Whitmire: The Secret to Building the Next Gen High School? Forget All Your Middle School Successes

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(Cumberland, Rhode Island) — Watching a 15-year-old fiddle with his laptop in this out-of-the-way parish school converted into a charter school seems like an odd place to catch a glimpse of education’s future.
But that’s what Ray Varone is revealing as he fires up his Chromebook to demonstrate.
A lot went into this auspicious moment.
You start with the school, Blackstone Valley Prep, already a standout for successfully drawing a mix of middle-class and poor students. Then you stir in a sizable grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges (think Gates Foundation) to experiment with  ways to rethink high school.
Finally, and I suspect this may be the most important development, you wrap it all together with Summit Basecamp software, a learning tool just released by perhaps the most innovative charter group in the country, California’s Summit Public Schools. Their ideas were given wings with a team of top code writers donated by Facebook. Only a few schools got chosen as early adopters, including Blackstone.
And so it all comes together with Ray, who is proudly skimming through the Basecamp program.  And as anyone who has watched any teenager demonstrate software knows, your first reaction is to say: “Wait, slow down! Show me that again!”
Glimpsing the Next Gen high school
Blackstone’s charter high school is at the pointy edge of the search for the Version 3.0 high school, the high school that will point us toward the future: Where is it and what does it look like?
In theory, the search shouldn’t be that hard. For the past several years, some of the country’s brightest tech minds and wealthiest foundations have joined hands with the White House to solve one of America’s most remedy-resistant problems: High school is boring.
I know, I know…you knew that already. From first-hand experience. Only things have gotten worse.
If you look at test scores, school improvement efforts turn up in elementary and middle schools, but not high school. High school is the place where kids drop out, especially 9th grade just as students get their first taste of it. High school is where they get diplomas that too often prove worthless when they try to take college placement tests. It’s so bad they’re making movies about it.
Sure, there are private schools and wealthy suburban schools where the quest for getting into top colleges is so intense that some students wilt, or worse, under the pressure. Trust me: They are the exceptions.
For most high schoolers, the problem lies on the opposite side of the intensity scale. Low-income and minority students, who now make up half the nation’s school population, either don’t make it to college, get quickly disqualified from taking for-credit classes or drop out mid-way through.
So what do all these genius high-tech school reformers have in mind? There are a few places around the country where you can get a glimpse. I visited two charter schools: Achievement First’s “Greenfield” school in New Haven, Connecticut and Blackstone Valley Prep in Cumberland, Rhode Island.
Charter schools aren’t the only schools getting retooled for the future. I chose charters to profile for several reasons. The first research pinpointing key problems — and suggesting possible solutions — came from a charter, KIPP, whose leaders were disappointed with the data revealed in a college completion report done several years ago. Students they thought were well equipped for college work dropped out at higher rates than expected.
Put simply, culture-intense charter schools that dramatically bumped up K-12 learning discovered that once their students sailed past the gravity field of that intense classroom culture they found themselves ill equipped to survive on their own.
In short, they lacked “grit.”
That research led to a lot of dramatic changes at charters, with KIPP leading the way.  What was needed, the charters concluded, was a full speed shift to personalized learning, building the sticky, gritty independent learning skills that would propel them through an often-lonely college journey. The term of art: self-directed learning.
Also, charter schools seem most capable of making the quick technology shifts needed for this personalized learning. That’s why I chose Rocketship charter schools for my last book: Rocketship was known for pushing online learning to immerse students in personalized learning. If this new form of high school is going to get discovered, I’m betting that charters will create the first rough cut.
So what does this new learning style look like?
Banishing boredom with Basecamp
Not surprisingly, the “Basecamp” software Ray Varone is using arose out of Silicon Valley. There, Summit charter schools, already pushing the edges of personalized learning, caught the attention of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg when he visited in 2013. Zuckerberg lent Summit a team of code writers, and thus was born Basecamp, a “Personalized Learning Plan” (PLP) for all subjects, grades 6-12.
The package comes loaded with about 200 “deeper learning” projects as well as 700 Playlists, such as videos and articles. Basecamp is also adjustable, so schools can add and subtract what they think is important. Blackstone did a lot of that, especially with math. For this school year, 19 schools got chosen as early adapters, including Blackstone.
Everything seems like a blur as Varone cycles through his subjects, showing all his projects — those in red are still due; those in blue completed.
The Basecamp software turns learning upside down. Actual learning time is up to the student, to do at designated times within school, or at home. Classroom time is more for projects, group collaborations and advice from the teacher on how to manage the PLP.
The heart of the software, everyone agrees, is the steady, vertical “pacer line” that cuts through all the projects. That shows students where they stand on each assignment and whether they are ahead or behind.
Pointing to the pacer line in subject, Varone proudly points out where he was far ahead in completing work. “We’re getting used to doing this on our own, so we’ll be reading in college. In college you’re not going to have teachers there asking you questions all the time, so you have to learn by yourself.”
I agree: His answer sounds canned. But there was nothing canned about what he was demonstrating on the Basecamp software: This was self-directed learning, the holy grail of any next generation re-invention of high school.
‘Un-teaching’ middle school
Blackstone Executive Director Jeremy Chiappetta tells the story of visiting a KIPP school in Houston and coming away impressed by the tight instruction, the perfect discipline, the 100 percent focus of each student in every class. As he was complimenting them, the answer he remembers hearing: “We’re opening our high school in a year, and for these kids to be successful in college we’re going to have to un-teach everything that has made this middle school successful.”
