allow for a more productive future but will positively impact their community. The Immokalee Foundation’s students have achieved outstanding academic success. Remarkably, 100 percent of the students have graduated from high school, 100 percent have a post-secondary plan for a professional career, and 92 percent graduate with a postsecondary certificate or degree. These results are best-in-class among organizations serving children at risk.

And these best-in-class students are succeeding with great enthusiasm. By participating in the Foundation’s programs, students in this community are choosing to spend their personal time participating in additional educational events. Not many young people today welcome the chance to essentially add extra educational activities to their already busy school and work schedules.

100 percent of the students have graduated from high school, 100 percent have a postsecondary plan for a professional career, and 92 percent graduate with a postsecondary certificate or degree.

Noemi Y. Perez

Understanding the unique challenges 

As migrant farm workers, many parents of the Foundation’s students harvest produce and follow the crops up north in the spring and early summer. This means students’ school schedules are interrupted on an annual basis, having to leave school in April, enroll in another state to complete the school year, and then return to Immokalee in late October.  It’s not hard to imagine how challenging it would be for these children to stay engaged and learn in school while having to adapt to new people, places, and routines. And it’s easy to understand why it is hard for Immokalee’s young people to envision anything outside of their normal lives without opportunities and/or individuals who can guide and encourage them to strive for more.

Defining the best approach for maximum impact

When faced with so many challenges, it’s difficult for educators and community leaders to determine which needs to address first and how to help. The Foundation conducted a needs assessment in 2006 to identify priorities and inform planning efforts. The result determined that early literacy, after-school educational programs, college preparation, and technical skills were the most essential needs that the schools could not address at that time, primarily due to funding issues. The Immokalee Foundation was providing grants and scholarships to the community, but after the study, the Board decided it was best for the Foundation to provide direct programming targeted to specific educational needs.

Creating pathways to success

The first step is helping students establish a strong reading foundation. The Immokalee Readers program works to build literacy skills for elementary-aged children who are reading below grade level. The program comes with a personal touch, providing high school tutors, supervised by certified professional teachers, to work one-on-one with young readers – helping to enhance reading skills, and most importantly, build lasting mentor-like friendships.

Primary kids learning

In addition to services for elementary-aged students, The Immokalee Foundation provides a variety of services to help prepare the community’s middle and high school students for college. These services include college scholarships that have enabled a majority of them to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

In 2019-2020, the Foundation launched a new initiative called Career Pathways, designed to prepare students for professional careers in job categories that are in demand in Southwest Florida. The individual pathways include:

·       Business Management & Entrepreneurship

·       Education & Human Services

·       Engineering & Construction Management

·       Healthcare

The overriding objective of this initiative is to ensure that every student acquires the technical skills, hands-on experience, and marketable credentials that lead to a professional career and financial independence.

To avoid the outdated misconceptions and stigma often associated with technical education, the program does not pigeonhole students into a college-bound vs. technical school track. Instead, every Foundation student is exposed to a common career-oriented curriculum and is empowered to discover and pursue the career path that best fits his or her interests, capabilities and goals.

Utilizing education technology to personalize and differentiate instruction

Everyone likes to talk about personalized learning that is focused on a student’s goals, but how do you expose kids to these things when their worlds don’t allow them to understand what opportunities are available to them? While many of the community’s students are being raised in non-English speaking households, literacy remains essential to helping these children become successful. The Immokalee Foundation found Achieve3000 Literacy to be a great fit for their program.

The online learning platform includes a Career Center that is designed to help students connect learning and literacy to future opportunities. The students can see their current reading level and the requirements needed for the careers they are interested in, all while becoming exposed to news and articles about their chosen industry. It’s truly a personalized, wrap-around educational experience. Not only are improved reading skills a benefit to the students, but the school district benefits because students are able to test out of remedial courses and take advantage of dual enrollment and career academy courses. (Read more about Immokalee’s work with Achieve3000 Literacy here.)

Everyone likes to talk about personalized learning that is focused on a student’s goals, but how do you expose kids to these things when their worlds don’t allow them to understand what opportunities are available to them?

