Back In Person at the Model Schools Conference

By: Rachelle Dené Poth

It has been quite some time since educators have had the opportunity to gather in person for an educational conference which is why I was thrilled to be able to attend the Model Schools Conference, a hybrid event this year which enabled virtual attendance and an in-person experience. The conference, which was presented by the International Center for Leadership and Education, was held at the Gaylord Conference Center in Nashville. The Model Schools Conference has been taking place for almost 30 years and provides a space for educators to gather to share innovative ideas and best practices for schools.

The event kicked off virtually on June 22nd with a keynote by Eric Sheninger and opportunities for networking in different idea labs. The in-person sessions took place through Wednesday, June 30th. During the conference, elementary, middle and high schools, as well as innovative districts, were highlighted for their successes from a challenging year. More than 700 participants joined in virtually with more than 4,000 educators in-person at the event. Virtual sessions are available through their on-demand content. The conference highlights include learning from the perspectives of some of the model schools and innovative districts, rich presentations by thought leaders, opportunities for connecting and building your PLC, sessions that provided hands-on learning or how-to, opportunities for learning on demand whether through synchronous or asynchronous learning.

It was great arriving at the conference and experiencing the registration process, scanning the program to choose sessions, and being able to connect with educators from other schools, all in one space again. With many conferences either being canceled or making the full shift to virtual over the past year, it was great to have the opportunity to attend a conference in person. Virtual events do enable more people to attend, however having the opportunity to connect in the same space for those conversations, for the learning that happens beyond the sessions is tremendously valuable. My hope is that hybrid will continue to be an option for conferences.

Rigor and Relevance

MSC 2021 had several tremendous keynote presentations and there were many opportunities to interact not only in person but virtually with attendees. The variety of offerings in keynotes and sessions gave attendees the opportunity to work together and learn from other districts, to hear from thought leaders and to build our PLN. Resources were easily accessed through the Model Schools Dashboard which made it easy to locate sessions, participate in the live stream, engage in the chat, learn about the speakers and schools and more.

Keynote highlights

Eric Sheninger spoke about lessons learned during the pandemic in his “Seizing Success in the New Normal” keynote. “People need people,” Eric stated as he reminded everyone of the importance of relationships for predicting a child’s academic success. He told attendees to ”lead from the heart and continue to build a culture of trust and empathy.”

Dr. Bill Daggett, founder of ICLE, kicked off Monday morning with his keynote “Learning 2025” which focused on how to best prepare for our students’ futures rather than our past. He emphasized “Culture trumps strategy,” and the need for SEL in our schools. His message that we need to strive to prepare our students for a future that is yet to be defined and to do so, we should reimagine teaching, learning and assessment to teach our students the skills for the future.

2021 Model Schools Conference
Live sketchnotes done by Wendi Pillars @Wendi322

Dr. Temple Grandin’s inspiring keynote “Different Kinds of Minds” kicked off Tuesday’s sessions. Grandin said, “If I had to ask permission for everything I did, I would have never gotten anything done.” This is a quote that resonates with me and serves as a reminder of the importance of trusting ourselves as educators and always focusing on what is best for our students.

Wednesday’s closing keynote was given by Dr. Tyrone Howard. Dr. Howard spoke about several important topics including equity, mental health, and the power of relationships for learning together. Dr. Howard said “If you are not striving to move forward, you are falling behind” which means we must continue to reflect so we can grow and he left us with a call to action to “Know, Care. Act.” A powerful keynote to end the conference and a fantastic learning experience.

Model Schools Conference
Dr. Tyrone Howard



Featured speakers this year included Weston Kieschnick, Robert Peters, Bill Daggett, Venola Mason, Eric Sheninger, Dr. Tyrone Howard, Dr. Temple Grandin, Kyra Donovan, and Adam Drummond. There were “how-to” sessions, focused on the networking idea lab, sessions presented on equity, rigor, engaging students in active participation, how to amplify class culture, stories of resilience, AI-driven instruction, and how to start the year strong.

The variety of sessions and scheduling enabled you to really customize your MSC experience and select focus areas and sessions that resonated with you the most.

Another benefit of being in person was the “learning hubs” which are spaces beyond the conference sessions where you can engage in conversations and connect with other educators. These enable attendees to take advantage of some microlearning opportunities.

I really enjoyed the sessions that I was able to attend in person because of the opportunity to interact with other attendees and look forward to catching additional sessions through the on-demand resources in the dashboard. A few that I attended included sessions led by Dr. Michael Conner (Middletown Public Schools, Middletown, CT Disruption for Innovation and Equity), Weston Kieschnick (The Educator’s ATLAS: Finding the Path to Joyful, Engaging, and Successful Learning), Erica Battle (Equity Beyond the Classroom), and Felicia Turner (The Resilient Educator: Combatting Trauma through Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Practices). I also had the opportunity to drop into a few of the sessions led by model districts, which was a great experience for learning about the innovative work educators are doing at each level.

The Model Schools Conference was an impactful experience and I would recommend educators add it to the list of must-attend events. The conference will be held in Orlando, FL next year and proposals to present a session are now open.

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Nate Kellogg & Gwen Baker on Real-Time Redesign for Schools and Districts

On this episode of the Getting Smart Podcast, Tom talks with Nate Kellogg of The Learning Accelerator and Gwen Baker of Bellwether Education Partners about The Strategy Lab, a project of the Always Ready for Learning initiative.

