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Next-Gen Schools That Are Leading the Way

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By Megan Mead and Tom Vander Ark


"To create a system of learning that challenges institutionalized norms, there is value in a 'ready-fire-aim' approach. Sometimes you have to get into it to be able to re-calibrate one's own lenses on learning. When teachers are thrust into that uncertainty-even if going willingly-leadership must provide structures and systems that reduce anxiety around taking risks. This often manifests in processes of formative analysis, a keen eye focused on what students actually are learning and doing (and not what we are teaching), and the framing of failure as a key learning moment." -- Keith Look, New Danville

Keith Look, Superintendent of Danville Schools, is just one of the several ground-breaking school leaders that we had the honor of getting to know over the last year. The Getting Smart team, in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), spent the last year exploring and learning from forward-leaning leaders who are building and inspiring nextgen models of teaching and learning. Since kicking off the project in October 2013, we've published dozens of blogs highlighting what we were learning along the way. Our new report, Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning: Inspiring Stories From Next Gen Schools , brings everything together by capturing their stories and highlighting key lessons on leadership from these breakthrough schools.

The 14 schools profiled represent a cross-section of charter, district, new and turnaround NGLC grantees in various stages of planning or operating a school. They were all identified as NGLC breakthrough schools because of their adherence to three Personalized Learning School Design Attributes. These attributes, adopted by NGLC, have been deemed as education innovators as the "sweet spot" for reimagining public education--high expectations for college readiness, personalized learning for all students and a school model optimized for scale. The magic happens at the intersection of these attributes, when schools put personalized, blended learning models into place--so that students can strive to meet high expectations and demonstrate mastery of competencies necessary to graduate college- and career-ready--while keeping an eye toward financial sustainability and ability to scale.

In addition to personal lessons on leadership peppered throughout the report, our time with these visionary leaders revealed some overarching lessons:

  1. Next Gen Learning Requires Visionary Leadership. Leading a next gen school requires both macro-level visionary leadership and micro-level school management decisions around processes and procedures. Next Gen Learning requires visionary leadership, strong management and the ability to lead innovation as an iterative process.

  2. Next Gen Learning Requires Strong Management Skills. There are so many decisions to be made during the planning phase that it is easy to become distracted and spend too much time on topics not on the critical path to opening a great school. It's critical to build and fund a project plan and stay focused on key variables. Financial surprises are manageable if anticipated but extremely hard to manage at the last moment.

  3. Leading Innovation is an Iterative Process. Starting something as complex and public as a school requires a large amount of tenacity and focus. Having plans for the inevitable deviations and issues that arise will help the process run smoothly in the face of obstacles. Keep the vision in focus, but allow for flexibility to keep the vision from becoming stagnant and fractured.

It was our pleasure to spend the last year getting to know these game-changers and ground-breakers. These 14 schools differ greatly in form, but all function with personalized learning as a central unifying theme. Each believes in providing an innovative environment that is designed to dramatically improve the nature of student outcomes. These leaders and innovators identify the challenges of developing innovative new schools, although many, are simply problems to solve in the name of greater change. They share a dedication, drive and commitment to turning problems and constraints into opportunities and represent, in our view, one of the nation's most promising catalysts for positive educational change.


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The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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