How The International School of Prague Inspires, Engages & Empowers Learners

Good schools inspire, engage, and empower learning–and the International School of Prague is a great example. A couple of virtual visits brought to life a coherent learning model around this mission. 

Director of Learning R&D, Teresa Belisle, an international educator with experience in France, Thailand Mexico, as well as her home state of Minnesota, explained the three elements of the mission: 

  • Inspire learners to lead healthy, fulfilling, and purposeful lives, preparing them to adapt and contribute responsibly to our changing world.
  • Engage a diverse community in an authentic global education, within a nurturing student-centered environment.
  • Empower learners to think critically and creatively, work cooperatively and independently, listen and communicate effectively, and act with compassion, integrity, respect and intercultural understanding.

Belisle said the last few years of work have focused on nurturing student curiosity, building community, and working on coherence. “The way we approached strategy forced greater system coherence across the sections and helped us become more agile,” said Belisle.   

Respected innovator Dr. Chip Kimball, former superintendent of Lake Washington School District and Singapore American School (see case study and podcast), took over leadership at ISP in July. 


After a few months of community dialog, the ISP leadership team adopted an updated learner profile focused on developing curious, competent, compassionate changemakers. Faculty teams are bringing the updated learning goals to life across the curriculum. 

Seven beautiful design principles guide the work at ISP.

In support of these design principles and to improve K-12 coherence, the leadership team and faculty recently decided to become a contemporary International Baccalaureate continuum school by adopting the Primary Years Programme and Middle Years Programme in support of the long established Diploma Programme in high school.  

ISP is hiring an PYP Coordinator, an MYP Coordinator, and an MYP Projects and Advisory Coordinator. Learn more and apply here

ISP Backstory

Established shortly after World War II by the US Embassy, the 900 student P-12 English medium school is located just northwest of downtown Prague and next to Divoká Šárka, a nature reserve where ISP students explore, hike and ride bicycles. 

International School of Prague campus

Board members most appreciate the intentionally diverse student body with learners of 60 nationalities. They also appreciate a culture of care, thoughtful guidance and rigorous academics.  

To develop change makers, ISP teachers help students apply their learning in diverse and challenging contexts. In a recent example, ISP staff and students supported Happy Caravan – two schools established to support Syrian refugee children in Greece. For their support of Happy Caravan, ISP was recognized with the International Impact Award.

Learn more about ISP in the 2021-22 Annual Report. It is great example of a progressive international school that engages diverse learners in work that matters. Its coherent learning framework is one that any school could learn from.  


Altus Schools: Personalized Learning, Flexible Schedules, Beautiful Spaces, Repeatable Quality

I met Mary Bixby at a San Diego storefront alternative school 21 years ago. She explained how learners had flexible schedules–some attended in the morning, some in the afternoon–and worked at their own pace through an online curriculum and met with their advisor for goal setting and tutoring.

By 2000, Bixby was already six years into serving high school students not successful in traditional environments through the Charter School of San Diego (CSSD). Since then Bixby has launched two more nonprofits supporting seven more charter schools with 35 locations in southern California. Altus Schools is the unifying network brand–it’s a set of shared design principles, an instructional model, and a beautiful template for learning environments. For its robust and repeatable support systems and use of data to improve, CSSD, the Altus anchor school, won the 2015 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award and became one of the few educational organizations to win the nation’s quality award.

In her 2018 book Charter Storm, Bixby outlines four qualities for new nonprofit public schools:

  1. Purpose: Students and teachers are engaged in goal-oriented work and are passionate about reaching achievable objectives.
  2. Mastery: Students and teachers strive for excellence.
  3. Autonomy: Students and teachers have the freedom to approach curriculum in innovative ways.
  4. Safety and Security: Students and teachers are physically safe and secure.

These values have driven the steady growth of Altus Schools in Southern California.

Altus Learning Model

Jay Garrity, head of instructional services, explains that students enroll in Altus schools for several reasons: they are behind on credits (about 58%), high transiency, bullying or other social issues at a former school, pregnancy or parenting, a special talent that requires a flexible schedule, and/or the freedom to accelerate including early college credit opportunities.

About 60% of Altus learners are LatinX, about 70% are economically disadvantaged, and about 20% have special needs.

The blended learning program, classified as independent study in California, starts with a personalized plan focused on a post-high school goal. Learners take one or two courses at a time and complete a course every three or four weeks. After making progress, some learners return to their residential traditional school, others progress to graduation. Altus schools have served more than 48,000 learners with 15,000 graduates.

While Edgenuity is the core curriculum, it is highly customized and supplemented by teacher-developed resources. The networks use Naviance for guidance and NWEA for interim assessments. Illuminate provides data dashboards.

For the first two decades of operation, learners visited a resource center daily for about three hours. In Spring 2020, the pandemic forced a quick shift to fully remote delivery. This fall, resource centers reopened and about half of the current 3,500 learners visit a resource center on a regular basis.

Most resource centers are open from 7 am to 7 pm with a morning teacher, midday teacher, and evening teacher. Because they support multiple subjects, they are encouraged to gain dual certification.

Resource centers are open 12 months a year with particularly busy summer months as learners enroll to get back on track academically.

Altus University offers professional learning for staff including trauma-informed practices and strategies for promoting youth mental health.

Bixby is proud of high levels of staff satisfaction and retention as a result of clarity of purpose and the support of a scaled organization with strong learning and growth opportunities.

Resource Centers 

Altus resource centers look like high-tech workspaces with modular Steelcase furniture. There are a variety of spaces for individual work and meetings with teachers. There are conference rooms for small groups, video walls for presentations, science lab stations, and a kitchen.

Laptop and desktop computers are provided at the resource centers. Chromebooks and hotspots are available for home use.

Resource Centers are in highly accessible areas from south San Diego County to San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.