Let’s listen in as Tom talks with Nate and Gwen about this important collaborative work within a network of schools and districts. Stay tuned until the end to hear from some of the participants themselves!

For the last few months, we’ve been partners with The Learning Accelerator on their Strategy Lab initiative, a nine-month, pro bono, cohort-based learning experience that supported seven districts in their safe reopening and planning for long-term sustainable change beyond the COVID era. Through monthly cohort sessions, biweekly planning meetings, and additional small-group collaboration with experts, districts:

  • Received targeted support and collaboration for prioritized needs for back-to-school to accelerate student progress;
  • Engaged in a process to make real-time, meaningful, and lasting improvements to move towards more equitable and resilient teaching and learning;
  • Connected to other district teams as well as existing experts and resources for the implementation of new models and approaches at scale.

As a culmination of this initiative, the participating organizations have released the Real-Time Redesign Toolkit, a realistic, inclusive, and rapid process for making targeted improvement toward more equitable and resilient teaching and learning. The toolkit includes step-by-step instructions and real examples from districts across the country to support school and system leaders to use the process in their own context.

We documented some of this work in a set of blogs and podcasts that you can check out: 

This work strongly aligned with Bellwether Education Partners’ mission. They are a national nonprofit that is “trying to change the life outcomes for learners furthest from opportunity.” Gwen used to work with Beth Rabbitt of TLA and they formed a strong relationship early on. When COVID-19 hit, they found themselves asking the same questions, one of which being: “How can we use this crisis as an opp to help orgs address challenges and gaps that were identified?”

The work that followed featured the participation of 7 districts: Renton School District, Phoenix Charter Academy, Monterey Penninsula United School District, Mastery Charter, Indianapolis Public Schools, Cedar Rapids Public Schools and Austin ISD. The application process focused on districts who were ready to leapfrog — meaning they might not have been on the leading edge, but they had a strong foundation and an interest in capitalizing on the disruption of the moment. Still, the districts and participants had a wide range of preparedness.

To start, Gwen and her team “started with an assessment across the portfolio.” From here, they asked the questions: “What is the lay of the land of needs and supports?” and “How might we reimagine redesigning our systems for resilience and equity?”

The primary need that the Strategy Lab initiative was trying to serve was the “cognitive overload at the district level.” By bringing together a group of professionals at different phases of response and redesign, they were able to form a deep level of camaraderie. They often heard leaders asking questions like: “Is this as crazy for you?” Oftentimes they were different causes of chaos, but it was a common thread of understanding between all districts.

The primary value add of the Real-Time Redesign Toolkit was not only the process and the language but the real examples of schools and districts who have implemented the process and learned from it. Case studies on many of the participating districts are already live on the site and other districts have added some brainstorms and mock designs as well.

One of the participating leaders shared a core learning from the process: “When you go a little bit slower, a little less straight on a line, you’re able to include and hear more voices […] the most powerful example of the whole process was the ability to interview students.”

At the level of DEI work, this process also enabled districts to approach it in a new and actionable way. Many districts are committed to it but not sure I actually have the tools. The Real-Time Redesign Toolkit has given people the tools to do it in a real and meaningful way.

“I really am so humbled by the work that these districts were engaged in,” said Gwen

We also asked a few of the districts who participated in the Strategy Lab to share some of their thoughts on the process. We asked them the following questions:

  • What was the most powerful part of the Strategy Lab cohort?
  • What are you piloting as a result of Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign Process?

At the end of the podcast, you will hear Warren Morgan of Indianapolis Public Schools, Suzanne Newell of Austin ISD and Bob Ettinger of Renton School District respond to the above questions.

Key Takeaways:

[:52] Tom welcomes Nate and Gwen to the podcast.
[1:09] Nate tells the origin story of the Always Ready for Learning initiative as well its three projects: the Parabola Project, the Coaching Network, and the Strategy Lab.
[2:34] Gwen shares how she and Bellwether get involved in this project and why they were personally compelled by it.
[4:25] Nate shares about the districts they originally focused on when beginning this project.
[6:02] Which services to Gwen try to quickly mobilize and offer to these partner districts with the Strategy Lab?
[7:33] Was there any learning between these districts? Were they learning together about shifting their education to remote and when/how they might go hybrid or in-person?
[8:32] Gwen elaborates on how the networking between districts was one of the most powerful tools for learning and growth.
[10:34] Nate explains the Real-Time Redesign toolkit.
[11:46] Would Gwen say that the toolkit is still highly useful for not only the participating districts but other districts as well right now?
[12:57] Nate shares his predictions and hopes for what may be better or different in the fall with their partnered districts as a result of the work they’re doing.
[15:22] Gwen shares her hopes and predictions for the fall as a result of the work that they’ve done with their partnered districts.
[16:56] Does this COVID-19 era mark the end of the individual practitioner and the beginning of teaching teams and embracing new strategies and tools around personalized and competency-based learning? And if so, does Gwen see this as a permanent shift going forward?
[18:40] Does Nate think that many of the districts that they’ve worked with will continue to have an online or virtual learning program post-pandemic?
[19:49] Does Nate believe we will continue to see enriched online programs that incorporate more project-based learning and more community connections, as well as more hybrid programs that stick around long-term, post-pandemic?
[21:04] Does Gwen have any predictions for new models that she thinks we’ll see in the fall or beyond?
[21:58] Where to find more information about the Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign toolkit.
[22:44] Gwen shares some parting words to districts and leaders curious about the projects.
[23:02] Tom thanks Gwen and Nate for joining the podcast!
[23:19] The districts that participated in the Strategy Lab share their thoughts on the process and answer the questions: 1. What was the most powerful part of the Strategy Lab cohort? 2. What are they piloting as a result of the Strategy Lab and the Real-Time Redesign process?
[23:34] The Chief Academic Officer of Indianapolis Public Schools, Dr. Warren Morgan, shares his thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.
[26:55] The Director of Academics at the Austin Independent School District, Suzanne Newell, shares her thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.
[30:42] The Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at Renton School District, Bob Ettinger, shares his thoughts on the Strategy Lab cohort.

