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 “Comic books felt outdated so I decided to learn how to write code.”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. 

In the Classroom

How Memphis students came face to face with the painful history in their school’s backyard

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School examine a historical marker meant to share a more complete story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

A few yards across from the parking lot of an all-boys Memphis school lies a small, tree-lined courtyard, where a class of eighth-graders studies a large historical marker.

The new marker tells them that children were sold as slaves in this spot. An older, nearby marker had failed to tell the whole story — Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of the marker, made Memphis a hub of the slave trade near that busy downtown corner.

The boys at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School, who are nearly all black, earlier learned about the painful legacy while watching an episode of “America Divided,” a documentary series featuring celebrities exploring inequality across the nation. The episode featured the Memphis campaign that eventually removed a nearby statue of Forrest, a Confederate general, slave trader, and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School students visit county commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner (back row), who were key in the city’s campaign to remove Confederate statues.

Being so close to such upsetting history that only recently has bubbled to the surface of public display was a lot for eighth-grader Joseph Jones to take in.

“I can’t believe that this history is right outside our school,” he said. “I think I barely know what happened in Memphis. So many things that I don’t know, that I need to know, and that I want to know, happened in this very city.”

Lately, Memphis — along with several other cities in the South — has been grappling with how tell the complete stories of historical figures who many felt were war heroes, but who also contributed to the enslavement of black Americans.

The new and larger historical marker about Forrest was erected on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. He was killed two miles from the all-boys charter school. City leaders vowed and succeeded in taking down Forrest’s statue, which had loomed downtown for more than 100 years, before honoring King’s legacy.

From the archives: Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Teacher Tim Green travels to several schools to teach students how to express their emotions in a healthy way.

Tim Green, a teacher at Grizzlies Prep, prompted discussion among students about how to use their newfound knowledge about history in positive ways to improve their city. It’s part of Green’s larger effort to teach students how to express their feelings on difficult topics.

Recently, that has meant delving into the city’s racial history, which is fraught with tragedy that has not been fully reckoned with in public discourse.

“Me forming this class was a way to talk about some of things we deal with and one of those things is our past,” he recently told students. “As African-American men — and African-Americans in general — we don’t have a clear understanding of where we came from.”

Students said their initial feelings after watching the documentary included anger, sadness, and fear.

“It kind of makes me feel scared because you know your parents and your teachers say history repeats itself,” said student Sean Crump. “So, we never know if it’s going to happen again because some things that people said are going to stop have came back. … That makes me feel scared of when I grow up.”

Watching the documentary was the first part of the class’ history exploration before meeting with two key people who organized the removal of Forrest’s statue at the county government building about two blocks from the school.

The documentary shows actor Jussie Smollett interviewing the younger brother of Jesse Lee Bond, a 20-year-old black sharecropper. He was killed in a Memphis suburb in 1939 after asking for a receipt at a store owned by a prominent white family that depended on the credit balances of its black customers.

The brother, Charlie Morris, said he was ready to go on a revengeful rampage after learning his brother had been shot, castrated, dragged by a tractor, and staked to the bottom of a nearby river. He said he still carried the trauma, but doesn’t carry the hate he felt nearly 80 years ago.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Students watch as Charlie Morris, the brother of lynching victim Jesse Lee Bond, explains the racism that led to his brother’s murder in an episode of “America Divided.”

“The first step to equal justice is love. Where there’s no love, you can forget the rest,” he said in the documentary. Morris died in June at the age of 98.

After the episode ended, the class was silent for a moment. The first question from a student: Were the people who lynched Jesse Lee Bond ever convicted?

The answer made one student gasp in shock, but was predictable for anyone familiar with the history of lynching in America during the Jim Crow era that legalized racial segregation. Two men were charged and tried for Bonds’ murder, but were quickly acquitted.

Students seamlessly tied the past to racism and violence they see in their city today.

“I feel sad because there’s lynchings and people — mostly white Americans — they know there’s lynchings and they know what the Confederacy did to cause those,” said student Tristan Ficklen.

“I would have felt the same too because all he asked for was a receipt,” student Jireh Joyner said of Morris’ initial reaction to Bond’s death. “And now these days there’s still police brutality and it’s hurtful.”

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis district became a national model for teacher leadership

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Amy Peddie, a teacher at Southport High School, helps a student on an assignment in her class.

Kelly Wilber had been teaching in Perry Township for about seven years when the school district rolled out a new approach to teacher evaluation, mentorship, and coaching — and she felt the change almost immediately.

“I felt like I was a good teacher before,” Wilber recalled. “I mean, I studied all the things in the books, and we had professional development.”

But when the district started using the new approach, the TAP System, “we found the answer of what we needed to do to help our students grow,” said Wilber, who teaches fifth grade at Southport Elementary School.

The TAP System was developed as a strategy for improving instruction, and it is popular in Indiana, where state policymakers have encouraged schools to adopt the system. Perry Township has used it for seven years, and the district has become something of a poster child for the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, the group behind TAP. On Thursday, the nonprofit recognized Perry Township schools with the organization’s first National Award of Excellence for Educator Effectiveness, which came with a $50,000 prize.

TAP relies on mentors and teacher leaders who are paid stipends to coach their colleagues — a tactic that’s becoming popular among schools as a way to allow experienced teachers to take on more responsibility without entirely leaving the classroom. Each week, groups of teachers meet with master teachers who work with them on strategies they can use in the classroom, like how to tackle word problems or use manipulatives in math.

The model also has guidance on common problems teachers encounter. In the first year of TAP, for example, Wilber had a student who said he wasn’t interested in school or homework and told her, “I’m only here because my brother came here, and I like to do what my brother does,” she recalled.

Wilber began trying techniques that TAP recommended, like using his name during model lessons and having him read the learning objectives. Soon, he was raising his hand in class.

“I felt like I knew what I needed to do because we had so much training and support,” Wilber said.

Perry Township has an unusual set of challenges. Nearly three-quarters of students are poor enough to get subsidized meals. About 25 percent of students are English language learners, and many of them are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Burma.

There is not much outside research on whether TAP improves student test scores. A 2012 study of the results in Chicago found that the program did not raise test scores, but it increased teacher retention. TAP’s developer has disputed the validity of the study, saying the TAP program was not properly implemented in Chicago schools.

But in Perry Township, educators say the approach is helping improve student results.

“If you want to make a difference with kids who are in poverty as well as have a lot of cultural differences, this format and this foundation is the best thing that you can utilize,” Superintendent Patrick Mapes said.

Joe Horvath, a master teacher at Southport High School, said his role is the same as coaches in other districts. Instead of having his own classroom, he is in charge of training 28 other teachers. One day a week, he meets with those teachers in groups. The rest of the week, he observes teachers in their classes, gives feedback, and models lessons.

“We are all on the same level,” Horvath said. “It’s not like I am their boss in any way shape or form. This is just something that allows us to continue to give a peer-to-peer feedback thing that I think is kind of missing sometimes.”