Just when you think that the CityBridge Foundation has organized events second to none the non-profit group goes ahead and presents a conference that boldly towers beyond all previous endeavors. On Saturday I escaped the cold December weather to spend an exhilarating day at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School's Kansas Avenue N.W. Campus as a guest at the first Education Innovation Summit. The summit was supported by Accenture.
The school’s gymnasium generated excitement from the minute you entered the room. The sea of expansive round tables covered with orange tablecloths was illuminated by tall multicolored spotlights surrounding the perimeter of the space. The large screen at the front of the room projected Twitter messages by attendees whose words faded in and out as if choreographed to the energetic music filling the air. The entire scene looked as if you had accidently stumbled into a Beverly Hills celebrity awards ceremony.
The stars we were there to honor were the twelve Education Innovation Fellows created by a program founded by Citybridge and the NewSchools Venture Fund just this year. The program trains teachers in blended learning techniques and is supported by a $1 million grant from the Microsoft Corporation.
The goal of the Fellowship program is nothing less than closing the academic achievement gap between rich and poor public school students.
During an introduction by the Education Innovation Fellows program director Margaret Angell we learned why CityBridge is vastly different from all other family foundations. She explained that the group’s underlying principal is to advance the field of public education and therefore acts as a think tank around new ideas in the field. Now I know why I am so intellectually attracted to this group.
Four of the current fellows, Charlotte Hansen from Ingenuity Prep PCS, Rabiah Harris from Kelly Miller Middle School, Kyle Morean from Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS, and Ericka Senegar-Mitchell from McKinley Technology High School, then took the stage to explain the program. From January through March they were introduced to the concept of blended learning through coursework and travel to sites to witness best practices around its implementation. During May and June the teachers design their own pilot program addressing an issue identified from classroom experience. Over the summer they implement their pilot in their home schools.
Keynote speaker Heather Staker, Senior Research Fellow for Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, explained that blended learning helps to alleviate the dual problems of teacher exhaustion from spending hours in planning, instruction, and assessment, and student boredom. It does so through the principles of offering a flexible instructional paradigm, using data to inform instruction, increasing student engagement, and providing student agency and choice in designing their own education. It was now time to witness blended learning in action.
Attendees next chose one of four breakout sessions led by the Fellows. I was extremely fortunate to have joined one facilitated by Tanesha Dixon, a 6th through 8th grade social studies teacher at the Wheatley Education Campus, Meghan Dunne, a 1st grade teacher at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, and Melissa Mauter, an 8th grade teacher at KIPP DC: Key Academy. The instructors directed us through three “stations” emulating a student’s day in a blending learning classroom. First, I joined a group of five participants tasked with creating a poster about the advantages and questions centered around this teaching model. Then in rapid fashion we moved to desks equipped with tablets and headphones to read a passage on the blended learning model at the conclusion of which we were asked to answer questions on a sheet of paper in front of us. After a few minutes the group joined the teachers at the front of the classroom to delve further into the ideas we had reviewed while working on our own.
One of the first things one of the teachers asked us was how we felt about the experience. I wasted no time in responding. “Exciting,” I exclaimed. This was no understatement. If the pace and variety of learning is what this new technique was all about then the future of public education looks exceedingly bright.
The day only got better as the next item on the agenda was a conversation led by Citybridge co-founder Katherine Bradley on a set that looked like it came from a television studio. The panel included included Judy Beard, principal of Whittemore Park Middle School, Scott Cartland, principal of the Wheatley Education Campus, and Aaron Cuny, co-founder and head of Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School. Ms. Beard’s and Mr. Cuny’s facilities have won Next Generation Learning Challenges grants created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Wheatley Education Campus has submitted a bid for the prize. Washington, D.C. and Chicago have been named the first regional locations for the grant and here it takes the form of the Breakthrough Schools: DC challenge grant funded by $1million dollars from CityBridge and other local sources plus another $1 million from the The Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation. Ingenuity Prep has won one of the NGLC grants, which schools can apply for in $100,000 increments up to six grants. Schools that are awarded the funding can then request an additional $450,000 to create their new schools by the summer 2015.
The specifics of the panel discussion are not really important. All that readers need to know is that on the list of essential activities to do when visiting the nation’s capital along with seeing the Lincoln Memorial and having a meal at Ben’s Chile Bowl, is witnessing a forum led by Katherine Bradley.
The afternoon was spent listening and critiquing Breakthrough Schools: DC team applicant presentations. I attended the 6th to 12th grade and High School grouping which included representatives from Carpe Diem, CHEC, E.L Haynes, and Friendship. Of these, E.L. Haynes knocked the material out of the ballpark with remarks by its principal Caroline Hill which perfectly emulated the structure of the blended teaching model I had witnessed several hours earlier. In the highly professional material provided to the conference attendees E.L Haynes states that if awarded this grant its goal is to “remediate students who are below grade level, reinforce and support students who are performing on grade level, and enrich students who are performing above grade level” in support of the school’s mission to prepare all students, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and home language, for the college of their choice.”
It was then time for a closing reception that included representatives from technology companies demonstrating their products. It was a perfectly fitting end to a day that left me wildly optimistic about the future of public education in our nation.
All of the proceedings of the Education Innovation Summit will be available at www.blendmylearning.com.