Noemi J. Perez

Gaining hands-on experience with project-based learning

Because it’s difficult for students to access work experiences outside the community, the Foundation decided to bring work opportunities to the students. One example is The Learning Lab, an innovative new component of the Career Pathways initiative, and an 18-home subdivision in Immokalee that will serve as a hands-on professional career experience. Students who are following the Career Pathway curriculums for Engineering & Construction Management and Business Management & Entrepreneurship work with industry professionals to learn about and experience the processes of land development, home construction, and marketing and sales.

Creating more than just great student outcomes

According to Collier County School Board member Roy Terry, “Over the past decade, Immokalee High School has increased its graduation rate from below 40 percent to 93 percent. Without the intensive interventions and support of The Immokalee Foundation, most students would not have a postsecondary career plan. The Foundation provides the afterschool and summer education, professional development and career counseling needed for Immokalee’s youth to take full advantage of the school district’s Career and Technical programs. The Foundation also provides students with postsecondary scholarships that lead to well-paying, in-demand professional careers.”

To learn more about the foundation, visit

Noemi Y. Perez, who was raised in Immokalee, has worked for The Immokalee Foundation for 12 years and currently serves as the foundation’s CEO. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Hodges University, Perez chose to use her knowledge and experience to serve her community through The Immokalee Foundation’s programs and services.

School Sustainability Is About More Than Just Keeping the Doors Open

By: Sean McClung

You’re reading this because you want to transform high school. You might already know first-hand just how challenging it is to rethink, redesign, and collaboratively build a student-driven high school that prepares graduates for the future. The innovative and creative energy necessary for this demanding labor of love needs to be sustained, and that sustainability requires a dynamic strategy involving the whole community.

In my role as Senior School Success officer at XQ, where we work with communities to help them dream big about what high school could be, turn their innovative ideas into action, and create more rigorous and equitable schools, I have learned alongside teams leading the way, and am eager to share their insights in hopes it accelerates your work.

“Sustainability cannot happen in isolation of the community surrounding the school. It happens by building meaningful partnerships across public, private and nonprofit institutions,” explains Jamie Van Leeuwen, Director of Youth & Community Engagement at the Emerson Collective, who counsels XQ schools on how to build these relationships.

With this in mind, it is crucial for school leaders to consider the full range of factors that impact school sustainability, while also considering how their school is connected to its community. Where are the places you can develop or strengthen relationships that support, inform, and guide this work?

It is crucial for school leaders to consider the full range of factors that impact school sustainability.

Sean McClung

New Insights on Sustainability

Through XQ’s work with the XQ schools we have distinguished five components of sustainability that we view as crucial for sustaining the journey of an innovative school towards its vision: fiscal, operational, academic, leadership, and extended impact.

  • Fiscal. This is what most people think of when they think of “sustainability.” And indeed, multi-year budget planning, transparency, and accounting are all of high importance for the long-term viability of a school as the lifeblood that enables its day-to-day functions. We at XQ appreciate the work and resources that Afton Partners and ERS Strategies have to offer on this front.
  • Operational. Adding a level of complexity to the concept of sustainability is the realm of operations. Will a school be able to uphold its model if forced to move into new facilities? What processes and structures are in place to ensure the continued health and engagement of both students and staff? Are all staff and programs able to be supported through reliable long-term sources of funding? Fielding International provides strategic planning in this area, while tech providers like Abl Schools provide powerful technology for managing important elements like master schedule.
  • Academic. At the core of what we care about at XQ is the creation of meaningful and equitable student learning experiences. This entails learning models and systems (such as those that are competency-based and/or personalized), how student growth and achievement are monitored and supported, and what students achieve both during and after their school experience. Each of these requires a deep and shared understanding of how nuanced details should look and operate. There are many organizations that support this type of work, including Aurora Institute, Springpoint Schools, and Envision Learning Partners.
  • Leadership. Impacting all other areas of sustainability is leadership. As leadership of both schools and districts tends to change on a scale of years rather than decades, it is crucial for any leader attempting to affect change to consider ways to build long-term momentum behind their vision and culture, prioritize distributed leadership, and establish strong board and governance relationships and structures. Education Board Partners and High Tech High GSE provide unique and high-quality services in this area.
  • Extended Impact. Once a school has created meaningful positive change and becomes sustainable in the areas of finances, operations, academics, and leadership, it is worthwhile to consider how others might utilize or benefit from the strategies and process the school went through. This can take place through initiatives like community partnerships, leveraging political capital to expand to new sites, or offering professional learning. We’ve appreciated the work of Getting Smart in this area.