Elementary Innovation 

The Altus network includes one elementary center, Audeo Kids, that supports homeschoolers with a hybrid model. Students attend the resource center one a day a week in grade span groups and work at home the other four days learning through synchronous and asynchronous digital resources as well as print materials.

Six teachers support 152 learners with a mix of on-site and virtual lessons. The English and math curriculum is MobyMax. The social studies curriculum is from HMH.

Quality Leadership

Altus networks benefit from a talented leadership team that executes an 11-step strategic planning process in four phases (approach, development, learning, integration) in annual cycles including a weeklong summer offsite retreat.

The network never relied on private grant funding for growth or sustainability. Every site is managed for quality outcomes and fiscal sustainability.

For 20 years, Bixby has advanced a kids-first mindset, rigorous strategic planning, and quality over quantity. Expansion opportunities for Altus networks are limited in California given the political climate but the robust template could inspire and support education leaders in other states.

This post was originally published on Forbes.


Five Mega Trends Reshaping Global Learning

Imagine school as a series of community-connected projects and skill sprints that develop leadership, collaboration and problem solving skills. Imagine a web of supports that help you make the kind of contribution you’re capable of making.

Visit an innovative new school like Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis, and you’ll see evidence of mega trends reshaping secondary and postsecondary education⁠—new goals, active learning, competency, integrated services, and edtech tools.

1. New Goals: There is a global reconsideration of learning goals and ‘graduate profiles’ based on the new economy (what the World Economic Forum calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution). There are lots of folks asking: What Should Graduates Know and Be Able to Do?

International advocate Aurora Institute urges “engaging our communities in the conversations around new definitions of success and what is necessary for redefining student success to include academic competencies, social-emotional competencies, skills and dispositions with a holistic focus for the whole child, a well-rounded education and the future of our communities.”

The Building Blocks for Learning from Turnaround illustrate the developmental progression that begin with conditions for development and skills of readiness and lead to curiosity, civic identity and self direction.

Purdue Polytechnic aims at XQ Learner Goals which adds ‘original thinkers’ and ‘generous collaborators’ and to foundational knowledge and literacies.

Want the most comprehensive answer? Check out the Minerva Project’s 100 foundational concepts and habits of success. Minerva is a university program that just graduated its first class of world changers. It takes a concept like critical thinking and breaks it down into about 30 specific skills and dispositions developed and assessed in seminars and community-connected projects.

Schools are beginning to join networks like Building 21 around next-gen essentials—collaboration, communication, presentation—as well as habits of success, personal development, and wayfinding.

Seth Godin said that leadership and solving interesting problems might be the two most important things to learn. Building on that summary, we identify priority skills in our new book, Difference Making at the Heart of Learning.

2. Active Learning: There is a global trend toward combinations of personalized and project-based learning. Individualized skill building has been bolstered by adaptive and small group instruction. Extended challenges are more frequently being used to develop the personal leadership and problem solving skills valued by new outcome frameworks (#1).

Active learning is more student-centered, with a combination of directed tasks and open-ended challenges that provide more learner voice and choice. Rural learners in the Place Network use design thinking to take on community challenges.

“Active learning beats passive learning when it comes to students understanding concepts and retaining information and skills,” said Tracy Gardner, a teaching professor in chemical and biological engineering at Colorado School of Mines.

In the same department, Michael Barankin also uses a variety of blended strategies with a focus on communication in and out of the classroom. Student projects begin by reaching out to industry partners, developing a plan, forming teams, generating progress reports and delivering a final presentation.

Schools are developing more flexible and welcoming active learning environments that support individual, team and group experiences, and dynamic scheduling.

A year of remote learning during the pandemic reduced access to active learning for many students but the One Stone team pivoted to remote design labs. Schools in the New Tech Network did the same using their shared project-based platform to support remote active learning.

3. Competency: There is a global shift from seat time to ‘show what you know’ and progress on demonstrated mastery. It’s a complex shift that will take a few decades to play out as new tools, strategies and measures are developed. It’s moving most quickly around dynamic job clusters where an academic pedigree matters less that what you can do.

Lumina Foundation sees “competencies as currencies” and advocates hiring focused on skills rather than degrees. TechHire is a national network promoting skill-based hiring.

Badges can be a better way of organizing units of learning and measuring and communicating capabilities than time-based courses. An early leader in creating badges, IBM has issued over a million credentials to learners within and outside the company. Online learning leader Southern New Hampshire University acquired youth badging platform LRNG to extend access and create new pathways to credentials, degrees, and opportunity.

Similarly, a growing number of teachers are benefiting from personalized and competency-based learning organized as a series of microcredentials. Teachers gain the ability to choose (or build) what they wish to learn and how they demonstrate their learning.

Hundreds of schools have formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium to move from a list of courses to a richer description of capabilities. Arizona State University is working on a blockchain transcript to facilitate portability—so is a startup supporting Dallas high schools.

4. Integrated Supports: Toni Barton of Relay Graduate School sees a “bright future in which students’ differences are celebrated, their unique needs are met, and the entire system is geared toward advancing students’ academic and socio-emotional growth.” In the meantime, the growth of integrated support systems is helping to make our inherited system of age cohorts work better for more students. The number of schools offering a web of youth and family services had grown in number and in evidence of importance. Many were informed by Tiered Supports outlined by Turnaround for Children.

Many higher education institutions including Georgia State and Florida State have improved completion rates with integrated supports. A systemic approach to stronger advising and student services is summarized in a toolkit from Achieving the Dream.

An emerging trend is personalized and localized guidance–advisory systems that help learners make smart decisions about what to learn next and how to step into high wage, high demand career pathways. The San Diego Workforce Partnership offers personalized and zip code specific advice to students and working adults. In November, with Cajon Valley USD, they opened Launch Pad, a middle school career awareness space where students can engage with different careers. The Launch Pad will support student clubs, career-focused electives, and conversations with adults and career coaches.