That’s how far ahead KIPP was in this game. Not only did KIPP leaders suspect they might see lower-than-hoped-for college persistence rates among their graduates (this was before the official research), they had settled on a probable cause: their airtight classroom culture. None of that exists in a huge college lecture hall.
So when Chiappetta and others set out to design a high school for rising Blackstone students, they drew on KIPP’s lessons-learned. “We knew our middle school model, while a great foundation of academic skills and discipline and focus and habits, would not be the driving foundation for our high school.”
Blackstone’s search for a new model drew a $450,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges, followed by the decision to apply for early adapter participation in Basecamp. That status triggered liberal supports from Summit, including Blackstone staffers traveling to Summit for training, and Summit providing a former teacher for personal assists.
All that, in turn, led to Ray Varone sifting through his PLP, coming away satisfied that he was on top of things and ready for college work. And it didn’t seem to be boring him at all.
Engineering a complete do-over
When it comes to charter schools, Achievement First’s Dacia Toll qualifies as an early adapter of a network of charter schools. She was a law student at Yale, thinking hard about social justice, when she concluded it all starts “downstream,” in school. So while still in law school, she started pursuing teaching credentials, carrying out her student teaching at New Haven’s Fair Haven Middle School.
There she found seventh- and eighth-graders who were near illiterate. Told to carry out a lesson around the book “Johnny Tremain,” Toll found the task impossible. How can you teach lessons from a book the kids can’t read? The answer from her mentor teacher: Well then, show them the movie.
That attitude about poor kids, that an adequate education was impossible, prompted her to create the Achievement First network of schools, starting with New Haven’s landmark Amistad Academy. Today, Achievement First operates 30 successful schools in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.
So, it should surprise no one that Toll has once again become an early adapter of the need to reinvent a charter model that was already working pretty well for poor kids. As with the leaders of other top charters, she realized that boosting academic achievement in K-12 wasn’t sufficient to carry poor students through college. That required a new school.
Asked Toll: What would such a school look like if you started with a greenfield? A complete do-over. Answering that question took Toll and her team on an unusual journey. Essentially, she set up a skunkworks operation — independent research that operated separate from her other schools — and hired outside school design experts to do the work.
That work began with a limitless “blue sky” phase led by IDEO, the international design firm founded in Silicon Valley (think Apple’s first mouse). Overseeing all the design work was Aylon Samouha, someone I first met when he was chief of schools for Rocketship charters. Samouha, a former senior vice president for Teach for America (where he came across Rocketship) teamed up with Jeff Wetzler, who in the beginning of the project straddled his innovation work with Teach for America to join the greenfield experiment.
The team visited some of the best charter groups in the country and pulled something from each:
— From Summit came an emphasis on a personalized learning plan that always focuses on learning content. “In order to do project-based learning, the kind of stuff that Summit is doing, you need to actually have information in your working memory,” said Samouha. “You can’t just have the skill of being able to synthesize.”
— From BASIS, the team absorbed more lessons about the need to master actual content. “There’s probably no other place I‘ve visited that has such a commitment to content,” said Samouha. “Studies suggest that if you know something about baseball you can read a text about baseball that’s two years ahead of your reading level.”
— From California’s High Tech High they took away lessons on how to do project-based learning. “Their culture is very student-driven. They are in charge of the learning in a way that you really rarely find. We took some inspiration from that.”
— From a Montessori school in Austin, they absorbed lessons about playing the long game. “They were building the executive function of kids by allowing them to make their own choices.”
— From the Brooke charters in Boston, they drew lessons about instilling a love of reading among the students. Also from Brooke, some lessons about the limits of blended learning. Brooke, perhaps the most successful charter group in the country, shuns online learning.
— From Rocketship, they drew lessons about parent involvement — and the promise of blended learning.
— From KIPP founder Dave Levin, they borrowed lessons on how to build character, the “grit” that will see students through. “We continue to partner with the Character Lab,” said Samouha.
All that came together at the new Greenfield school, formally known as Elm City College Prep in New Haven. Most of the middle-schoolers here came from a traditional Achievement First elementary school, which falls more into the “no excuses” charter mold.
I visited Elm City soon after it opened. What stuck me was the special challenge of applying the self-directed learning model to middle school students. At Blackstone, the self-directed model seemed a natural fit, with more mature students welcoming the independence. Here, school leaders had a different challenge: building in the “scaffolding” — eduspeak for support systems — to help less-mature students slide into an unfamiliar role.
The greenfield model appears to be on the way to working, but with a lot of tweaks, as in: lots more scaffolding. “We can give kids a lot more freedom, but the fact is these are 10- and 11-year-olds who have been their whole lives basically responding to whatever someone told them to do. They haven’t been living in a personalized environment where they have autonomy and agency,” said Samouha.
But it seemed to be gelling. Comparing last year to this year, fifth-grader Kiefer Valenzuela said it’s more demanding. “You have to concentrate so you don’t get distracted, but I like SDL (self-directed learning). I enjoy using technology to work, rather than writing on a piece of paper.”
My prediction: In the near future what you can see today at Blackstone and the Greenfield project is what you will see in nearly all schools.

Emerson fellow Richard Whitmire is the author of several education books.

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