Mentioned in This Episode:

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The Shift to Innovation Through the Power of Networks

Download the report

For a school or district, it’s one thing to label itself as innovative, but for true innovation to take place, there must be a process of strategic planning, development, and action. Leading school design partner New Tech Network (NTN) believes that to build and sustain innovative schools, the whole school ecosystem needs to be addressed. With over 20 years of expertise and an established network of over 200 schools, New Tech has developed expertise in helping schools and districts set a vision and shift away from traditional practices to deeper learning outcomes for their students.

Foundation for Innovation

Culture that Empowers. Teaching that Engages. Technology that Enables. Outcomes that Matter. These are the four design pillars at the center of New Tech’s school model, and these principles drive the organization’s mission to create innovative schools that transform learning.

So what drives New Tech’s success in their efforts to innovate schools and districts? In short, they keep their focus on two essential skills as primary learning outcomes: agency (managing one’s work and learning) and collaboration (working productively on a team).

NTN has effectively operationalized both agency and collaboration through its rubrics that allow for skill measurement (see Agency Rubric and Collaboration Rubric examples), its prioritization of students demonstrating these skills in combined personalized and project-based learning, and its supportive school culture and relationships.

Path to Innovation

Our latest report, How to Innovate: Options for School Districts explores innovation opportunities and provides guidance on schools and districts joining a network and adopting a school model, identifying New Tech Network as an exemplar design partner for comprehensive school change.

How to Innovate provides important information schools and districts should consider when in the development and partnership process, including school development strategies, benefits to joining networks and considerations in choosing a model provider.

  • School Development Strategies. Of course, managing to deliver on design principles and models that combine personalized and project-based learning is not an easy feat and requires strategic consideration of courses of action in changing or creating a school model. Strategic approaches for school development include teacher designed pilots, DIY with component partners, model provider partnerships and managed networks, each with unique advantages and drawbacks.
  • Benefits to Joining Networks. Partnering with or joining a managed network has its advantages. There are a variety of network partnership options, ranging in scope and scale. Generally speaking, a network provides a reduction in overall risk and an expansion of access to expertise, tools, and resources. For instance, New Tech Network partners onboard the New Tech school model with extensive planning and implementation support and expertise that they wouldn’t otherwise have if they elected a DIY approach to innovation.
  • Considerations in Choosing a Model Provider. Schools and districts should consider the following three elements when choosing a school model provider or network partner: outcome alignment (what outcomes are a priority?), teacher-friendliness (how are teachers supported?), and change management (does the network provide planning and coaching support?).

To successfully shift from traditional to innovative practices is both a risk and an investment. We advise schools and districts to determine their strategy, consider their options and plan appropriately to reduce risk and yield a strong return on investment.

Access the report here.

For more, see:

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Diploma Networks: A New Way to Help Schools Adopt Broader Outcomes and Next-Gen Learning Models

Standards-based reforms of the last 25 years stressed grade-level proficiency in basic skills. Recognizing that success in life requires more than basic literacy and numeracy, many schools are defining and adopting broader measures of student success and building personalized learning supports to help students achieve them. These supports include transparent systems to track progress across academic and non-academic competencies, more opportunities for choice and voice, real-world, applied learning experiences, and intentionally designed structures and schedules to nurture deep relationships. Diploma Networks offer schools and districts a promising solution to move in this direction.

Diploma networks share goals, systems and supports:

  • Goals: A common definition of success and shared approach to assessing learning and measuring progress for learners and schools (new graduation requirements, school success metrics that go well beyond standardized tests, etc.);
  • Systems: A learning model with signature experiences and shared tools that support student learning and the transparent tracking of student progress towards graduation; and
  • Supports: Integrated resources and implementation support for new and existing schools adopting the model.

International Baccalaureate is an example of a diploma option available to motivated students. With the 10 elements of the learner profile and the curriculum requirements, IB represents a comprehensive outcome framework but is short of a schoolwide model with strong systems and supports.

Diploma networks that share goals, systems and supports on a schoolwide basis have the opportunity to extend deeper, authentic learning experiences that prepare youth for contribution in college, careers and citizenship. As schoolwide models with strong supports, they also have the opportunity to extend equitable outcomes. By organizing around a common set of goals and using the same systems, supports and vocabulary, schools can seamlessly participate in improvement networks that will guide and improve practice over time.

Building 21 is an example of a diploma network with shared goals, systems and supports (what NewSchools Venture Fund calls a Model Provider). Another example is the Place Network, sponsored by Teton Science School, an affiliation of rural microschools.