Personalized guidance will increasingly help learners identify their strengths, interests and values and help channel those into learning activities and contribution opportunities. Living in Beta is a new advisory curriculum from One Stone, a Boise innovation engine and lab school. Through a series of short activities, usually in a small group setting, the wayfinding program invites students to explore their personal values and passions and discover their purpose.

5. EdTech Tools: Schools have been integrating mobile learning technology for more than 30 years. By 2019 most US K-12 schools were wired and most learners had access to mobile devices at school. However, the quick shift to remote learning early in 2020 showed big gaps in home wi-fi access. Districts that didn’t have a learning platform adopted one and most schools supplemented it with the use of video conferencing.

This year we’ll see a continued refinement of blended (some online and some live) and hybrid (some learning at school and some at home). Around the edges, the pandemic accelerated the development of new edtech-enabled learning models including in-home nano schools, learning pods, and microschools.

The big tech trend for the decade will be accelerating use of artificial intelligence across the curriculum and in support services (stay tuned for an AI in Edu report next month).

The combination of new goals, active learning strategies, competency-based progressions, integrated services and edtech tools is boosting learner access success.

Updated from 8/19


Where High School Starts with Leadership and Design Thinking

Imagine a high school that started with design thinking and leadership training. Imagine having the opportunity to prototype a solution to a community problem and earn a provisional patent.

Student Maliyah Wampler enrolled in LEAD Innovation Studio, a new high school program, “to get ahead.” She liked the focus on leadership and service. She looked forward to developing her coding and engineering skills. As the oldest of seven children, she wanted to get a head start on college.

In her freshman design thinking class, Wampler was challenged to create a product that solved a real-world problem. Worried about the walking safety of her siblings, she designed a wireless device that triggers an alarm and sends the location to emergency services. She presented it to local police and received positive feedback, which ignited additional work. She applied for and received a provisional patent for the device. As a sophomore, she has met with manufacturers and continues to work on a prototype.

Jackson (below) is a freshman prototyping a rechargeable backpack that will power his devices.

Jackson, a freshman at IDEA, prototyped a backpack with chargers for his devices

LEAD Backstory

When you land in Kansas City, you’re in the Park Hill School District, a growing suburb on the Missouri side of the river.

As the district grew toward 4,000 high school students, Superintendent Dr. Jeanette Cowherd knew she’d need more capacity. She led community conversations comparing the merits of three options: ‘supersizing’ the two existing high schools, moving to split-shift high school schedules, or opening a program in a different facility. The community preferred option three, but without much time or $100 million in the capital account, Dr. Cowherd decided to rent an office building and open the program one grade-level cohort at a time, starting with incoming ninth grade students.

She gave Dr. Jaime Dial, Director of Secondary Education, room to innovate but with two provisions: the school had to continue Park Hill’s top academic performance and it needed to be open to all students in Park Hill.

Dial and the rest of the design team went on visits to next-generation schools including Iowa BIG, New Tech Network, and Summit Public Schools. They selected the Summit Learning platform to support personalized learning, and using principles learned while visiting Iowa BIG and New Tech Network schools, are adding larger, integrated, community-connected projects.

In 2017, LEAD (@ParkHillLEAD) enrolled 150 freshmen. In 2018, they added another 150 freshman students to expand the program to ninth and tenth grade students. They have added juniors this year to expand to a ninth through eleventh grade program; next year, in their new facility, LEAD will serve 625 students in grades nine through 12.

In addition to design thinking, freshmen take a class on leadership. They develop personal leadership skills and learn impact strategies. They study how nonprofit organizations support the community. Some students volunteer, while others launch awareness campaigns.

Starting with leadership builds self-knowledge, agency, and project management skills. Beginning with design thinking gives LEAD students the confidence to step into complex problems and know where to start. Teacher Nicki Scott said, “Most kids are never asked what they really care about.”

LEAD students spend 60 minutes per day with their mentors in small advisory groups of 15 to 18 students. They plan and set goals and work on success skills. The goal is to help students graduate with curiosity, self-direction, and purpose.

A mastery-based approach means students demonstrate important skills before moving on, ensuring a strong academic foundation for advanced studies.

Sydney Hamilton is a junior at LEAD and serves on the school’s Executive Council. Her experience has helped her decide to become a pilot. Through the Professional Studies program, she’s doing an internship at the airport this year.

This fall, LEAD will move out of its incubation space in a rented office building into a new facility with lots of flexibility, including room for individual work, small groups, and large groups.

The development of LEAD is a good example of a district carefully monitoring population growth, holding proactive community conversations, using enrollment growth to launch a new school in a flexible commercial office setting, and using the opportunity to pilot and demonstrate a new learning model.

The combination of personalized and project-based learning is compelling, but the most important innovation at LEAD is the foundation of leadership and design thinking skills that freshmen receive—it sets them up for success and creates an opportunity-focused culture.

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This post was originally published on Forbes.


The Learning Must Go On

Johnny wakes up groggily at 8:30 am, pours himself some cereal and sits down to eat at the kitchen table. He doesn’t have much time. English class will begin promptly at 9:00 am and he hasn’t even completed the previous night’s assignment. Opening his laptop, he speeds through the teacher’s short mini-lesson on figurative language and begins adding metaphors to his writing piece.

The clock races.

Time’s up. Class is ready to begin.

He joins 28 classmates online via video chat; each of them filling a tiny box on the screen. Virtual English class has officially begun.

Because of the recent outbreak of coronavirus, Johnny, like thousands of other students across China and Hong Kong has been forced to spend the next two months learning entirely online.

But that doesn’t mean his learning stops.

Agile schools with blended and robust learning systems in place have been quick to adapt; shifting content, curriculum, lessons and learning seamlessly to an online platform. For them, it has been business as usual.