The above components are outlined in the following graphic:

The components of sustainability that any particular school needs to focus on are determined by context-specific details like the school model, district relationship, network partnerships, etc., but it’s not hard to see how each has the potential to impact a wide range of initiatives and structures. Accessing a wide range of expertise and contributions from your community is essential to keeping your momentum and building resilience for the future.  

Important details like leadership, learning models, and political contexts inevitably change. What is a school leader to do if shifts in district policies threaten aspects of their school’s day-to-day practices and norms? What should their response be if a local news outlet releases a scathing report on parent concerns about innovations at their school? Perhaps most insidiously, more than one XQ School leader has observed the tendency of even well-established, innovative teams to “regress towards the mean” over time if not intentionally and regularly re-invigorated. 

Some changes, such as increased funding through federal K-12 COVID relief funds, require new decisions for how to direct resources to improve learning. (Learn more about the opportunity to spend these dollars for high school transformation at Choose High School Now.) Through XQ’s school grantees’ journeys, we have learned time and again the importance of intentionally planning for sustaining through such changes, and believe that school leaders would benefit from taking these lessons into account as they plan for the future.

While many of the schools we work with continue to refine and pursue sustainability plans, we want to share a few inspiring examples of what these factors of sustainability look like in practice.

High School Sustainability Strategies to Consider

Washington Leadership Academy, for example, has focused on a number of guiding principles and associated actions to bolster its position. They have focused on developing and maintaining a strong and engaged Board of Directors who are able to connect the school with new community partners and provide insight into local politics and community priorities. They have gotten creative about developing structures that allow them to operate at full capacity using only ADA funding, with additional grant funding going toward innovation. And they are extending their impact through national partnerships with organizations such as CommonLit focused on building and providing open access to high-quality learning products.

Elizabethton High School is a public high school that has existed for decades, but in recent years developed a new commitment to education. They know that they will be able to exist for years to come based on their history and community, so for them, the question of sustainability has been one of laying a strong groundwork that will ensure the resiliency of their academic innovations. They have done this by ensuring that they pursue new strategies with a “bottom-up” mindset, deeply incorporating and reflecting student voice and prioritizing responsiveness to teacher team needs and thinking. They have extended their impact through community, business and post-secondary partnerships that sustain the brand of the school within their community. This has allowed them to further pursue powerful connections with industry and CTE partners.

Crosstown High School has made noteworthy progress toward sustainability by finding facilities that have embedded them directly into a business hub within their community. This community engagement and proximity, and the associated partnerships and visibility, have provided a unique value add to the school that will support their fiscal, operational, and leadership sustainability moving forward.

They have reinforced their academic sustainability by focusing on the implementation of competency-based learning practices, including the creation of robust project and scheduling structures to support students in mastering the school’s competencies, and innovative technology solutions to support them in gathering and tracking this student data.


In terms of importance, sustainability of positive change follows closely behind the change itself. For schools, sustainability requires constant refocusing and reinforcing of school models by engaging not just staff and students, but also community partners and other stakeholders, in both the “why” and “what” of the school.

We encourage schools to always be pushing forward for this reason. If your school has made strides toward better serving your students, it is worth it to consider how you might intentionally ask your school community and stakeholders to help you develop practices and next steps that might reinforce your model. As a starting point, consider the following:

  • What resources (e.g., financial, political capital, staff talents and interests) do we have available to us that are not currently deeply supporting our model?
  • What regular check-in structures are in place to ensure continued efficacy of our programs?
  • Are there possible community and/or non-profit partnerships that could be developed that we have yet to explore?
  • What public sector leaders, academic institutions, and private corporations might be interested in our work?
  • Who is the coalition that helps you think through each of these dimensions of sustainability? How can you build an advisory group of supporters who can also champion the school externally?
  • If you were out to dinner with a potential funder looking for a compelling project for a  $100,000 grant, what would your team propose?

Head to to see more great examples of innovations and sustainability!

Sean McClung is the Senior School Success Officer at XQ. Prior to XQ, he served as Senior Director of Schools at Summit Public Schools. Sean led Impact Academy of Arts & Technology for four years where he focused on equity and developed rich student-centered learning experiences.