Most diploma networks will charge membership fees for coaching services and digital resources. Examples of commitments and benefits follow.


These emerging Diploma Networks share common student success and outcome frameworks such as the XQ Learner Goals or MyWays from NGLC. These next-generation student success measures cannot be assessed simply through traditional standardized tests or siloed academic grades. As a result, diploma networks will utilize more comprehensive and balanced assessment systems that require students to demonstrate mastery of critical academic and non-academic competencies, mindsets and skills.

Rather than a minimum number of traditional course credits, diploma networks are moving to a more robust, competency-based set of graduation requirements that entail signature experiences– compelling, real-world performance tasks that push students to offer evidence of learning outcomes. For example:

  1. Publish 20 reviews (or original works), half in science, half in the humanities (individual).
  2. Publish two major works: papers, books and/or sites (as a team). Topics could include the implications of artificial intelligence, a proposed solution to a health challenge, or a strategy to extend social justice.
  3. Produce and present two works of public art (as a team).
  4. Plan and launch a business or sustainable initiative with a web presence; secure and serve a customer.
  5. Demonstrate success on workplace competencies in two work settings.
  6. Visit two of the world’s greatest cities (at least one international) and compare approaches to sustainability.
  7. Gather and analyze data to address a local problem, prototype a solution.
  8. Complete at least two college courses (one could be online).
  9. Apply to a valuable postsecondary experience.
  10. Create a post-secondary plan for life after high school.
  11. Develop and present a plan and budget for life at age 25.

Requiring students to demonstrate mastery of academic and nonacademic skills and competencies multiple times in multiple contexts while also requiring them to complete several signature experiences along the way promotes deeper learning and reduces the likelihood of students racing through a checklist of competencies. Experiences are specific enough to promote desired learning outcomes while flexible enough for school communities and individual learners to exercise voice and choice.

Some diploma networks will support the development of comprehensive learner profiles (a comprehensive record of growth and demonstrated capability), a transcript (a summary of achievement) and a portfolio (artifacts of personal bests).

Schools that are members of diploma networks will also have to meet state graduation requirements (typically expressed as credit requirements but increasingly as competencies).


Diploma networks will likely share a personalized and competency-based learning model including goals (above) and:

  • Learning resources: units of study, personalized learning applications and project authoring tools linked to the outcome framework on a learning platform with opportunities to contribute to the network.
  • Competency systems:  a complete set of competencies, assessments, and learning
    progressions aligned with a graduate profile, and a policy guide for promotion and graduation.
  • Administrative tools: may include a student information system, LMS, data systems, structures and schedules, human resource and finance systems.


Diploma networks support new and transformed schools with:

  • Planning: scope and goals; budget and resources; sequencing and timelines;
  • Policy decisions, scheduling and crediting;
  • Talent development system including a system of microcredentials or teacher competencies;
  • Role descriptions, hiring and onboarding strategies;
  • Change management;
  • Network collaboration opportunities;
  • Coaching teachers and administrators around design and implementation of deeper learning experiences;
  • Navigating state and district policies; and
  • On-site and online coaching.


Schools require incentives to join diploma networks. The primary value proposition will be an easier pathway to implementing personalized and competency-based learning than going it alone. Network goals, systems and supports create sources of value compared to do-it-yourself approaches.

States could reduce (and eventually eliminate) summative testing requirements for member schools of networks with assessments systems proven valid and reliable.

Over time, diploma network transcripts and portfolios will become widely recognized and valued for admissions by postsecondary institutions and for hiring priority by employers.

Grants for schools joining diploma networks could help to subsidize the change costs and membership fees.


By reducing complexity and increasing supports, diploma networks will offer schools a promising approach to adopting new outcome frameworks and learning models. For students, diploma networks will offer rich learning experiences and priority access into postsecondary and early employment. Comments and suggestions on this proposal are welcome below.

For more, see:

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This post was originally published on Forbes and includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

Why Schools Should Bridge the Generational Divide

By: Julia Freeland Fisher

Every so often a book I’m reading for work morphs into a book I’m reading for pleasure. This month that book was Marc Freedman’s How to Live Forever. Freedman’s is, in many ways, a book about abundance: the abundance of human beings, young and old, who could benefit from one another’s energy, wisdom and experience. It is also, however, a book about a profound market failure.

Despite that abundance, we are witnessing mounting levels of loneliness and isolation among aging populations and an acute need for access to caring adults and mentors among young people. Squaring that supply and demand (in both directions) is not a given. In fact, many of our systems and cultural institutions—from schools, to neighborhoods, to senior living facilities—have inadvertently segregated young and old.

For example, a third of people over fifty-five live in neighborhoods primarily made up of people of the same age and only 6 percent of people over sixty discussed “important matters” with non-family members under thirty-six years old.

Freedman highlights an array of promising models aiming to stem this growing divide. They range from substitute teaching models to afterschool programs to urban redesign efforts. Although he looks at innovative programs well beyond the reach of schools, I personally think this book is a must-read for all school system leaders looking for ways to increase the human and social capital at their students’ disposal.