For other, less robust and adaptive schools, it has been a slow and painful transition. They have not fostered a culture that allows for such agility.

So what gives? What is unique about the schools that have been able to thrive in this time of uncertainty?

I interviewed six innovative educators spread across six agile schools to discover the answers.

This piece distills their insights down into six distinct traits—both of agile learners and the systems that help create them. I hope they provide you with insights on how you too can foster a culture of agility and adaptability in your classroom or school.

1. There’s More Than One Way to Eat an Elephant.

Agile learners understand that there’s more than one way to solve a problem. Cora Yang of The Harbour School has created a virtual classroom full of problem solvers. To teach game design, she outlines an open-ended task where students create whatever game they like using whatever coding program they choose. And whilst she does teach a few coding commands, it’s up to them to discover the missing pieces on their own. She retells the story of Milo, an agile learner who builds multiple levels and challenges into his game: “When he came across a command he didn’t know, he consulted Youtube. When Youtube proved too difficult, he asked [me] for assistance.” An agile learner herself, Cora knew just how to respond: “Let’s find out together.”

Implications for Practice:

How do you foster a culture of problem seeking and solving in your classroom? Do you provide students with open-ended tasks? Consider presenting students with a challenge or problem that requires a detailed understanding of your curriculum to solve. Develop questions together. In this way, students will see class as less a set of standards and objectives, but as a gateway to better understanding the world they live in.

2. Be Comfortable in the Weird.

Agile learners are comfortable with uncertainty. Trevett Allen of the innovative education program, “Baker and Bloom” creates an environment ripe with uncertainty. He describes the ideal agile learning landscape as being, “Whiteboards on Wheels.” As an art and design/makerspace/curricular integrator himself, he has created an environment that allows for constant tinkering and iteration. He recalls the time one of his students noticed that the wheels under his table only turned one way. Frustrated, he insisted, “I can make them turn in all directions.” Instead of redirecting the student, Trevett asked him to have a try. Wasting no time, the student grabbed some tools, a few friends and got to work. In less than an hour, the table moved in all directions. This same student now runs a robotics business with robots that turn in all directions.

Implications for Practice:

How do you help students feel comfortable with uncertainty? Do you stress the process of learning as much as you do the product? Try creating a space in your classroom to showcase the process with multiple drafts of student work. Don’t be afraid to share some of your work as well.

3. Puzzle Pieces Are Only Pieces Until You Put Them Together.

Agile learners see learning not as a collection of jumbled parts, but instead as a beautiful interconnected puzzle. Levent Erdoğan, a Film Teacher at Delia School of Canada in Hong Kong helps provide students with each missing puzzle piece. He recently assigned a film project that asked students to piece together their own digital stories by combining prior film lessons and techniques. One particularly agile student decided to create a short film centered around a remote that controls his family, combining prior lessons of storyboarding, scriptwriting, special effects, producing, acting and directing flawlessly in producing the final cut. It wasn’t his first experience with this kind of learning. Levent continuously models this process in all projects and tasks he assigns.

Implications for Practice:

How do you help students connect their learning? Consider how you might embed individual lessons inside a larger project or summative task. By continually modeling for students how learning connects, students will develop the ability to see the bigger picture.

4. Curiosity Only Kills Cats.

Rosie Howes creates agile learners by sharing decision making power in her class. Students are free to develop their own learning pathways, address issues, make decisions and choose learning most suitable to their needs. Rosie starts by listening carefully to what students are interested in, provides provocative questions and activities to peak their curiosity, and then lets them take learning where it naturally leads. For example, during one provocation, Rosie asked students to share their ideas for the next class topic. Seeing they were most interested in marine life, she brought in a marine biologist and scheduled excursions to the nearby sea to explore. Students then took it from there. Students as young as six created campaigns to protect sea life, researched innovative ways to protect local ecosystems and organized school-wide demonstrations in support of the Global Climate Strike. Through providing a landscape of shared decision making, Rosie has created a room full of agile and empowered learners.

Implications for Practice:

Do you share decision making in your classroom? How can you make your classroom more democratic? Regular class meetings and circle time are a good starting point.

5. Learning Is Iterative. Perfection Is the Enemy.

Agile learners are as concerned with the process of learning as they are the product. Zach Post, middle school principal of the American International School in Hong Kong has fostered a culture obsessed with process. Each year, his school takes an entire week off the timetable to work across subjects, disciplines and grade levels to address local problems. During these “Project Intensives,” students address problems ranging from excess food waste in the cafeteria to more complex issues of fair housing and climate change. The goal of each project is not to receive the highest mark, but instead to create the most meaningful impact. Zach explains that learning in this way helps break the routine, and creates a risk-free environment that is both iterative and adaptive. Students are agile in transferring the mindsets they gain through these experiences to new situations and scenarios.

Implications for Practice:

How do you create a culture of continual iteration and reflection? Do you showcase the process of learning as much as the product? Consider filling your classroom with prototypes, sketches and unfinished pieces of work. Ask students to reflect on their learning each step of the way.

6. All Learning Is SOCIAL

If you walked into Laura Rogers’ classroom on any given day, you would struggle to find her. In one corner two students sit knee to knee, chatting excitedly about scenes to add to their fictional stories; in another, a boy hunches over his blank sheet of paper, carefully illustrating the villain for his narrative; in the middle, three girls exchange papers and make edits in the margins. Laura Rogers sits cross-legged on a small rug, leaning forward to hear a boy share aloud his story on a secret set of keys. Laura has created an environment where anyone can be a teacher. She explains that all learning in her classroom is social and shareable. Learners are given daily opportunities to share their work with peers, the teacher, or a public audience. In this way, they become more agile and adaptable, improving their work through each successive conversation.

Implications/Questions for Practice

How do you make learning social and shareable? What routines might you establish that allow for regular feedback and reflection?

