An insider’s perspective
Building a Breakthrough Model School has its share of challenges. Trust me; I know.
I come to the NGLC staff as a former Breakthrough Models for College Readiness grant recipient, in which I was one of 20 school operators across the country supported to develop whole school models focused on personalized, competency-based, and blended learning. At the time, I served as the key administrator leading the design and implementation of a breakthrough high school model in Vermont. It was an exciting opportunity to say the least!
The experience also gave me an insider’s view on the challenges and opportunities educators face when transforming the learning model in schools. I’ve crafted this list to spare others from a trial-and-error approach.
Here are some of the most valuable lessons I learned:
Pay attention to (and grow awareness and understanding between) your school and larger community.
A design team of teachers, school and district administrators researched and crafted our new school model. As a result, this small group became deeply knowledgeable—but we didn’t cultivate this same understanding among our stakeholders prior to launch. In retrospect, a stronger communications strategy for engaging parents, students, and our community would have helped to solidify a foundation of support. Our design team struggled with sharing information in an ongoing fashion because there was a strong desire to ‘get it right’ first. But perfection isn’t the goal: building a shared understanding of the model’s key components among diverse stakeholders is critical.
Keep the focus on student learning.
Designing and launching a breakthrough model is complex! We were asking teachers to learn and employ new strategies, shifting from a traditional approach to targeted instruction, and coaching students in self-directed learning. With any instructional change, there will be setbacks as everyone involved—both teachers and students—must adjust. But it was important for the faculty to have an administrator encouraging them to take risks and practice new strategies, while offering feedback to support their professional growth. This coaching model requires trust, respect, and time. We carved out time each week to reflect on the challenges and opportunities, and we used these discussions to gain clarity about specific instructional practices that yielded the best results for student learning.
Know your model’s key components, and be nimble and able to adjust rapidly.
Craft a short description of your model that is completely devoid of jargon. Use this description and student learning outcomes as your decision-making lens. Every day you will be faced with decisions that need to be made rapidly; being clear about what is important to you will help you to consistently move in the right direction.
Plan for ongoing, embedded professional learning and guard that time from interruptions due to student behavior or managerial issues.
Like many other innovators, we launched our breakthrough model knowing we weren’t ready. (We know now that we’d never feel ready!) Prior to launch, we built a calendar of ongoing professional learning to support ourselves. It was difficult to stick to a 45-minute session of adult learning when student management issues cropped up. Our team continuously felt the rub between dealing with immediate needs and supporting the long-term sustainability of our model. It’s important to carve out times for adult learning and to adhere to them despite the short-term issues that inevitably crop up.
Accept that operations to support implementation efforts will not be seamless.
Keep in mind that the technological tools and online platforms for learning and tracking student growth are emerging, and as such, may present an occasional challenge. Do not be deterred by this; just move forward with an awareness that these resources and tools haven’t yet caught up with our needs. Take time to build your grading, student feedback, and reporting processes—and communicate these plans to all key stakeholders in a variety of formats, often.
Launching a breakthrough model has been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my professional career; now, I’m looking forward to using my knowledge to support our grant recipients as a K-12 Program Officer for NGLC.