Reading about these innovations, here are three things schools should consider:

1. Latent connections with symbiotic potential are all around us.

Many of the new models that Freedman highlights have innovation theory in their favor. For example, he cites the rise of “integrators” who are bringing existing institutions, like senior centers and preschools, together. Across industries in our own work, we’ve found that innovative organizations that often pursue interdependent architecture integrate across broken interfaces in order to increase performance. Efforts to bring together institutions serving young and old are doing just that. For example, at Judson Manor in Cleveland, graduate students live alongside senior citizens. Others like Nesterly have taken this notion of cohabitation a step further, creating a two-sided tech platform to match older people with graduate students looking for affordable housing.

In a different vein, Freedman discusses the role of “infiltrators”—innovators who are “injecting older or younger people into settings where you might not have found them previously.” Although not all of these programs are technically disruptive, some appear to follow that tack. For example, Encore, which Freedman himself runs, offers low-cost fellows—often on their second or third careers—to work for social sector organizations that need support, ushering in a model that could disrupt the limitations of stubbornly age-segregated professional networks.

2. School redesign is leaving older generations out.

Encouraging as these innovations may be, Freedman is fairly frank about the bureaucratic headwinds they face from traditional institutions and technocrat measurement regimes.

Freedman’s book is chock-full of stories of inspiring individuals who have broken through those barriers and created nonprofits, institutions, and connections in wholly new ways. But one of the book’s less fuzzy protagonists is a giant blob-like monster always looming in the background: school systems. Schools—much like senior centers—were not designed to put students in relationship with their elders or to integrate non-teacher adults at scale. Their designs are stubbornly fixed.

Freedman’s book should be a wake-up call to schools—especially those pioneering radical new designs—that they may be leaving a huge, latent asset on the table if they are not finding ways to integrate (or be infiltrated by) older generations around them.

In our own research, a single entrepreneur rarely disrupts an entire industry. Rather, systems disrupt systems. Perhaps the best hope for Freedman’s vision to come to roost in education systems is the current school redesign movement sweeping the United States. Many schools—particularly high schools—are considering ways to open their doors to community- and work-based learning programs and to usher in unprecedented flexibility to how and when students learn. At the same time, the science of integrated student supports suggests that access to community resources and relationships from a young age can have a major impact on the trajectories of young people, especially those growing up in poverty.

That said, in my conversations around the country about school redesign I rarely hear talk of efforts to involve older members of the community in these designs. As schools make strides to open their doors and integrate more outside adults into their models, older generations are key assets schools could start to unlock.

3. Relationships are the outcome—not a mere input

If the innovations that Freedman describes in the book stand to scale, connections—rather than their one-off benefits—will need to be their north star. Throughout, Freedman reflects on relationships not just as the means to various goals—like boosting literacy or graduation rates—but as a critical end unto themselves.

This point is not just sentimental, it’s practical. Metrics matter. They define the trajectories along which we innovate. They also define the viability of business models. It’s not surprising that today in schools most models that incorporate outside adults—from mentorship to tutoring efforts—join a host of other interventions we hope can move the needle on our existing metrics of academic success. But as such, we risk limiting mentorship to being only an intervention that might help our current systems work better, rather than a tool to fundamentally disrupt the system. We also risk belittling relationships, despite the fact that they help us to get by and get ahead throughout our lives. Here I suspect that our elders might be our best hope at forcing schools to recalibrate on measurement.

As research shows, relationships have a number of benefits outside of traditional metrics like test scores, such as better health and happiness later in life. In the end, relationships are outcomes, not just raw materials intended to produce ‘outputs’. Although Freedman’s book doesn’t offer a tidy way to quantify this phenomenon, the stories he tells are a start. They illustrate the undeniable, profound—and too often missed—opportunity to forge enduring connections across generations.

For more, see:

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks.” 

This post was originally published on the Christensen Institute blog.

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Building 21: Bold Outcomes, Innovative Model, Next-Gen Network

A Pennsylvania nonprofit operates innovative schools in Philadelphia and Allentown under contract to the districts. Five more schools have joined the Building 21 network ( to take advantage of their outcome framework, assessments, systems and professional learning experiences.

The Building 21 team developed an outcome framework in 2014. After NGLC released the MyWays framework in 2016, they developed a synthesis mode that includes five outcome categories: core content, next-gen essentials, habits of success, wayfinding and personal development.

Core content includes English Language Arts which, for example, includes seven competencies and dozens of subskills all detailed in rubrics.

“We’re trying to uncover growth and make as transparent as possible,” said Tom Gaffey, Chief Instructional Technologist. Tom asks, “Can we create a new school model with growth as the foundation?”

Tom Gaffey, Building 21

“Achieving these competencies doesn’t come easy. Students need an advisor, a fierce advocate,” said Linehan.

The goal is personalized pathways where student strengths and interests shape a journey through foundational skills to college and career readiness. The first two years of the high school model are foundational with a focus on building skills and connecting to why. The upper division is a launchpad to what’s next.

The Building 21 learning model stresses strong relationships, problem-based learning, real-world learning experiences and competency-based assessment.

The Building 21 mission is “Empowering networks of learners to connect with their passions and build agency to impact their world.”

Beautifully crafted shared values include:

  • Power: ability to realize positive change through the just exercise of power.
  • Mindfulness: Non-judgmental attention to the present moment enables
  • Interconnectedness: the connection of ideas, information, people and experiences.
  • Responsibility: consider, understand and own the effects of our actions
  • Courage: taking risks and persevering through setbacks and failures; and
  • Transparency: open and honest in all of our communication.