In Closing

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic like the coronavirus for us to re-think how we teach and learn. In 2020, learning can happen anytime, anywhere. Agile learners and schools know this best. They see learning not as confined to a physical place or school building, but rather as a set of mindsets that allow for constant iteration, tinkering and adaptation.

As educators, we must continue to provide the appropriate landscape.

Let’s hope the coronavirus outbreak is contained soon. But if it isn’t, we know how to adapt.


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SPARK Schools: Scaling Affordable Excellence in South Africa

Surrounded by hillside vineyards is the village of Lynedoch. It’s across the railroad tracks from its posh neighbor Stellenbosch in the heart of South Africa’s wine country, and shares a view of the Hottentots Holland Mountains.

Serving over 600 children of this working-class village is SPARK Lynedoch, an affordable private Kindergarten through seventh grade school, one of 20 elementary schools in the SPARK Schools network. For about the same fees as top-level government schools, with no subsidy or philanthropy, SPARK educates children remarkably well.

SPARK took over the Lynedoch building after a failing government school closed. It is adjacent to the Sustainability Institute—and shares values and projects with the University of Stellenbosch degree programs offered there.

Lynedoch is a joy-filled school that begins each school day at 7:45 with a morning meeting full of music, dance and inspiration.

Morning meeting at SPARK Lynedoch. Image courtesy of Tom Vander Ark.

Chief of Schools Bailey Thomson Blake explained that primary students spend about an hour a day in a computer learning lab featuring game-based ST Math and Reading Eggs (complete with British spelling and accents). 

SPARK labs are equipped with Google Chromebooks; they were the first to use them at large scale in Africa. Blake is happy with the addition of the itslearning platform this year, introduced as SPARK’s new learning management system.

Students in grades four through seven flex between small group instruction and online personalized learning (below). School lasts until 3:30pm, which is a longer day than the country’s government schools.

Sixth grade flex classroom at SPARK. Image courtesy of Tom Vander Ark.

SPARK schools follow the national curriculum, teaching in English and providing 40 minutes of local language instruction. At SPARK Lynedoch, the additional language of instruction is isiXhosa, which is introduced in Kindergarten.

Visiting with the former head English teacher at Cape Town’s most prestigious private school, we observed impressive high-level writing instruction, including personalized feedback on argument construction in several intermediate classrooms.

The innovative learning model and an early release day each week provides 245 hours of professional learning for teachers each year.

SPARK spells out a set of shared values evident in every classroom: service, persistence, achievement, responsibility, and kindness. Social and emotional learning is woven into the fabric of the day, starting with the morning meeting and progressing through the day as a common language of engagement.

Parents are welcomed at school (not always the case in South Africa) and volunteer at least 30 hours each year.

Sparking a Revolution

As an MBA student in 2010, Stacey Brewer concluded that education was key to South Africa’s future. She and classmate Ryan Harrison started researching education—both pedagogical and business models. They scraped together some funding and traveled to California in 2012 to visit a number of schools, including Rocketship Public Schools, an early leader in using technology to personalize learning.

At the original Rocketship school, they met Bailey, a Teach for America teacher. A veteran traveler to Africa, Bailey didn’t wait for an offer; she told them she was joining them to launch a school in Johannesburg.

SPARK Chief of Schools Bailey Thomson Blake. Image courtesy of Tom Vander Ark.

Seven years later, the SPARK network serves over 10,600 students, including a new high school (about the same population as Rocketship, the network that inspired it).

Lynedoch is the only rural school, and the only location in the Western Cape (the southern province including Cape Town). It’s one of the few locations in a traditional school building. “We’ve converted a night club and wedding venue, a college dorm, and an office building. We like shopping centers,” explained Blake. The nontraditional locations typically offer large flexible spaces required by the SPARK model.

SPARK fees are a modest $1,560—or $156 per month for 10 months—similar to government schools and about half that of a medium-priced private school.

SPARK’s investors include Omidyar Network and Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF). The company plans to conclude another round of funding early in 2020, fueling more growth around Johannesburg and in the Western Cape beginning in 2021.

What Brewer and Blake have accomplished with their team is remarkable—providing a great benefit to South African families and an example to education entrepreneurs worldwide. Their success illustrates that capital increasingly flows anywhere in the world to a good idea, that innovation spreads more rapidly and more unexpectedly than ever before, and that a couple of young people with a dream can change their corner of the world.

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This blog was originally published on Forbes.


Why and How to Open a Microschool

Microschools have been popping up around the country for the last decade. New learning models and tools have made it easier to open small schools serving 15 to 150 students.

There are at least four reasons to open a microschool:

  1. Speed: Given their small size, microschools can be opened quickly in nontraditional spaces. They can be used to kickstart a change process by illustrating high engagement learning experiences and environments.
  2. Community: Microschools rapidly create new community-connected learning options (e.g., themes, careers, and experiences) for students.
  3. Needs: They can be designed to quickly address underserved student populations (e.g., preschool, dropout recovery and career education).
  4. Leadership: Microschools can be instrumental in leveraging teacher leadership.

Starting a microschool can lead to four successful outcomes:

  1. Small option: a good microschool with lean staffing can remain an attractive and sustainable local option.
  2. Flip host: strategies tested and exhibited by a good microschool launched within a larger school could be adopted by the host school.
  3. Big option: a good microschool could expand into a larger school option.
  4. Network: A successful microschool could serve as an anchor for a network of schools (examples below).

Some microschools are distinctive options and intentionally small:

KM Global, Kettle Moraine School District student playing guitar in a classroom. Image courtesy of Tom Vander Ark.

Microschools and academies within large schools can offer distinctive pathway options:

  • P-Tech and early college academies in Dallas, Texas are examples of school-within-a-school options that provide a pathway to college credit (up to an AA degree) while in high school.
  • E.P.I.C.C Academy at East Hall High in Gainesville, Ga. is a student-centered alternative for ninth and tenth graders (see feature).

