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Opening Day

How the success (or failure) of some ambitious new schools could affect your district.

The first day of school is always memorable-any administrator, principal, or teacher will tell you that. But launching a new school, or implementing a different approach at an existing one, makes for a first day like no other. The excitement is heightened by fear of the unknown and the hope of blazing a trail others will follow. With more experimentation than ever occurring in schools around the country, we decided to check in with some of the most intriguing new models. They range from a Daniel Pink-inspired academy within Scott High School in Kentucky to the hybrid Global Online Academy to two new schools in Manhattan, the Academy for Software Engineering and Chris Whittle's bilingual "global school" Avenues.  

Silicon Alley High

Students attending the Academy for Software Engineering, which opens this fall near New York City's Union Square, should be prepared for surprises. For example, in many of their classrooms they may be able to write on the walls, thanks to IdeaPaint, which can turn flat surfaces into vast dry-erase boards. And there are plans for a clubroom, where they can experiment with a Wii and a PlayStation.

The goal, according to cofounder and principal Seung Yu, is to create an environment that will "instigate creative juices with students and allow them a different forum to really explore software, explore technology."

With that in mind, Yu and the high school's advisory board members, including computer science professors from NYU, Carnegie Mellon, and Columbia and software engineers from Google, eBay, and MakerBot, are working to develop curricula that will encourage intellectual risk taking.

At the school's more advanced levels, students may be studying robotics, networking, game design, and mobile-application development. (They will have to complete the same mandated requirements as at other schools, but electives will emphasize technology.)

Yu is looking to draw from beyond the typical software-savvy kids. "Computer science and software engineering are usually male dominated and there are not as many minorities," he says. "We want to give females and minorities a view of what the industry looks like."

Consequently, the school will make every effort to accommodate students who may not already be computer geniuses. "We're going to have kids who've never programmed, who don't really know what it's about," Yu says. "So we want to make sure they get an idea of various principles of computer science, such as computational thinking, problem solving, and conceptual thinking."

That approach will extend beyond the classroom walls: "Ideally, we want to make sure that every student has an internship, as opposed to a certain set of students who tend to be the most skilled."

Finding worthwhile internships will likely be made easier by the tech heavyweights on the school's board and by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's efforts to invest in the city's high-tech sector. If New York is to continue to attract start-ups and entrepreneurial companies, says Yu, the city has to ensure it has a steady supply of software engineers to fill its needs now and in the years to come.

So far, so good. "We had over 800 students put us down on their application," Yu says. "Unfortunately, we can't accept all 800, but at least we know we're going to have students who are interested in our school."

Global Online Academy
Last fall, an assignment in a media studies class at the Global Online Academy to choose an image from 9/11 and write about it generated vastly different responses. One student in the class, who attends Sidwell Friends, in Washington, D.C., wrote that he still vividly remembers the events of that day, even though they happened when he was 6 or 7. Another student, at King's Academy in Jordan, wrote about being a Muslim and reflected on the importance of sacred towers in her culture.

It was the kind of exchange that characterizes the mission of the year-old academy, which includes teachers and students from a group of 23 independent schools around the country and abroad, including the Dalton School in New York City, Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and the International School of Beijing. The academy offers virtual courses on a range of subjects that compel students to share local and personal perspectives on global issues.

As students gain a broader perspective from one another, they're also learning crucial online skills, says Michael Nachbar, the academy's director.

"How do you communicate via e-mail with somebody who is from a very different cultural background from you?" Nachbar asks. "If you're collaborating on a project with somebody who is 10 time zones away, how do you coordinate that? How do you hold yourself and your classmates accountable in an online environment that is hugely creative and flexible and retains the information in perpetuity? These are all things students need to learn how to do."

The idea for the Global Online Academy began to germinate in the spring of 2010 when administrators at the Lakeside School in Seattle started talking about the need for a new kind of online teaching. "There were some administrators at Lakeside who heard Michael Horn, one of the authors of Disrupting Class, talk about how online learning was affecting our schools, our universities, and what the students were doing, how they were learning," says Nachbar, who was assistant director of Lakeside's middle school at the time. The administrators realized that independent schools hadn't been taking part. "It presented a tremendous opportunity for our students to connect."

They also felt they were in a position to make a contribution to the world of online teaching. "There are a lot of for-profit companies and there are a lot of colleges and universities offering online courses, but nobody was doing online classes the way that we thought they should," Nachbar says. "Small class sizes, teachers knowing every single learner in the class, students learning from and with each other, project-based and inquiry-based learning-we felt those types of things were missing."

So the Lakeside group invited administrators from 15 schools around the country to Seattle for an exploratory meeting. Ten signed on to become part of the initial consortium, and the academy began offering classes last September to a total of 113 students. As of this past May, the academy has grown to 23 schools and more than 200 students. It serves as the "hub of the wheel," training teachers from the member schools, providing technical support and know-how, and allying the schools through Listservs and other connections.

Projects encouraged students to connect with one another and their own communities. Interacting with kids from other schools rated highly on student surveys the first year. "They see the value of a global classroom, which is fascinating," says Nachbar. "I hadn't anticipated they would be so tuned in to that." For example, that Sidwell student from Washington, D.C.: "I asked him if there was a moment in the semester that really resonated with him, something about this course that he never could have gotten anywhere else," Nachbar says. Immediately, the student recalled the 9/11 interaction. "It was a moment of understanding and sharing."