Building 21 is supporting affiliate schools in South Carolina, Idaho, and Illinois. Collectively the network serves over 3,000 students. Operated and supported schools are each in a different place on the journey to personalized and competency-based learning.

Make it Right

Students in Philadelphia come to Building 21 at an average of a fifth-grade reading and math level. More than eight in 10 have experienced significant trauma. Two mental health workers support students and lead a climate of restorative practices.

“Rather than punishment we try to figure out what’s really going on,” said co-founder Laura Shubilla.

Students are given an opportunity to “make it right” by the end of the day. When that doesn’t happen, students are given a hearing in youth court, a classroom set up as a courtroom where upper-division students deal with discipline issues like disrespecting teachers or bullying other students. The focus is on restoration rather than punishment.

A law professor comes a day a week and team teaches a class for students in the legal pathway. A 21th Century Schools grant supports a wide variety of after-school activities and therapy groups. An early release on Friday creates time for staff collaboration.

“We try to take experience and use it authentically,” said co-founder Chip Linehan.

Visit Building 21 sites in Philadelphia or Allentown to see early versions of high school models that are personalized and competency based. You’ll also see evidence of a well-crafted network strategy to achieve impact at scale.

For more, see

This post was originally published on Forbes.

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Who You Know: Relationships are an Undervalued Asset for Students

By Mary Ryerse and Michelle Berkeley

Is it what you know or who you know that matters most? We believe both matter.

Often time, schools focus primarily on helping young people to develop their cognitive knowledge and  – essentially what they know. However, schools sometimes neglect to invest properly in the development of our students’ social capital – who they know. We believe that all students need and deserve support for the development of their personal networks.

Our team recently dug into Julia Freeland Fisher’s awesome new book, Who You Know, and shared a few reflections of our own. It was not hard for each of us to think of someone who had helped us out along the way. However, most of these connections came through family or friends, and not through intentional strategies by educational institutions.  Julia’s book helps make the case for schools to be proactive in this area so that there is an equitable approach that benefits all learners.

Julia is an education advocate,  author and Director of Education at Christensen Institute. She stresses social capital as an equally important force in the opportunity equation for today’s students. In her recently published book, Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks, and in a recent podcast interview with us, Julia shares the current data on young people’s access to relationships and networks, expands on the opportunities for schools to improve their students’ access to caring adults and mentors and outlines three types of social capital innovation.

The Importance of Relationships

In the book, Julia highlights some of the little-known truths about the state and quality of relationships in the lives of today’s students and highlights the disparities by income quartile in the data below. It’s not surprising that there are real gaps in students’ access to informal mentors. Even more alarming is that one in three students grow up without an identified mentor at all.

One theme throughout the book is that relationships are an undervalued asset and there are real consequences that can result from relationship gaps, such as developing a sense of hopelessness and dropping out of school.

Julia believes in the benefits of all kinds of connection, from deeper, caring connections to looser, supportive connections. She explains the sociological notion of the “strength of weak ties” and sees opportunity in applying this concept that acquaintances, or “weak ties,” can be more likely to open new doors and connect us to new information and opportunities to the lives of young people. Investments in boosting students’ access to connections like these can serve to take the chance out of the social capital equation.

Opportunities for High Schools to Better Support Network Development

When we think about the question “What can be done?” There are several changes to system and school design that can increase student access to vital relationships.

  • Focus on the “network of care.” Develop a system for identifying each student’s network of care and then have responses in place to leverage existing networks or provide access to new networks.
  • See the school system in terms of “slots” in which a student can learn. Unbundle the idea that students can only learn in an in-school course and expand the places and ways in which a student can learn, and consequently increase the amount of people to which the student is exposed.
  • Incorporate project-based learning. Projects provide a great opportunity for industry experts have direct face-time with students.
  • Expand students’ access through advisory. Put students in relationships with more people who can provide guidance and advice. We think advisory systems are awesome.
  • Explore opportunities for change in school design. Offer credit for informal and out of school learning and other extended learning opportunities. Make use of infrastructure tools (e.g. that can help connect students to people and learning experiences.

Three Types of Innovation for Social Capital

Julia identifies three ways schools can strive towards improved social capital for their students.

  1. Fully Virtual. These are relationships that are initiated and conducted in a fully online environment. Many apps, such as Nepris, bring virtual mentors into a classroom. Julia warns that treating these virtual relationships as a surrogate creates a gap in students forming authentic connections that will be beneficial to them down the line.
  2. Online Connecting Offline. There are many platforms that can simplify the logistics and lift the barriers of putting students in touch with more adults in their community. CommunityShare is a resource for teachers to find experts and guest speakers, and ImBlaze, from Big Picture Learning, connects youth to local work-based learning.
  3. Integrated Student Supports. These are school-initiated connections that strengthen the network of care surrounding a student. Many schools are doing well at providing wrap-around youth and family services, but Julia believes the best ones are those that keep teachers in the loop, like one program called City Connects.

With commitment from schools to integrate student support models and technologies, these ideas can turn into real action steps towards expanding student networks and improving student outcomes, and ultimately towards what Julia envisions as a more “networked society, labor market and life.”

For more, see:

Michelle is a Consultant at Getting Smart and a Licensed Professional Counselor. She advocates for students to develop skills to be able to transition successfully from high school to college and college to career. You can connect with Michelle on Twitter @micheberkeley.