Microschools can be launched in large high schools to kickstart personalized learning:

  • Kettle Moraine High School in suburban Milwaukee is home to three small schools launched to kickstart high school transformation (see blog and podcast).
  • Nearly all of the 380+ school partners of Summit Learning launched the personalized program in a small program.
  • Pathfinder spaces at all three levels of Singapore American School enabled teacher teams to illustrate and integrate the use of new flexible learning spaces.

Microschools launched in large schools can pilot competency-based learning:

  • Huntley High in suburban Chicago launched Vanguard Vision, a 200-student, competency-based academy as part of a state pilot program and an iterative approach to personalize learning in the large school. The academy will grow to 400 students and some of the practices will be incorporated schoolwide (see blog).
  • Synergy is a student-centered academy at Kuna Middle School in a southwestern suburb of Boise. It’s one of the 32 schools in the Idaho Mastery Education Network. A team of four teachers supports just over 100 students using the Summit Learning platform (see feature).

Networks of microschools (most are standalone academies) serve more students at scale:

Support organizations are launching that encourage early-stage founders:

  • 4.0 Schools encourages entrepreneurial problem-solving by offering an Essentials Fellowship to develop an idea that improves education in the United States, and a Tiny Fellowship to test it out.

For more, see:


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Alive With Possibility: 20 Tips for Creating Responsive Schools

This blog is based on a keynote Tom recently did for the Global Education Conference Network. To watch that keynote, click here.

We’re a couple years into a new era, one where smart machines are rewiring the way we work, learn and play. Today’s high school students will see artificial intelligence help solve some of our most vexing problems—and pose significant risks.

The planet is heating up—we just experienced the hottest October on record—and the weather is becoming more chaotic. The climate crisis, arguably the biggest challenge of our time, is reshaping lives and economies.

The good news is that we know what to do and the tools for making a difference get better every month. Money flows to good ideas–in record amounts. About $250 billion in venture funding supported global startups this year and twice that was invested in U.S. nonprofits.

Given this paradoxical level of challenge and opportunity, what are responsive schools doing to support learners in this remarkable and disconcerting time? While visiting more than 100 schools this year, we spotted 20 tips.

1. Responsive schools build intentional, inclusive cultures. “Culture, culture, culture,” shared Randy Hollenkamp of Bulldog Tech in San Jose about the most important element of a responsive school. Culture is the cumulative effect of stated and shared values, policies and structures, incentives and supports, and formal and informal communication. It’s the product of adults being intentional about a set of shared behaviors.

2. Responsive schools know and care for their students. At Bronx Arena High School, each student is paired with an advocate counselor, who provides guidance and support for individual goal setting in the personalized, self-paced environment.

3. Responsive schools have a shared vision. Every good school is based on a set of foundational ideas that form a common intellectual mission (as High Tech High founder Larry Rosenstock would say). This creates a common sense of purpose and focus. The mission should be both succinct and profoundly deep (you can summarize in five seconds or unpack it for 5 hours).

4. Responsive schools are intentional about outcomes. After community conversations, responsive schools update their learning goals. These broader aims are often summarized as a portrait of a graduate.

Responsive schools link experiences to desired outcomes. Daniel Kerr, American School of Paris, explained: design challenges plus projects plus maker plus service learning prepares young people to be citizens of the world.

5. Responsive schools are guided by the learning sciences. Digital Promise summarized a growing body of research around 10 insights that underscore the importance of high expectations, effort and learning from mistakes, spacing and retrieval, leveraging interest and building autonomy, safety and well-being, practicing collaboration, and conducive environments.

6. Responsive schools empower students to meaningful work. Juan Cabrera kickstarted active learning in El Paso schools with 10 academies that are part of the New Tech Network where students engage in team-taught integrated projects.

Ron Berger, founder of EL Education, sees students do meaningful that will make an impact in the world where there are professional models of scientists, artists, politicians, professors that provide expert critique and guidance in places where there is a culture of respect and belonging, and where there is a real genuine audience.

7. Responsive schools engage learners in place. Schools in the Place Network connect rural learners to their community through design thinking and inquiry-based learning.

8. Responsive schools enable youth contribution. One Stone is a student-centered high school and afterschool program that helps students graduate with a sense of purpose and a track record of making a difference in the community.

9. Responsive schools build structures that support deep work. Every classroom at Science Leadership Academy exhibits five core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. The remarkable consistency of powerful learning across the school is evidence of deep teacher collaboration supported by thought schedules, systems, professional learning opportunities.

10. Responsive schools value quality public work. Like successful sports coaches, Esther Wojcicki and six colleagues have created a flywheel of high expectations in the Palo Alto High School Journalism program. Students run 10 professional grade digital and print publications.

It’s a fast-paced and high-stress environment–students do world-class work on a deadline. “Students make a lot of mistakes,” said Wojcicki, “they may have to revise something 10 times, they learn that it is OK to fail, they develop the grit to continue.”

11. Responsive schools promote students based on demonstrated mastery. Boston Day and Evening Academy is a student-centered, competency-based school where students progress based on demonstrated mastery rather than seat time (see feature).

Lindsay Unified School District, in California’s Central Valley, is a leader in competency-based (they call it performance-based) education—“Students work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.” (See feature and podcast with superintendent Tom Rooney.)

12. Responsive schools provide career structure and guidance. Cajon Valley USD, east of San Diego, introduces 54 World of Work units to K-8 students.

RISE High, a program of DaVinci Schools in Los Angeles, works with a network of youth-development agencies, municipalities and support centers to provide counseling, case management, tutoring, job readiness training, career pathways, internships, extracurricular opportunities, leadership development, and more.

