Social Justice through Project Based Learning

Last week, I sat down with Joanna Klekowicz and Ryan York, co-founders of The Gathering Place, a proposed new public charter school focused on art and social justice through projects, to talk more about their journey as school founders.

Sukh: What inspired you to create The Gathering Place?

Joanna: In our experiences, both as students and as educators and leaders, we found that there is a large disconnect between school and the real world. Our current education system values standardization, compliance, and conformity. The real world, including our rapidly evolving global economy, values creativity, critical thinking, and innovation. At The Gathering Place, we’re committed to breaking down the walls between school and the real world in order to unleash the creative genius within every child.

Ryan: The spark that started it all came from students and teachers themselves. In our previous work, we built and scaled a project-based computer science program that grew to serve over 10,000 children across the country. We heard the same refrain from students in dozens of schools: why can’t all of school be a place where I work on things that matter to me and that matter in the real world? We also saw the most bewildering phenomenon: the most transformational teachers, regardless of district or charter settings, were most often working counter to their administration. Instead of implementing the frequently changing initiatives, they were finding ways to quietly create the space for their students to pursue their passions and to create the change they wanted to see in the world. These conversations and observations ignited our dream to design and co-found a very different type of school.

Project Based Learning and Equability

Sukh: Your passion for this work is very clear. How did you get involved in education in the first place?

Ryan: I grew up in a family of musicians. By the time I graduated college, I was the executive director of a nonprofit youth music and arts organization in middle Tennessee. Every day, I saw the remarkable impact art had on children, which was juxtaposed against a growing obsession with standardized testing that was leading to the removal of art in schools. This injustice led me to the classroom, where I first started as a district teacher in Nashville, then became an instructional coach, and ultimately, a principal.

Joanna: As for me, I joined the movement for educational equity after witnessing the injustice of the school-to-prison pipeline while tutoring inmates. They would often share their stories, and in each one, there was a pattern of not having had belonged in school. They would name how their passions, their cultures, their identities were never seen or affirmed. I thought that was heartbreaking because school should be a place where every child fully belongs. I realized then that education, and creating spaces where everyone fully belongs, was my calling.

Sukh: You’re two years into your journey. Tell us about the beginning - when did you decide to take the leap?

Joanna: The spark we mentioned earlier had continued to get bigger and brighter, and we realized that instead of just dreaming and talking about how school could look different, we needed to build it into reality. We quit our jobs, pooled our savings, and committed to co-founding The Gathering Place. We spent a year immersing ourselves in developing skills that would directly apply to launching a new start-up. I went out to D.C. and helped open a new school, and Ryan went out to the Bay area where he managed principals and helped lead an organization through a community co-visioning process. Each month, we would meet in a different city where we would visit with cutting-edge schools, continuously researching and developing the concept for our school. Then, in the summer of 2018, we went all in. We had no funding, we were not part of any program or fellowship, and we had no jobs. We used our savings to prototype our model through a free summer camp - and we’ve been building, iterating and prototyping ever since.

K-12 Arts Education Models.

Sukh: Fast forward a few months, and you are now participating in our inaugural City Education Partners’ Innovative Schools Fellowship. How has this fellowship impacted your work?

Ryan: One of the biggest problems in creating substantial change in education is access to funding. Even though the original vision for public charter schools was for them to become vehicles for educators to create new school models and practices that could then be shared widely with all public schools, ironically, few educators are able to leverage this vision. Because there are no funding structures that support educators in the earliest phases of entrepreneurship, many innovative educators end up either leaving the profession or becoming disengaged. City Education Partners is the first organization working to change that reality here in Texas.

Joanna: When City Education Partners invited us to apply for the first-ever Innovative Schools Fellowship last fall, we were thrilled. We were selected as fellows which has been transformational for us. We are learning from local experts in finance, school operations, and governance. We have the funding to continue working on The Gathering Place full time without worrying how we’ll pay rent, and we’ve had the chance to connect and learn from the most creative change-makers here in San Antonio and across the nation.

Ryan: Most importantly, with City Education Partners’ support, we’ve been able to move our transformative idea closer to reality, and to live out the original intent behind charter law. We’re incredibly grateful for the support. The Innovative Schools Fellowship allows educators - teachers, principals, advocates - to be change-makers, and that will have an enormous impact on our city.

Joanna Klekowicz (M. Ed) joined the movement for educational equity after witnessing the injustice of the school-to-prison pipeline while tutoring inmates in Boston. She joined Teach for America-Memphis and led her students to achieve 2.5 years of growth, ranking in the highest percentiles across the state. She transitioned to developing high school math teachers across Chicago where she was the only coach in her organization to be recognized for excellence by every teacher in her cohort. She later ventured into the financial sector where she worked as an investment consultant managing a $536 million book and became the fastest promoted employee in the region.

Ryan York’s (M. Ed) career started by co-founding a nonprofit that served hundreds of children each year through its flagship program “Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp” and opening a 6,000 sq. ft. after-school arts facility outside of Nashville. Transitioning into the classroom, he was awarded the district All Star teacher award and developed a blended learning software management platform that led to the highest math growth in the district by enrolled teachers. As principal, Ryan led a school turnaround that ended with the highest staff retention, math scores, and 5th grade reading growth in one of the top performing school systems in Tennessee.

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