The Evolution of the Denver Public Schools Portfolio

By: Tom Vander Ark and Emily Liebtag

If you ask Jennifer Holladay, Denver Public Schools (DPS) Portfolio Manager, why their portfolio approach has worked, she would tell you it’s because “all boats [both charter and district schools] are rising and students and families have access to better options”. She’d also tell you that they still have a lot to learn and that there have been many failures along the way.

In following the district over the last thirty years, we’ve seen the evolution of the portfolio from a weak example of managed instruction, through early authorizing to what it is today — one of the leading models for public school collaboration and accountability.

The Denver 2020 plan is based on five pillars that apply to district, charter and innovation school ranging from Montessori elementary schools to college-prep high schools.

All schools in Denver share a common enrollment, funding, discipline, transportation and facilities plan. They all have a high degree of flexibility as well as accountability for results.

Charter schools are authorized by the district and are operated by nonprofit organizations. Innovation schools have charter-like autonomy but are operated by the district. Both require periodic reauthorization (the remaining district schools do not).

When the initial portfolio compact was developing in 2010, it took compromise on the part of charters who agreed to participate in the common enrollment systems and accept an attendance boundary. District schools accepted stronger accountability in a competitive landscape.


What started in 2004 as The Denver School of Science and Technology, a STEM-focused high school serving low-income students has become DSST Public Schools, one of the nation’s best school networks. With 14 secondary schools, the network continues to send all of its graduates to four-year colleges.

Dan Sullivan (above), director at the flagship Stapleton campus, explains that every day for his 900 grade 6-12 students begins with a 45 minute morning meeting where core values are reinforced.

Sullivan said the advisory system is at the core of DSST success. A group of 15 to 18 students meets daily with an advisor who monitors progress.

Every lesson at DSST concludes with a mastery check. “The data tells us where to look and what student work to get in front of us,” said Sullivan. Frequent checks are the basis of a “Do what it takes” culture.

DSST has a focus on people development. Every teacher has a coach. Like students, every staff member receives regular feedback on shared values.

Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design

A 2013 New Jersey bus ride while visiting schools fueled ideas of Lisa Simms and Danny Medved for what became the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.

The DSISD team created their design with the help a grant from Carnegie and support from the Imaginarium, a DPS incubator (more below). As an innovation school, DSISD has waivers that allow it to focus on competency-based learning (for students and teachers).

Five drivers shape learning at DSISD:

  • Advisory: mentoring, personal learning time, community building
  • Student support: grade level teams, differentiation, restorative approach
  • Student agency: self-directed learning, design my future, and habits of success.
  • Competency-based education: project-based learning, personalized instruction and assessment, cognitive skills and innovator competencies.
  • Data-driven instruction: backward designed curriculum, spiraling skills, professional learning community data analysis, and strategic instructional shifts.

As a new school, DISID is still working on 11-12 pathways including career connections and an early college pathway (with the opportunity to earn college credit up to an AA degree).

The Beacon Network

Grant Beacon is one of the two middle schools in the Beacon Network. Led by a rockstar team comprised of Alex Magaña, Kevin Croghan and Michelle Saab, Grant Beacon is a school that went from running the risk of being shut down to drawing families back into the neighborhood because of the solid education and personalized attention students receive.

The turnaround focused on blended and personalized learning, character development, and extended time. To support students, particularly in character development, grade-level deans loop with student cohorts and focus on culture and relationships building with students.

Magña explains (below) that the network added a focus on critical thinking. Like DSISD, the Beacon Network has innovation status in Denver.

Beacon schools offer a variety of student leadership opportunities and voice and choice in assignments; daily advisory and mindfulness training and Friday family time focused on character development.

High Tech Elementary

One of the five attendance zone elementary schools on the grounds of the former Stapleton airport, High Tech Elementary is a district school that shares a building with a DSST middle school.

Shared values evident in classrooms include creativity, inclusiveness, perseverance, accountability, love of learning and humanity. Teachers help students recognize the emotional zone they’re in to promote positive behavior regulation. There is a schoolwide focus on mindfulness and social-emotional learning. The motto is “Learners today, leaders tomorrow.”

Well managed small groups form the basis of morning reading instruction. With the help of students from UC Denver, they get down to groups of eight and use every available space in the new building (below). And, ironically, High Tech ditched computers for a print approach to primary reading instruction.

High Tech uses project-based learning to integrate social studies and English in 90-minute blocks twice weekly.


The Imaginarium, the DPS incubator, helps leaders interested in innovating (who may or may not have experience in doing so) develop, plan and implement their big, bold new ideas.

Imaginarium Innovation Partner Richard Resendez (below) explained the foundational drivers of their work include relationships, culture, mindset and metacognition. The key drivers include:

  • Learner paths: profiles, goals setting, and progress monitoring
  • Evolving Learner and Teacher Roles: learner as Lead, learner as collaborator, teacher as facilitator
  • Strategic Resource Use: strategic use of space,  tech, time, and communities
  • Developing and Demonstrating Competencies: competency-based progressions based on demonstrations of learning

Every school in Denver, including district schools that haven’t requested innovation status, have the flexibility to choose curriculum and assessment and professional learning. Schools have advisory boards that provide input on key decisions. The school board has made a couple of big bets on literacy and early learning that are not optional.

