The idea that students are given a list of items to accomplish at the beginning of their high school career, and that they can finish them in any order, and in whatever time frame they are able, is a concept whose time may have come.

In this continuing exploration of Academy high school practices and their unique position to affect change, the idea of changing classes every day, every hour or more, is examined.

Currently, the Academy school model is some type of block schedule. Students take an assortment of courses in order to meet a specified list of credits towards graduation. Throughout the day, students get an hour to 90 minutes of a subject, bells ring, brains shift, and the activity is repeated over and over, until the final bell. Is this really the best way to learn? Is it the way we learn to tie our shoes? Did mom give us an hour of this and an hour of that as we learned to make cookies, or learn that different sized pans would only hold so much, before spilling the contents across the floor? Did a timer go off somewhere as mom yelled that it was time to go learn something else?

I believe there is a better way. We learn by experiences: examination of a situation, trying a solution, evaluating the result, trying again, evaluating, reflecting, etc. and throughout the process, storing the experience for future reference. There is also an element of sharing, talking over results with another person who has experienced, or is experiencing the same thing. With my students, however, I usually get one offering a solution and the other copying it down, in order to simply get finished. No learning, because the goal isn’t to learn. The goal we’ve set is for them to get ‘finished.’

Change the mindset from ‘finished’ to ‘learned’ or ‘learning’ and time becomes irrelevant. The goal is learning, so students don’t leave (or they return each day) until they’ve mastered the concept.

The idea that students are given a list of items to accomplish at the beginning of their high school career, and that they can finish them in any order, and in whatever time frame they are able, is a concept whose time may have come.

What if high school were as exciting and looked forward to as coming of age? Shouldn’t this be a time of discovery and promise, instead of dreaded and scary? To give our students the responsibility of their own learning, I believe they also need to know what that learning entails, so they are properly equipped to run with the responsibility!

I think it is time we return to trusting our kids with more, sooner. The movement to protect kids has pushed personal responsibility to the back burner. We are so afraid of letting kids fail, we do things for them, which creates a child that doesn’t need to step up and take responsibility. In addition, it creates a child that views failure as a disgrace, meaning that child will do everything in their power to avoid failure. I’ve observed students who work harder to avoid failing – often by cheating or straight up avoidance – than they would to engage in the learning! In their defense, the classroom can be a real snoozer if there is nothing engaging or relevant going on.

‘I believe every child can learn’ is the new mantra. 

What I don’t see is the belief that every child can take control of their learning; that we can trust natural curiosity to take them places our planned lectures never could or will. There has to be a freedom on the part of the teacher to ‘hang on for the ride’, as the student forges ahead.

It’s a little like taking a horseback ride.

Every student has a mentor, advisor, or adult that holds them accountable. The entry to high school is planned in a community of parent, student, teachers. The goals for the learning are spelled out. The reins are placed in the child’s hands, with guidance. The adults are the spotters, close in the first few rides, backing off as the student gets more familiar with the process and expectations. The student isn’t being pulled along the path to the destination; the student is choosing the way, enjoying the ride, the pace, the view. The destination arrives naturally, and perhaps a little differently than first envisioned.

This idea does require a bit of a structural change. Instead of a class schedule, a school could end up with every student starting in the same place! Big room needed! The solutions could involve everything from an orientation style of instruction with starting points, to letting students come up with possible solutions that would allow them to get in the knowledge- and learning time- they need.

The Checklist

So what does this checklist look like?   Is it the same for every student? Is it modifiable, like college programs? What’s required? What’s negotiable?

Is it a list of standards, or more a list of abilities, attitudes, or problem solving? Is it a bit of both? How do we assess the learning? Who assesses the learning and levels of achievement?

This process requires collaboration among student, parent, and faculty… but it also requires a commitment on the part of teachers and school leaders to stick by the rules: student choice, student struggle (a critical component), and a plan to reward  success AND failure, because there will be both, if we’ve done it right. It’s time to do this right, and to return a love and excitement for learning back to our children!

