How Might New Schools Expand Opportunities for All Learners?

Devin Vodicka

This post was originally published on on March 1, 2020.

This past week I had the privilege of joining a convening with America Succeeds to discuss Agile Education.  It was a fantastic day that included school visits, time at Microsoft, and a visit to Teague to learn about interdisciplinary design.  One of the moments that struck me was near the beginning when Tom Vander Ark from Getting Smart suggested that new schools have been promoting innovation and agility in American public education for decades.  We then interviewed inspiring students from Gibson Ek High School who described how their internships were helping to better inform their views of themselves and the ways in which they hope to contribute in the future. 

Tom’s comment led me to reflect on my own experience with new schools.  As a teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, our school underwent significant construction which led us to reconfigure many of our systems and procedures, including new and strategic placements to promote more collaboration within and across grade levels.  When I first became an administrator in Carlsbad Unified, we merged Jefferson and Pine schools into one modernized campus which also provided an opportunity to reconfigure schedules, placement, and other plans.  Then as a principal I had the opportunity to open two new schools – Calavera Hills Elementary and Calavera Hills Middle School.  When I was in the district office we opened Poinsettia Elementary and Sage Creek High School

As a result of these experiences, I definitely became very comfortable with the logistics, timelines, facility needs, staffing implications, and community engagement approaches that help to open new schools.  In every one of these settings the schools were deemed to “successful” based on community demand, awards such as California Distinguished School designations, and high levels of academic achievement on standardized tests.  Only one of these (Sage Creek High School) had been founded with a unique focus – all of the others were neighborhood schools where there was significant pressure to be sure that the new campuses were consistent in their approach with the existing sites. 

Recently I have definitely noticed a trend where more of the new schools are like Sage Creek High School, which was opened as a STEM-focused site without any attendance boundaries.  It would be a school-of-choice and as a result it opened with a unique schedule, new courses, no football team, and other intentional differentiators.  As a Superintendent, when confronted with declining enrollment at several schools in Vista Unified we took a similar approach and transformed neighborhood schools to be more like magnets.  This approach led to the creation of the Vista Innovation and Design Academy (VIDA), T.H.E. Leadership Academy, and many specialized programs across the district. 

In my current role I have the good fortune to support a number of unique new schools, including Design 39 in Poway and Odyssey STEM Academy in Paramount Unified School District.  Arcadia Unified School District opened a “lab school” in their district office.  We are also assisting Peninsula School District design and launch Pioneer Elementary, a STEM-focused elementary school

Image result for pioneer elementary peninsula

Overall, it seems clear that new schools – including brand new facilities and conversions of existing sites – are pushing new boundaries to generate expanded options for learners.  One reason for the momentum I see in this space is that demand from families is abundant.  Every one of the schools that I have worked with that created some version of a “choice” program soon had waiting lists and had to resort to lotteries due to more interest than capacity.  Given this phenomenon, it is clearly time we begin to ask ourselves why these specialized programs end up in such high demand. 

A few observations that I would share that feel like common themes across these new schools include:

  • Clear focus areas such as STEM, design thinking, or leadership to create a more coherent learning experience. This focus area is often co-constructed with the community to ensure alignment and interest before committing to a particular path.  
  • Selective abandonment of programs/services such as certain sports teams, courses, or other extracurriculars.   
  • No attendance boundaries and permission for families to “opt in” for these choice schools.
  • Almost all of these schools have more flexibility in their use of time and schedules.  Generally we see longer blocks of time and more of an interdisciplinary approach.
  • They take a “core plus” approach where core knowledge is foundational and integrated into their models.  Reading, writing, listening and speaking, and mathematical fluency are critical components of their schoolwide designs.  

With the success of these new schools, I believe we need to also ask ourselves how might they expand opportunities for all learners? How might we take some of these design elements that are proving to be successful and incorporate them into more schools and more communities? 
Our future and the success of our young learners may depend on the answers to these questions.  Let’s connect and learn together on the journey.  

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