After adding 20,000 students in post-recession boom years, DPS growth has slowed and property values have skyrocketed. As a result, DPS is opening few schools (there are about 20 approved schools that couldn’t find a facility).

Slow growth and gentrification are adding new opportunities and challenges to Denver schools. New schools like DSISD have to work a little harder to achieve full enrollment. With gentrification, some DSST and Beacon schools have to work harder to attract low-income students. The Imaginarium is collecting less external grant funding. Despite the new challenges, the DPS portfolio model remains the most mature district-charter collaboration in the country–and a place worth visiting.

For more, see:

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Network of Place-Based Community-Connected Rural Schools Receive Grant to Expand

Despite dedicated teachers and schools, many rural communities are struggling to survive. Young people grow up and move away. Schools shrink and close accelerating the downward spiral.

A new approach to education could be the solution to rural decline–small schools of 15 to 150 students (often called microschools) sharing resources in networks and leveraging local learning opportunities.

Small community connected schools aren’t a new idea. Big comprehensive schools are a recent invention that created the impression that schools need 40 acres and a $1 million administrative team. While big campuses offer extracurricular amenities they can separate education from community and create diseconomies of scale. (There are as many non-teaching adults as teachers in American.)

Teton Science Schools runs small place-based schools and experiential science education programs in Wyoming and Idaho. They inspire curiosity, engagement and leadership through transformative place-based education. The six design principles include learner-centered, interdisciplinary and inquiry-based, using the community as a classroom to build a local to global context and implementing design thinking to develop solutions.

“Rural schools often have incredible community assets and dedicated staff, but also may struggle with poverty, economic challenges and access to the innovations and resources found in more densely populated areas,” said Nate McClennen, vice president of education and innovation for Teton Science.

To expand access to quality rural education, Teton Science launched the Place Network, a collaborative network of rural K-12 schools that connect learning and communities to increase student engagement, academic outcomes, and community impact.

Within an innovative place-based approach, students in Place Schools share a common learning model. They do much of their learning in projects. They receive personalized support and progress based on demonstrated mastery. Habits of Success including self-awareness, social-emotional skills, and leadership play an equivalent role to other knowledge and skills competencies.

This month, the Place Network received a $1 million grant from NewSchools Venture Fund to expand.

“The goal of the Place Network is to build an innovative and replicable K-12 model to help all rural schools accelerate in partnership together to reimagine their rural futures,” said McClennen.

Early members of the network include Mountain River School in Vermont; University Charter School in Alabama; Koshkonong Trails School in Wisconsin; Swan Valley Elementary School District and Meadows Valley School District in Idaho; and Leadership Preparatory Academy in Washington. In partnership with Journeys School and Teton Valley Community School, the hub schools run by TSS, these pilot schools have helped to refine the model in preparation for future network scaling.

Schools in the network have access to project plans, implementation support, network tools, and an online professional learning community.

Most schools in the network will be small rural public schools – specifically those in areas with higher rates of poverty. A few will be urban schools and independent schools to test and refine the model. Differences will advance learning around how the model works in diverse geographic areas.

Network goals are to improve academic outcomes, student engagement and community impact for students in rural communities. Over the next three to five years, the network will support 50 schools serving 10,000 students. The network is currently accepting applications for the 2019-20 cohort year.

For more, see:

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Building and Leveraging Networks to Scale Innovation in School Districts

A recent report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) summarized lessons from two Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation initiatives, the Next Generation Systems Initiative and the Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools Initiative.

The next-gen systems grantees included Dallas ISD, Denver PS, Henry County PS, Lake County PS,  Pinellas County PS, Riverside USD.

Regional Funds associated with the Next Generation Learning Challenges include CityBridge in Washington, D.C., Colorado Education Initiative, Great Schools Partnership in New England, LEAP Innovations in Chicago, New Schools for New Orleans, and Rogers Family Foundation in Oakland.

The goal of the program was to support the development of personal learning pathways and profiles in flexible learning environments.

CRPE spent two years interviewing 450 educators in 39 schools in 17 cities. They asked educators how they attempted to personalize learning and they investigated how policies supported or impeded innovation.

The experiences of the schools in the Gates Foundation’s personalized learning initiatives followed a familiar pattern of promising practices struggling to replicate at scale across systems. The first few years of the initiative underscore the difficulty of innovating inside a system that was never designed for innovation.

The lessons from the initiative suggest that leaders must do four important things to build a more strategic system to support innovation at scale:

1.Set goals. Districts must help leaders and teachers in schools get clear on the problems that need to be solved and setting clear goals to focus innovation.

2. Create flexibility. Districts must create flexibility in the system, at both the school and classroom levels, clarifying exiting flexibility, granting more flexibility to broader aims,  and creating space to innovate: out of school, pilots, and zones.

3. Develop talent. Districts must build support for professional learning by embedding coaching, creating change management supports, and supporting knowledge sharing.

4. Build networks. Districts must identify which principals and faculties are positioned to design new models for instruction and which are positioned to adopt and adapt existing innovative practice. Design competitions can help identify new learning models. Districts should also be looking outside to local network partners that are poised for innovation and collaboration.

The report recommends that districts “find ways to support more innovation and experimentation.”

Check out the microsite or the full report.

For more, see:

Stay in-the-know with all things edtech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.