Academy schools are uniquely positioned for changing the landscape of education.

The first day of 9th grade. DaiCrede is very nervous. He’s heard about this high school, just rumors of course, that they let you choose what you want to learn about, there are no regular classes; you work with teachers in each area as you need the information to complete your project. There aren’t grades, just levels of achievement for learning targets. He’s not sure if he can make it in this environment. He is excited about the robotics lab, though. That would be cool…

Shelly can’t wait for the bus to get her to school today. She fingers her Advances in Analytical Chemistry magazine. Finally, a school that will let her pursue her dream of becoming a medical researcher! Just think, a whole day devoted to learning how to run a research program. No breaking the day into language, math, history! She can grab those things as she needs them for her project. She loved meeting with her teacher mentor during the summer to set up her project parameters. She’s nervous and ready.

Ned is nervous, too. He rides his bike, slowly circling the parking lot. High school. He’s not sure how having no classes is gonna work. How will he know what to do?

First Week: Orientation


This Academy High School has a Ninth Grade Academy for incoming freshmen. They will be going through a series of workshops this first week to learn how to navigate the process. By the end of week two, they’ll have chosen an initial Academy. During the third week, they’ll have chosen a project and have begun breaking their project into tasks – and identifying the various areas of knowledge they’ll need to access. They won’t go it alone, however. All students have been assigned two mentors: a teacher, and a student from a higher grade, (Mentoring is a learning target for all students, more on those later) who will help them navigate the project system and hold them accountable for task goals and deadlines. While this may not feel like a structured environment, there is a definite structure and protocols. The flexibility comes in as each student is allowed to follow his or her interests, change from one Academy to another as they explore, and begin to search out what they need to know as they need it. There is a framework for that!

That first week will see new students rotate through a series of workshops and learning sessions on the School’s Academies. These new-to-high schoolers get information on the various fields of study available to them. (Students may have chosen to come here- if their zoned high school is not an academy school, or if they were not doing well in a traditional school setting).  Returning students share their experiences with the process about to be undertaken; what worked, what they liked, what they found most challenging, what they would do differently. They testify to the powerful learning that takes place when they were able to choose topics for study that they wanted:

“Math becomes relevant when I had to figure out what was happening in my chemistry experiment. I went into the math room, laid out my work, and asked for help. Once we started, I realized I didn’t know the basics. I spent two weeks in the math lab, working through background knowledge, then learning how to apply it to my research. Whenever I got stuck, I would go back and get help.”

“I had to write up a report on my project. The requirement that it be a formal paper, with citations and everything was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to do that. I had to spend that last month in the English lab. I wish I’d started there first!  Everything I had done was in this big pile of notes. I had to learn how to write, how to make coherent paragraphs that made sense to others. I must have rewritten my summary statement a million times before I wrote my first draft. It was hard work, but I wanted to submit it to the robotics journal. I didn’t want to be embarrassed.”

“I have always wanted to go into nursing. I got to plan each of my 9 week projects around a different area of nursing. At first, it was hard to stay on task. I didn’t have to do anything but show up. I would log in to the electronic attendance monitor and consult my task plan. That plan kept me on track with assignments. If I didn’t know how to do something, I would go to a lab and get help from the teachers. It’s really different; me asking them what I need to know, instead of them telling me what I was going to learn that day.”

“The projects seem really hard. There is so much to do, it’s overwhelming. That first project is really where you learn how to do everything. The first few weeks of high school, you learn about the academies and you are encouraged to pick your project. There are lessons on how to break down your project by tasks. I took a quiz to find out what I was interested in for my first project. Some kids come in knowing what they want to do. I wish I had gone to the summer workshop. I could have started my project so much sooner!”

