New Designs for School
New Designs for School

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How do we prepare for a school year that, regardless of the scenario, will look nothing like any school year before? Amid the swirl, this school is focused on three key levers.

As summer reaches its closing days, many leaders I know, including myself, are taking a moment to reflect back on their work over the past several months and the work ahead for the year. Driving that reflection is an honest self-assessment of how we have all prepared for the coming school year. This summer—with changing expectations, guidelines, and even potential settings of where school will take place and whom it will serve—many of the leaders I speak to are doing this with more than a hint of frustration or bewilderment. Did we plan for the right things? Are we making the right decisions? How do we prepare for a school year that, regardless of the scenario, will look nothing like any school year before? At Opportunity Academy, an innovative small transfer high school in Holyoke, Massachusetts, our leadership team is also asking many of these questions. But we have felt very fortunate that we are not doing it alone. Or without a guide.

Throughout the summer we have used Springpoint’s new resource, Maximizing Student Engagement & Learning, along with its accompanying checklist to tackle the work. We also have received support from our Springpoint coach Christy Kingham, with whom I collaborate closely in our planning journey.

“Springpoint developed our new guide based on conversations with over 40 leaders across the country, including hearing about the successes and learnings that Geoffrey and his amazing team had this spring when pivoting to remote learning in mid-March,” said Christy. “As his coach, we work together on everything from instruction to school culture. There is a lot to learn from how the Holyoke team has leveraged this summer as a planning time to refocus efforts on their mission and vision of student success.”

While we have had to be nimble and change with the shifting expectations of what school will look like based on department and district guidance—and the rapidly changing nature of the pandemic—we have kept a laser focus on three key levers in particular. These levers from the Springpoint guide have not only acted as the north star for our leadership work this summer but will also be the focus of our work throughout the school year and across our team.

In particular, we have homed in on three big ideas from the checklist:

  • Define What Is Important: The dual priorities for our school this year are to strengthen instruction and develop a primary person model, while centering the socio-emotional wellbeing of our students at every turn.
    • Strengthen Instruction: Teachers will focus on core competencies and shift to engaging project-based units of study, which Springpoint has called Transformative Learning Experiences (TLEs). TLEs are the north star of quality instruction and learning and a key lever to engage students no matter how we will do school this year.
    • Develop a Primary Person Model: The leadership team will support staff in developing and implementing a primary person model that ensures every student has an adult responsible for their goal setting and accountability, someone who is attuned to their well-being and needs.
  • Narrow the Focus for Teachers and Students: To ensure that our priorities are truly prioritized, we are giving teachers and students space and support to both narrow and deepen their work to strengthen student engagement and academic growth. In this new reality, students will have fewer classes and fewer projects. The tradeoff is that they will develop a stronger understanding of the competencies and concepts in their coursework. Our school is also shifting to a competency-based model; we have chosen to home in on only two core competencies which we will embed throughout our curriculum and assessments. In distance learning, effective communication is critical and thus became our first competency focus area.
  • Provide Regular, Actionable Feedback: The third key lever is a smaller grain size but no less important as we have seen that actionable feedback is the primary lever to student and staff success. Particularly when separated by distance, there is a heightened importance to make feedback regular, routine, and focused on clear action steps and deliverables.

What has this looked like in action, and what do we foresee it looking like over the course of the school year? Before we could start intentional, useful planning for the fall, we had to first define what would be absolutely critical for school in any context. We determined that we would focus on strengthening instruction and building a primary person model. We also knew we needed to send a clear message to teachers and students that they could narrow and deepen their focus. Undergirding this all is our commitment to continuous improvement, which will live out in consistent, actionable feedback to staff and students.

Team discussions and planning sessions showed us that instruction needs to be a primary focus, which has included developing our core competencies and shared common language. This will set the stage for deeply engaging in the TLE units that we are working to implement more broadly this year. To ensure that these projects are purposeful and powerful for students, we will use a primary person model to account for every student at all times and help students set realistic goals for their remote learning time. For the school year, our team will remain steadfast in holding one another accountable to a narrow focus on these central elements even as other fires arise to be put out. And regardless, for instance, of the potential changing modalities in which we will be “delivering school,” these three central priorities need not change.

Once we had our priorities, we knew we had to also “narrow the focus” for students and teachers. Our leadership team and lead teachers stepped back and taking an earnest assessment of the multiple directions in which our collective attention had been pulled during the spring, and they articulated how we will refocus for the fall. By giving teachers and students the time and space, we are confident that they will be able to deepen their work around the priorities we’ve set.

Providing regular, actionable feedback to students and teachers has long been a focus for our team. What has changed in remote learning is the levels and means by which we deliver it. Both our staff and students thrived off in-person verbal feedback during previous school years. Since March we have had to shift the way we provide this feedback to strike a balance between “virtual” feedback, face-to-face feedback, written feedback, and opportunities for self-reflection. Throughout the year we will implement, and hold ourselves to, a regular feedback loop which is routine and grounded in actionable “next steps.” One example of this: in team meetings we plan to continuously revisit our big rocks (the things we have committed to narrowing our focus on) and provide one another clear and earnest feedback on whether we are keeping our eye on the ball. For our students, we will use goal setting and follow up during our primary person conferencing. Teachers will provide pointed feedback to every student during bi-weekly conference sessions and during weekly check-ins. For staff, we will replicate this process through our supervision sessions: setting small actionable goals and checking in on them routinely.

In a typical school year, we have one week of professional development time to get ready for our students’ arrival. Due to increased preparation time, we find ourselves this year with three weeks to do this work. All at once, it feels like the task at hand is too overwhelming for such a short period of time and that three weeks is an awful lot of planning time to fill. By prioritizing only what is most important, by leaning on one another, and by using the Maximizing Student Engagement & Learning checklist as our guide, many of us finished our first week feeling more acutely focused in five short days than we have before the first day of school in previous years. The task ahead of us is gargantuan, but it’s best to look diligently, and with blinders, at what is most urgently at hand.

Photo at top courtesy of Brodie Vissers.

Geoffrey Schmidt headshot

Geoffrey Schmidt

School Design Lead & Engagement Director, Opportunity Academy, Holyoke Public Schools

Geoffrey Schmidt is the school design lead & engagement director for Opportunity Academy of Holyoke Public Schools. Geoffrey has been a teacher and leader in innovative alternative schools in New York City, Philadelphia, and Western Massachusetts for fifteen years. He has authored books and articles on inquiry-based learning and alternative school leadership.