Reinventing school

Innovative school prize goes to program that trains students in app design, coding

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir and Ivy McCottry, a senior marketing product manager at At&T who advises the program, pitch their ultimately winning idea for a new charter school to a panel of judges today at a Mind Trust competition at the Indiana Landmarks Center in Indianapolis.

Suppose you had $50,000 to scrap everything you know about school and design from scratch a new way for children to learn that would be better fit for new realities of life and work in the 21st century.

What would your school of the future look like?

A gathering in Indianapolis today took a stab at answering that question.

The idea that won the cash prize was STEMNASIUM, a school concept built on a Philadelphia-based after-school program that infuses computer science learning into all subjects with student projects built around designing apps, games and other technology tools.

The $50,000 award comes from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit organization promoting educational change that created the competition, but it could prove to be just a sweetener.

The group has a related grant program that will award a total of $1 million to four groups that offer the most groundbreaking plans to launch charter schools in Indianapolis. To win the bigger prize, their ideas will need to again impresses a group of judges as having the best chance to chart new courses in education.

Even defining what is meant by “new directions” in education isn’t easy, however.

“I don’t actually know what innovation in education is,” luncheon speaker Earl Martin Phalen, who founded a summer program and then a charter school after a Mind Trust fellowship lured him from Boston to try his ideas in Indianapolis. “Everything has been done somewhere. But our kids need excellence. Innovation coupled with cutting edge ideas — that brings excellence for children and that’s what we need.”

STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir, built his program on lessons he learned from his own life as a boy who got into serious legal trouble growing up in Brooklyn, and as a father of a child with Asperger’s syndrome.

“I was a curious teenager,” he said. “Comic books felt outdated so I decided to learn how to write code.”

His computer skills landed him in court after he hacked into his school’s computer and changed grades for some of his friends.

A judge gave him a choice: face severe consequences or enlist in the military. He joined the Navy, where he became a counter-intelligence officer.

As a father, he struggled to help his son learn until a crystallizing moment.

“I saw him eating a sandwich and he tore it up,” Al-Nasir said. “I said there is a better way to do it. I cut it into small pieces. That was the foundation for STEMNASIUM.”

The “STEM” in STEMNASIUM stands for science, technology engineering and math.The 13-year old program teaches coding and programming to children as young as age three. It currently operates as an after-school program in Philadelphia.

His most famous student is Zora Ball, the youngest person ever to create a mobile phone app. She created her video game at age eight.

But Al-Nasir also has students in Indianapolis.

Two years ago, he offered a weekend program in computer skills for young children at Arsenal Tech High School. He’s kept in touch with a couple of his star Indianapolis students.  Al-Nasir pulled out his phone and showed pictures of the students, who he said occasionally consult him for advice on projects they are continuing to create.

“STEM is a language,” he said. “If we put children in front of this early on we can have amazing results.”

STEMNASIUM was not the only STEM-oriented pitch the judges heard.

In fact, as novel as some of the school designs proposed, many of them incorporated shared ideas, especially having students spend time outside of school, working on solving real community problems and learning directly from professionals at companies or other organizations.

Other ideas shared by more than one group was peer teaching, which uses students who have mastered skills to tutor their peers who are still learning them, and using online learning programs to fill some of the instructional needs.

The four finalists were selected from 12 semifinalist groups from Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Rhode Island and California. In all, 36 applicants were considered.

Like STEMNASIUM, runner-up HackSchool, based in Denver, also currently operates as an after-school program.

HackSchool’s co-founder Nathan Pai Schmitt is a former Teach For America corps member who now teaches at STRIVE Prep Excel charter school. He raised more than $35,000 through Kickstarter — twice the goal — for a pilot project that’s been underway since January.

Thirty students, about half of them girls, spend two hours after school four days a week in part of an art classroom that Pai Schmitt has converted into what he calls a “socially conscious maker space.” Using technology such as 3-D modeling software and 3-D printers, the kids create products to help solve real community problems.

One student who helped present, Anahi Gandara Rodriguez, is making a smart cane with an earpiece that warns blind users about obstacles.

“I want to be something in this world,” said Edgar Campos-Escobedo, another student presenter, “but I feel like education system today is making it hard for me to succeed.”

At the competition, Pai Schmitt pitched an idea for a HackSchool high school.

HackSchool students would make weekly schedules on their own, either choosing coursework teachers offer or working independently each morning. In the afternoons, they would do intensive study — advanced work, electives or extra help for those who are struggling — and internships with partner organizations.

Other runner up ideas were:

  • Rooted Schools, a New Orleans-based pilot program billing its idea as “micro charter schools” that trains small groups of students in skills for specific high-paying high-demand jobs.
  • Ubique, an idea from an Ohio-based group that would shift most learning away from actual schools toward community-based projects supported by four learning “hubs” with teachers.

The Mind Trust is known in Indianapolis for incubating charter schools and offering fellowships to educators with ideas for creating new schools. So far, most of the schools that have been born from that work have had innovative features but largely followed a traditional school design.

This latest Mind Trust effort is designed to reach for even more out-of-the-box thinking. All of the presenting groups were invited to apply for a share of the $1 million grant pool to create new schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified HackSchool co-founder Pai Schmitt as a former STRIVE charter school teacher. He continues to teach at STRIVE. The story has also been changed to clarify that HackSchool currently exists as an after-school program, not as a full school. 

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”