“My mentor teacher was a big help. He ran one of the math labs, but he always had time for my questions. When I felt like quitting, or when I would hit a wall in my project, he would let me talk it out. He listened, really listened, to me. As a sophomore, I’ll be completing two projects, instead of four. I’ll need a team of students to meet the advanced requirements. I’ve made some new friends on this last project that are in my Academy. I think we’ll work well together.”

“The best part of my project, water resources for our community, was presenting what I had found out to the local water board. I had some suggestions for making our water supply healthier, with the project costs and a timeline for implementation. My next project will be on finding a new way to deliver water to neighborhoods. Seems to me there has got to be a more resourceful way than digging and burying pipes in the ground!”

“I graduate tomorrow. I’ve already got a starting job in a large engineering firm. I was able to intern with them as a result of a project I chose during my freshman year. That led to another project during my sophomore year. My junior year, I got a small grant to research affordable housing – after I learned about writing grant proposals in the English lab. One of my projects was on making presentations to community developers, which I used to apply for the job I’ll be going to after high school. They were impressed with the amount of experience I’d gained in researching and development of my projects, they liked my presentation skills, and they will help me pay for my engineering degree while I work for them!”

Learning Targets are the New Standards for Career, College Readiness

 Teamwork, innovation, self-motivation, serious work ethic, honesty, integrity, and getting paid for something we love doing are some serious life/work goals. The Learning Targets replace standards by giving students real, usable skills for life. Critical thinking is absolutely necessary for making sound decisions. Being able to communicate through written, visual, or verbal methods is a must. These, and more Learning Targets, are imbedded in every project outline. Each year, the project should add appropriate learning targets, building on prior years. And who says a student must take four years? An Academy school has the ability to let a student move more quickly towards a goal, be it work or college. In addition to the projects, which can increase in complexity for those pursuing two, four, or six year collegiate or technical degrees, there are technical and apprenticeship projects and programs that would fit cleanly into this model, allowing our students to investigate different types of jobs through projects, and interact with the community during their research, giving them an authentic audience – the best way to incorporate honest evaluation, and spur our kids’ interests in their futures.

I work in an Academy school. I believe in this scenario, and I believe our students would be more than willing to embrace – and benefit – from this new way of looking at their education and preparation for life.

 I see a couple of things (and will probably think of more!) that would need to be done:

1. Start with the 9th grade, move up with them. Don’t try to change all four grades at once. Set reasonable learning targets for them, understanding that this replaces the 9th grade standards. Build in what they need to know in each project. These won’t be lightweight! Each project must take each child through the four core fields of history, science, language arts, and math, incorporate electives such as art, physical activity, technical (computer) or programming…. but it’s OKAY if some projects are heavier in one area than another. They will be completing four projects across the year. I think this mindshift on the leadership will be the hardest!

2. Train the teachers. Take two-three weeks to train your teachers in the Learning Targets and what mastery of these Targets should look like. Teach them how to facilitate the labs, because they won’t be teaching specific, planned lessons! Teach them the framework tasks of the project- so that no matter what the child chooses to learn about, all tasks from the framework are applied. For example, a child wants to learn about yo-yos: there would be tasks to learn the history, find the financial impact of the toy, write their findings in an essay with citations, consider the making of the toy, the science behind the motion of the toy, the aesthetics, or traditional design and decoration of the various models,perhaps the value in an exercise program, and how it could benefit the user. This is a do-able 9 week project for a 9th grader.

3. Inform the parents. Teach them what is changing. Tell them what we are looking for in terms of benefits. Give them the long view. Give them the questions we want them to be asking through the process, so they can feel, and see, their child growing and learning through the process. Create parent buy-in at the start.

4. Tell the kids, in middle school, what is happening, what we want for their future, what will be required of them. Give them a chance to go to a summer workshop, where they can investigate what their interests are, a short survey, some simple practice on picking topics, a brief look at the project tasks framework, what the labs will look and feel like, how to approach teachers and ask for help.

There is more, but I think this is a big enough chunk to chew on for today. Your constructive thoughts are welcome!