13. Responsive schools connect youth to opportunity. Business partners of Tri-Rivers Career Center in Marion Ohio told them not to bother with teaching robotics unless they offered leading certifications–so they created a program that did. RAMTEC is now a statewide robotics training program (see feature).

ACE Leadership High and Health Leadership High in Albuquerque both serve about 400 students who have already or were on their way to dropping out of high school. They employ project-based and paid internships that provides authentic, meaningful learning experiences for young people. They annually survey employers to remain responsive to the community.

14. Responsive schools attract and develop teacher talent. Summit Public Schools teachers get weekly 1:1 coaching from their school leader and additional time to collaborate with their colleagues. With 50 dedicated days of professional development built into the academic year, they equip teachers with the tools necessary to improve their practice and tackle challenging issues (see podcast with founder Diane Tavenner).

15. Responsive schools distribute leadership. Singapore American School has around 180 official leadership roles (with a faculty of 400) that range from being a professional learning community leader to leading a change initiative (like advisory) to extra responsibilities leading students (e.g., house leads at the HS). In addition to providing them a stipend based on level of team and/or task, they provide targeted professional learning to develop leadership skills.

16. Responsive schools embrace equity. A commitment to equity means, in part, teachers and leaders who reflect and appreciate that challenge of the student body. Latinx Education Collaborative helps schools recruit and retain Hispanic teachers and leaders. Education Board Partners helps schools recruit and train diverse board members. (I’m a director of both.)

17. Responsive schools have inspiring learning environments. To support personalized and project-based learning, schools are adding big flexible spaces with natural light and a variety of seating options.

‎⁨Agnor-Hurt Elementary School⁩, ⁨Albemarle County Public Schools.

To inform the large-scale renovation project, Singapore American School created Pathfinder Spaces, renovated and connected classrooms that model possible future states and investigate key design questions. Compared to traditional classrooms, the lighting is better, the air is fresher, and the noise level is lower. The modular furniture includes a variety of options: high and low, hard and soft, firm and wobbly. The large open spaces convert quickly to small intimate groupings.

18. Responsive schools have great advocacy partners. Dallas County Promise uses data and scholarships to help high schools remove barriers to the transition to college. It’s part of Commit Partnership (@Commit2Dallas) which provided statewide advocacy support for a big investment in schools (see feature).

19. Responsive schools partner with youth/family service. The Internationals Network for Public Schools serves immigrant youth who are new to learning the English language. The 29-school network integrates language development and academic content while building student and family capacity for integration into American society (featured on CompetencyWorks and EdSource).

20. Responsive schools are alive with possibility. Perhaps most importantly, responsive schools are always evolving; they lean into opportunity.

Responsive schools create a culture of possibility for youth by giving voice to their interests today and exposing them to opportunities for tomorrow. They enable success in what’s next—in work, learning, and community service.

For more, see:


Header image: Quest Academy, Singapore American School

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Teaching A Big School New Tricks: The Huntley 158 Competency Pilot

The median high school size in the U.S. is about 600 students. Of the 26,400 public high schools, there might be a thousand with more than 2,000 students and a few hundred with more than 3,000.

Despite coming with challenges, some communities choose big schools for some of the advantages they offer. And hundreds of those big suburban schools across the country are innovating to personalize learning and connect youth to meaningful postsecondary pathways.

Serving more than 3,000 students in a fast-growing suburb northwest of Chicago is Huntley High. Innovation at Huntley began in 2011 with three teachers piloting blended learning strategies. Scott Rowe became principal in 2013 and facilitated school-wide connectivity.

When I visited in 2016, I saw students taking courses in traditional, blended and online formats. Rowe, who is now superintendent of Huntley Community School District 158, explained that “Our blended classes meet at minimum twice per week with three days of online work. Our students have control over the time, place and pace at which they work because of this structure. When their class does not meet, they have the flexibility to work in our HUB (featured image), they can leave campus or meet with the teacher of their blended course for individualized learning assistance.”

In addition to blended and personalized learning, the Huntley faculty developed four career academies and a new competency-based pilot program.

Career Academies

Formed in 2011, the HHS Medical Academy offers preparation for college and careers in the health sciences. The academy has grown to become the state’s largest provider of PLTW biomedical curriculum, offering a dozen courses spanning several interdisciplinary subject areas.

Colleges and universities offer credit and/or scholarship incentives to students who earn a certificate or transcript designation for coursework completed in the Medical Academy.

Medical Academy students have a distinctive opportunity to participate in intensive job shadowing and real-world experiences at Northwestern Huntley Hospital. Watch the video below and this episode of Huntley 158 Today for more.

The Engineering Academy provides opportunities to help prepare students for admission to collegiate engineering programs and careers in the engineering field. By combining the foundation of engineering principles through rigorous coursework with real world experiences, students leave Huntley High School with an understanding of engineering careers and a hands-on experience few high school students have.

A combination of coursework, work-based learning, extracurricular activities, and a final presentation can earn students a transcript endorsement.

Like the Medical Academy, the Engineering Academy is working to develop real world internship experiences like the Youth Residency.

In its second year, the Global Academy enables students to explore global issues and cultures. Students completing the course of study, service learning and a capstone are recognized as an Illinois Global Scholar.

Students and staff attended the Global Student Leadership Summit last year. A delegation will attend the Summit in London in April.

The Fine Arts Academy is also in its second year, and offers students interested in the arts opportunities to immerse themselves in their passion to create while in high school. Opportunities to act, direct, lead behind the scenes creation of technical theatre, as well as develop showcases of student-created art are on the horizon.

Vanguard Vision

The 2016 Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness Act included a Competency-Based High School Graduation Requirements Pilot Program. As one of 45 participating districts, Huntley created a program called Vanguard Vision.

