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Boise: An Emerging Ecosystem for Education Innovation

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By: Terry Ryan

People in Boise don't spend a lot of time talking about themselves or their accomplishments. They just get on with the work at hand, and in their free time enjoy the state's abundant natural beauty. The state's moniker is the "Gem State" for a reason—63 percent of Idaho is public lands and the state has more miles of rivers than any other state.

But the Boise region (known as the Treasure Valley) is launching some of the most exciting education innovations anywhere. Idaho is, according to the U.S. Census, the sixth fastest growing state in the country. About a third of the state's 1.6 million people live in and around Boise. TheBoise School District serves 26,000 students, while the nearby Meridian School District (Idaho's largest) serves 36,000 students, which is up 50 percent over the last decade. The district expects to add another 15,000 students by 2024.

The Treasure Valley needs to offer its families and students—an increasing number of whom are English language learners and/or living in poverty—top-flight educational opportunities. Fortunately, the area has committed itself, through the Treasure Valley Education Partnership, to ensuring at least 80 percent of its students go on to post-secondary education by 2016. This is an audacious goal for a state with the nation's lowest "Go On Rate." Only 45 percent of Idaho's high school graduates matriculated into post-secondary education in 2010 immediately after high school (the last year numbers are available), while the national average was 62.5 percent.


The prime driver behind the Treasure Valley's, and indeed the entire state, effort to launch a vibrant and steadily evolving education ecosystem is the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. The Albertson foundation is a private family foundation with deep Boise roots. It has committed itself to a vision of "limitless learning for all Idahoans," and has invested more than $600 million over the last 16 years to bring this vision to life.

The Albertson foundation, however, isn't alone in leading the effort. Key allies in the cause include Idaho Business for Education, the Micron Foundation, and the state's colleges and universities. Boise State is the largest university in Idaho with 22,678 students, but the Treasure Valley has a solid K-12 school reform partner in the private Northwest Nazarene University. When it comes to issues of teaching and learning, Idaho Leads has been working with schools and districts across the Treasure Valley and beyond to transform instruction and learning. They bring world class pedagogies and curricula to Idaho classrooms while offering them intensive professional development.

Turning Up the Heat and Shining the Light

The Albertson foundation philosophy is to first acknowledge your weaknesses and finding ways to turn them into strengths. As in any other endeavor, this also goes for education. The challenges facing Idaho's schools and students are hard to ignore because they are highlighted in a hard-hitting, high-profile, relentless public awareness campaign called "Don't Fail Idaho." In one television spot narrated by Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, viewers are alerted to the fact that "by 8th grade less than half of Idaho students are proficient in reading and math."

Parents and other concerned stakeholders can tap the website Idaho Ed Trends to compare their school's academic performance to that of their district and state peers. Taxpayers can also see what their local school's return on investment is compared to others across the state or their particular region.

Smart education policies emerge from healthy debates and informed citizens. Idaho benefits from the statewide education news site Idaho Ed News. It serves as the virtual public commons for stories about education, lessons about what works and what doesn't, stories from practitioners, insights into the positions of lawmakers and education policy makers, and arguments for and against different reforms.

Incubating Schools and Talent

As the Treasure Valley population grows so do the number of students attending area charter schools. The Albertson foundation has committed itself to adding 20,000 new high-performing charter school seats statewide by 2023, and many of these are expected to be in the Treasure Valley. To assist in this growth, the foundation has launched a "Harbor Master" to coordinate the many complex issues (regulation, advocacy, human capital, school management, facilities, etc.) and diverse actors (authorizers, entrepreneurs, civic leaders, funders, community groups, etc.) involved in a successful charter school sector. As facilities funding is a primary obstacle for charters, the Washington, DC-based non-profit charter school facilities finance and support organization Building Hope is working in Boise assisting high-performing charters with financing and facilities issues.

Growing Treasure Valley charter schools include the International BaccalaureateSage International School, the Expeditionary Learning Anser Charter School, the Idaho Arts Charter School, the college preparatory Compass Charter School, and the blended learning I-DEA charter. Flourishing schools need access to talent (great teachers, school leaders and administrators). Teach for America has established a presence in Idaho and expects to have corps members in Treasure Valley schools by 2015. The DoceƵ Center at the University of Idaho and Northwest Nazarene University was established in early 2013 to prepare current and future teachers for a world where effective blended learning is the norm.

Next Generation Learning

Treasure Valley schools are moving quickly to develop blended learning opportunities for their students. Idaho has one of the largest state virtual schools in the country with the Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA). In 2012-13, IDLA administered 19,036 course enrollments, and is working with districts statewide and in the Treasure Valley to implement local blended learning programs. The Gem State's seven virtual charters enroll more than 5,200 students statewide.

The Khan Academy in Idaho, is the nation's first statewide pilot, and is working with 48 schools, with more than 200 teachers and 12,000 K-12 students to provide a more personalized learning experience for students. In the Treasure Valley alone 5,490 students, 75 teachers and 20 schools utilized the Khan Academy in their classrooms in 2013-14, helping Idaho become the number one user of Khan Academy in the world. The Treasure Valley's Northwest Nazarene University has been the research partner for the pilot and their findings are sure to impact educators and schools across the country when it is released in the autumn of 2014.

The Boise area is growing, and is ranked by number two by Forbes for best cities to raise a family. It is quickly becoming a mecca for education reform, setting the standard for how instruction and learning is delivered to families and students.

The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America's great cities. We're writing a book about what we're learning- and you can help.

Terry Ryan is President of the Idaho Charter School Network, a professional network representing 90 percent of Idaho's charter schools

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