Right-Brain High School
The year 2010-11 was a disappointing one for Scott High School in northern Kentucky. The special freshman academy performed dismally, returning a 24 percent failure rate, and surveys showed that students "didn't like us very well," says principal Brennon Sapp, who was then a district official.

So Sapp and 14 of the school's "best teachers" met to decide what to do about it. One thing they were clear on: The student body was unusually creative. Students regularly took home state Cappie awards for artistic activities, a majority identified themselves as being interested in the arts, and creative kids numbered among the school's top performers as well as its athletes.

To Sapp, this all sounded strangely familiar. He'd just finished reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, which announces that "the future belongs to a very different kind of person, with a very different kind of mind-creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people-artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big-picture thinkers-will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys."

So, as Sapp tells it, the group paused for everyone to read the book, and they all agreed that Pink was on to something; they then set about creating a special learning community for the school's right-brain thinkers. "We decided to hit all their strengths and quit worrying so much about their weaknesses," Sapp says. They decided to call it Renaissance Academy.

Sapp set his teachers loose to experiment. The Spanish teacher, for example, used Rosetta Stone software to build a new approach to teaching language. Because the software doesn't address culture or written grammar, says Sapp, the teacher supplemented it with performance-based work. As part of the experiment, some of her students learned Japanese, Greek, or Spanish using the method.

Similarly, Renaissance Academy's teachers are developing a multiyear course that will mix social studies content with connected text and writing assignments so students learn both subjects "without even knowing which one they're learning at any given time," Sapp says. The course, spread over two years, will be worth three years of credit.

The changes will be evident in the school's atmosphere. "When you walk in these rooms, what you'll see is kids focusing on their work together and the teacher moving around with them rather than all the kids just watching the teacher," Sapp says. "We won't have desks. We'll have chairs and tables that can be singlets or fit together as a group of four. There will be computers scattered around the rooms so that groups can use them when they need them." Students will be allowed to use their phones to text or access the Internet. The guidelines are simple: "We're going to treat you like adults, and you use your technology when you can and appropriately."

Students will also be treated like adults when it comes to deadlines. "Rather than say to them, ‘Okay you've got three papers due Wednesday. If they're a day late, you're going to lose 10 percent,' the approach is now, ‘Okay, you have two projects, and this is the level of performance you have to get them to before they're accepted. If you don't, then you have to keep working.'"

Renaissance Academy will kick off in earnest this fall with about 60 freshman and 60 sophomores enrolled, out of a school population of around 1,000.

So far, the response from the kids who have taken part in the teachers' trial runs has been strong. That's not at all surprising, given the learning community's philosophy: "If you can make it fun and enjoyable for them, they'll work harder and do more," Sapp says.

Whittle's New Wonder

Chris Whittle has seen his share of start-ups. He built Whittle Communications into one of America's top media companies in the 1980s. Then came Channel One, his national-and controversial-in-school television news program (including ads), followed by Edison Schools, an early charter school venture he started with Benno Schmidt in 1992 (he still sits on the board of its current incarnation, EdisonLearning). Whittle says these experiences have led him to his best idea yet, Avenues. Even for Whittle, it's an ambitious undertaking, a private PreK-12 "global school" with campuses all over the world. The flagship campus, in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, is slated to open this fall, and Whittle plans to expand Avenues over the next decade to "20 or more of the world's leading cities," including Tokyo, London, Beijing, Mexico City, and Los Angeles. Before throwing the doors open, Whittle sat down with Administrator to describe his hopes for the school, his affiliation with Harvard, and why he thinks this venture will succeed.

Q What's special about Avenues?
A There are three key things that differentiate us from most schools. First, we believe children should be bilingual. If you look at the research, the most reliable path to fluency is immersion, and if you look at all the top schools in the city, Avenues will be the first true immersion school. For a child's first seven years, he or she will spend half the day in an English classroom and half the day in a Mandarin or Spanish classroom. In the Mandarin or Spanish classroom, students are not learning the language. They're going to school. They're taking science or math in Mandarin or in Spanish. By the time they get to middle school, they're conversationally fluent in the language, and then in middle school, we do four more years of intense writing, reading, and literature in the language. We hope most of them will take their third language in high school; once you have a bilingual child, moving to trilingual is not that hard.

Q Tell us about the multiple campuses.
A The plan is that our children, during their 15 years at the school, will study at our multiple campuses around the world. We'll have small dorms at each campus. Starting in middle school, children will do summers abroad, and then in high school, they'll do full semesters abroad. Over the course of that 15 years, they may spend two years abroad. Our plan is that they study in China, India, Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Our next two schools are Beijing and São Paulo.

Q Language immersion, studying abroad-and the third thing?
A Harvard has designed a 15-year course that we're using, which we call the World Course. It's essentially a non-Western-centric social studies program that starts literally in nursery school and spirals all the way through high school. 

Q You've been here before, right before a school opens. How does it feel this time? Is it a culmination for you?
A I had the pleasure of opening about 100 charter schools across the past 20 years at Edison. With Avenues, we want to really do it right. To open a school right, you need time, and to have time, you have to have money. A year and a half ago, we already had 20 people on the ground working on the opening. Today, we have over 50 people working. We're trying to get every detail as perfect as we can.

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