Designing Innovative Schools

As a teacher in an urban school district, attempting to differentiate instruction for 30 students in a secondary classroom was at times an insurmountable challenge for me. I began using blended learning strategies in order to help scaffold instruction, which also gave me the time to focus on areas of growth with specific students. Transitioning into school leadership, I tried supporting my team of teachers to use innovative practices to drive student achievement at our campus. However, I was unable to do so because of the lack of flexibility to make decisions regarding resources, curriculum and school model components as a district leader.

Determined to create an environment where capitalizing individualized learning created time for meaningful collaboration, a colleague and I embarked on a journey to design and launch a blended learning school model. However, not having the resources, structures or supports, we attempted to take this on while maintaining full time jobs. As you might expect, our vision never came to fruition. It disappoints me to think of how many game-changing, innovative schools have never been built, because diverse leaders working relentlessly for their communities are not empowered.

We know the importance of diverse school models for diverse learners. We know that the changing needs of our economy and our lives are no longer suited to industrial-age schools. We know that creating the schools of the future takes committed time and thoughtful planning, and few of us, especially diverse leaders who aren’t independently wealthy, can afford to quit our jobs in order to plan these schools.

For these reasons, I am so excited about the Innovative Schools Fellowship.

Our city’s most innovative school leaders will have the opportunity to research, build, and hone their school models during this one to two year program. They’ll be financially and technically supported as they go from community engagement to design to authorization, releasing a flood of best practices and transformative ideas into their communities.

We often see “no excuses” schools—where rigor and college prep are king— develop in lower income areas. Many of these models have proven that low-income students can experience rigorous academic success. What if we built on the learning from these models, proving what is possible for all students, while adding more non-traditional curricular offerings, generally available in more affluent communities, to students living in our city’s urban center?

The fellows will be encouraged to open their schools on the West, South, and East sides of town and communities will have the chance for say, “this is the kind of school we want for our kids; let’s build it together.”

Incubators like this are popping up around the country, driven by the demand for educational options. This fellowship will be different from other school start-up incubators: fellows will not be obligated to a particular curriculum or model, but they must demonstrate a commitment to urban education. We truly want to see innovative ideas, the design for which will also be supported through a partnership with Trinity University.

The fellowship will be more structured when it comes to sustainability of the school models. There’s a lot we already know about best practices in governance, finance, and authorization of schools. For instance, each school will have a 501(c)3 nonprofit status, a board of directors, and we will encourage the fellows to authorize the school through a district partner and through the Texas Education Agency. Ideally, these schools will serve as in-district charters, partnering with local ISDs to deliver innovative schools within traditional districts.