“We are learning a lot and engaging students on a totally different level,” Superintendent Rowe said about the program. “The feedback from students centers around a feeling of deeper connection with their teachers as they work together on a negotiated pace. The teachers feel more empowered than ever and call last year’s inaugural year as their best teaching year ever!”

There are about 100 freshmen and 100 sophomores in the pilot. The goal is to continue to add 100 students for the next two years, for a total of 400.

Interested eighth grade students are encouraged to apply. The goal is to make the program accessible to all students that feel the program will best meet their learning needs.

Every competency ends with a performance assessment, where students demonstrate their learning in unique ways. “We are in the process of adding additional unique and innovative learning opportunities outside of the traditional school day,” added Rowe.

Students take core classes in the pilot program and can access electives in traditional or blended classes outside of the program.

To the original Huntley Habits of Work and Learning (HOWL), the competency team added another “L” —for life and an “S” for success. “This is the center of a lot of work spawning from this pilot,” said Rowe.

Vanguard Vision has a robust social-emotional learning program that focuses on the habits of work, life, learning, and success (HOWLLS), which are transferable to skills and jobs that do not yet exist.

“We are trying to focus in on building use of the HOWLLS to show skill acquisition to support life after high school and translate them to college admissions as well as portfolios for employment,” explained Rowe.

Vanguard Vision is already having an impact on the school. Some teachers have replaced traditional assessments with the performance assessments. “We are further aligning our curriculum to competencies that will make students successful after high school,” added Rowe.

“As the workforce and higher education continues to focus on one’s individual skills and ability to creatively think, our Vanguard Vision students are already building personal learner profiles and skill-based portfolios,” said Rowe. “As these learner profiles and portfolios are in ever-increasing demand from the workforce and higher education, it only makes sense that we will expand this practice to all students as well.”

Most promising, said Rowe, was students taking ownership of their learning—and the district plans on scaling strategies that promote agency beyond the Vanguard Vision program.

For more, see:


HopSkipDrive: Safe Ride Share for Kids

What if kids could use ride share services to travel to their internship or get home after soccer practice?

While a few parents skirt the rules, riders must be 18 years old to have an account with popular ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft in order to request rides. Any riders under 18 are supposed to be accompanied by someone 18 or older.

A Los Angeles startup has solved this problem with a safe transportation solution for families and schools.

Launched in 2014 by CEO Joanna McFarland and co-founders Carolyn Yashari Becher and Janelle McGlothlin, Hop Skip Drive (@HopSkipDrive) is a ride share company that serves children.

Gaining parent trust was an obvious hurdle. HopSkipDrive prioritizes safety by certifying its drivers, verifying riders, tracking every trip, and carrying out detailed pick up and drop off instructions.

Transport Problems to Solve

In many communities, families have access to more public school options, but these may not offer transportation.

The transportation needs of an expanding array of school and community-sponsored afterschool and weekend activities are also challenging for public agencies to support.

A growing number of schools are trying to use local assets (often called place-based education) to enrich learning and connect young people to their community. Sometimes a big yellow bus is perfect for a class field trip, but when individual students or teams carry out investigations, it poses a significant transportation challenge.

There is growing interest in the benefits of work-based learning, including short term job shadows and client connected projects to longer term internships.

More high school students are seeking college credit opportunities. This often involves regular trips to a local college campus.

Career centers offer young people pathways to employment that often include industry recognized credentials. Accessing these opportunities sometimes involves a daily trip from a home high school to the career center.

Many schools and communities are doing more to serve children with complex needs, such as special education students, medically fragile children, and foster youth. Schools and cities struggle to match youth with programs and transport them.

About 60 high schools in Kansas City are increasing access to real-world learning, including place-based, work-based, college-based, and credentialing experiences. All of these pose significant transportation challenges that may outstrip even creative partnerships between school districts and regional transit authorities.

Compounding the challenge, most school districts are struggling to find bus drivers because of low unemployment rates and competition for licensed drivers from delivery services and retailers that are scaling up home delivery.

Emerging Pupil Transportation Opportunities

HopSkipDrive was designed to meet these sporadic and recurring transportation needs for individual or small groups of students. By combining proven ride share technology with increased security measures demanded by parents and schools, HopSkipDrive is working to create, as their team calls it, “a world of opportunity.”

“HopSkipDrive is on a mission to increase mobility, access, and educational stability for all kids, said Miriam Ravkin, senior vice president of marketing. “Our mission took flight in 2017 when we signed on to provide school-of-origin transportation via the Foster Youth School Stability Pilot program,” with Los Angeles County agencies.

When foster kids bounce from school to school, they are more likely to be absent, fall behind, and drop out, and less likely to make a smooth transition into independent adulthood. An August evaluation of the program showed that using ride share to keep foster kids in a local school led to better outcomes.

Qiana Patterson (@Q_i_a_n_a), vice president of strategic development, explained how a school could make selective use of ride share to eliminate long bus rides for lots of kids. “Some circuitous rides keep kids on a bus for more than an hour; by offloading one or two children to ride share, it can result in a shorter ride for many students.”

HopSkipDrive has transported 650,000 children over 5 million miles. The company, which has raised raise $21.5 million in venture funding, serves eight regions including the Bay Area, southern California, Denver, Washington D.C., Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Seattle.

A few years ago, I predicted that by 2025, there would be swarms of self-driving vehicles transporting students to various learning sites. That was probably optimistic, but there will be lots of autonomous vehicles on closed course loops on college campuses and there will be millions of children accessing learning opportunities via ride share apps like HopSkipDrive.

If you’re a school board member or state policymaker, it’s time to review your transportation regulations to allow schools to access emerging solutions like ride share.

If you’re an education or civic leader, it’s time to update your transportation plans. In fact, it’s time to #RethinkHighSchool given new learning and transportation options. Solutions like HopSkipDrive bring the idea of city as classroom to life.

For more see


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This post was originally published on Forbes.