What should innovation look like in schools? Is innovation even what today’s classrooms need?

We asked readers for their opinions after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent announcement that the education department would create 20 new schools and 20 restructured schools by the 2022 school year. The city plans to match $16 million in funding from the XQ Institute — backed by Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs — and the Robin Hood Foundation to open or overhaul dozens of schools with an eye toward “innovation.” 

Applications are due Nov. 12, with the first round of winning designs from teams of students, educators and community members announced in May 2020. Teams will be eligible for up to $500,000 in grant money to implement their visions. 

An XQ pamphlet suggests not only finding experts in such fields as teaching and learning, physical space, and finance, but also encourages teams to find a “moonshot teammate,” like an athlete or musician, or “virtual collaborators,” such as hackers or artificial intelligence. (XQ Institute is supported by Emerson Collective, which is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)

But in nearly 100 responses to a Chalkbeat survey and in social media posts, several themes emerged that had less to do with finding the next big thing, and more to do with fixing what’s currently in place.

Parents and educators said they want to see smaller classes, more mental health supports, and improvements to special education services. More hands-on and student-directed learning, and a focus on  STEM or STEAM subjects were also common refrains. 

A few respondents called for schools with later start times, making sure classrooms had air conditioning, and for on-site health facilities for students and their families.

Here are some highlights from the responses.

Improve support for special education

Several responses called for more support for special education. Some parents of students with special needs wished they had more and closer options. That way,  children wouldn’t have to sit on buses two hours each way to get to schools that could serve them, and parents wouldn’t have to sue the city to pay tuition for private schools that better meet their children’s needs. 

“NYC DESPERATELY needs innovation in information about learning disabilities like Dyslexia including early screening; administrators and teachers learning more about the issues and how they are remediated, how ‘big picture thinking’ and multi-sensory learning help,” one reader wrote. “20% of the population has Dyslexia, and these children are not being served by the current school model.”

Make class sizes smaller 

An overwhelming number of responses included a call for smaller classes, among other wished-for changes. Both teachers and parents thought that smaller class sizes — and more prep time — could help improve instruction and children’s social emotional development.

Honestly, smaller class and smaller class loads (with less periods teaching) allow teachers more time to be innovative. Without the TIME to plan and provide feedback to students, teachers can only do so much,” an educator wrote. “I’d also suggest trying something like giving students access to a choice of several areas to focus in, like minors do in college, to allow teachers or mentors to guide students in more focused content.”

Focus beyond academics: More counselors, greater focus on mental health, more recess, more arts

More counselors or social workers would help, many said. Some also wanted to ensure time and space for recess in lower grades, healthier school lunches, and more after-school programs focused on the arts.

Every elementary and middle school need to have space for recess. Too many schools have zero space for the students to have healthy mental escape time during their day. Every school should have acceptable recess space!” one person wrote.

Another added, “There also needs to be a larger push to pay attention to mental health. Studies have shown that good test scores predict very little in long term outcome, but whether a child has an anxiety disorder can affect them for the rest of their lives.”

Learning should be student-centered, hands-on, and in diverse classes

Some responses want to see more of a shift toward child-centered learning, where students have more of a say in what they are studying. Many pre-K classes celebrate this kind of learning — with lots of “choice time,” for example — but few schools continue on this path as children get older. 

Also, many responses that called for student-centered learning wanted to see it happen in diverse classrooms. 

“Innovation should look like student-centered/-directed lessons in economically and racially diverse classrooms. This means students are empowered to choose topics of study, set their own pace, access different learning modalities, and generally be active in leading their own learning,” one teacher wrote.  “At any given time students may be working alone, in groups, or in pairs on a variety of processing activities to allow all students to access material.”

Give teachers more say

Just as some responses focused on giving students more say, others called for teachers to have a bigger voice and a reduced administrative load.

Here’s what one respondent wrote: “Innovation in the classroom means that teachers are provided with the proper support and training for ALL new initiatives, ideas, etc. In addition, teachers have a voice in how the curriculum is structured and what it should include.”

Make sure to include STEM or STEAM 

Several readers wanted to see more STEM- or STEAM-related education, including coding, science research, and art design. Some called for more computer access.

“Have computer labs in all schools so children as early as kindergarten learn how to use the computer to do research and computer/privacy safety— not just learn how to get on YouTube,” one reader wrote. 

Don’t forget the basics

Amid talk about learning new skills and strengthening extracurricular programs, many readers wanted to make sure the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic were covered above anything else.

STEM programs in every classroom would be great. But to move forward sometimes schools have to go back to basics,” one response said. “If the teacher in 7th grade still has to read out loud the test to a group of students who are not in special education then it looks like students are close to failing because reading is still a challenge for them. I wonder how they got to the 7th grade if they barely can read?”