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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

The Bold Venture of New School Design

One of the great privileges of my role as coach for the MA Personalized Learning Network (MA PLN) at CCE is being privy to the inner workings of educators, community members, and school leaders throughout the school design process. This summer and fall, I have been coaching several teams who are creating new, innovative Personalized Learning schools from scratch. The designs—and the composition of the design teams—vary greatly, even as they all work to incorporate the principles of personalized learning into their pedagogy. However, whether grounded in savoir faire or sheer boldness, the need to turn roadblocks into hurdles is universal and requires both tenacity and audacity.

Throwing Away “Best Practices”—or not? 

One of the most intimidating—but exhilarating—aspects of creating a new school design is the sheer audacity required. Design leaders must explore every assumption about what school “should” be, and in many cases, throw them out. Alec Resnick, anticipated principal of Powderhouse Studios, an XQ Award-winning new school design in Somerville, notes that the hardest thing about designing his school is finding “a way to say ‘no’ to a lot of what school normally attempts [to do] in order to do just a little bit very differently… It can be very difficult to resist the chorus of ‘methods’ or ‘best practices’ which offer answers to all the complex questions school confronts”—particularly in the face of those who might “see new things as some form of threat or critique.”   

Despite the need to rewrite the book on what education can be in order to inspire true innovation, however, there are some models from the vanguard of “next generation” school design that design teams can learn from. According to Fenway High School administrator Kevin Brill, who is on the design team creating a Boston Big Picture Learning school, “The principles for school design that emerged from Ted Sizer’s work have always been core to my work. The opportunity to apply what has been learnt by Big Picture Learning and my own experience at Fenway to the task of crafting a Big Picture School in Boston is very exciting to me.”  

Whether incorporating the bold ideas of radical forbears or pushing the boundaries of even progressive school principles, innovative school design requires a carefully-combined mix of experience, inspiration, and sheer gumption. 

Tackling Bureaucracy 

While many communities seem willing to cede the cause of educational innovation to charter schools, CCE specifically partners with public school districts to negotiate opportunities for our MA PLN schools to innovate in the context of traditional districts. While this commitment has big—even revolutionary—potential, it does require willingness in school design leaders to deftly navigate bureaucratic stumbling blocks and always to carefully manage logistics, to keep intrepid designs from veering into unreality. Kevin Brill considers his greatest challenge not the design process itself but the logistics: “Getting people to sign on and give you the green light, then pinning down the details. How many students, how much money, how many staff...?” Similarly, Alec Resnick looks forward to the day that Powderhouse Studios opens and to “moving out of the space of bureaucracy and design and into relationship building around real work.”  

Fortunately, many districts in Massachusetts and across the nation are beginning to open up opportunities for semi-autonomous in-district schools and streamline processes for schools to open. For example, Boston Public Schools has dedicated staff focused on innovation and the state of Massachusetts has a process to grant Innovation Schools several autonomies. As Brill notes, “Boston has an enormous and growing wealth of resources to provide students with opportunities to learn in an amazing array of real world experiences, and the climate of state and national education policy is showing signs of providing more flexibility to allow students a real choice and to incubate innovation within education.” 

Courage and Commitment 

Despite many reasons for optimism, school designers nevertheless face a regular onslaught of challenges, requiring them to be tenacious and to have both courage and commitment. CCE specifically works with school leaders willing to make equitable education and student ownership centerpieces of their designs. Often, it is this cause that inspires the designers in the first place—and which sustains them in the face of challenges. 

As Resnick notes, “We believe that school is by far the place [with] the most opportunity to nurture people's creative capacity and identities… Commensurately, this unfortunately means it is also where the most damage is done. Especially for the [low-income], black, and brown, school is a vector for tremendous inequity, and we feel a moral and ethical obligation to remedy that. We believe that remedying that calls for something different, not just better.” 

Brill looks forward to sharing the “ownership” of his team’s new school design with students and community members. He hopes to have the philosophy of how the school works, “owned by the whole community; students, parents, teachers, and leaders.” He notes that this “makes for great conversations about learning with students and fosters ownership in our work together.” 

The tenacity and audacity of the school design teams with which I work sustain them through the trials of school design and embolden them to reshape the project of public education, maintaining fidelity to their pedagogy, and nimbly negotiating logistics. With a little reframing, roadblocks become hurdles, and the schools that we imagine for our communities can become reality. 

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