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Unlimited Potential For A Small Middle Grade Flex Program

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From her stand up desk in the middle of the Cave, a quiet blended classroom, Cicely Benoit manages assignments for 40 middle grade learners in Edmodo. Peek over her shoulder and you'll see folders on her Acer desktop that represent a personalized course of study for each student. She responds to electronic messages, corresponds with parents, and holds quick individual check-ins with students. She rifles through a stack of marked up composition books on her desk to incorporate specific feedback into a note back to a student (Benoit likes to see a mixture of online and print writing).

Benoit is a learning coach at Houston's most innovative school, A+ Unlimited Potential (A+UP), a small tuition free middle school launched last year in the Museum District. As a former literacy coach for Houston ISD, she has the skills and restraint to lead a student-centered environment.

Next door in the louder Studio, her partner Aditi Rao leads a math workshop for four students gathered around a tall table. The personalized math program is driven by a set of a sequence competencies in a shared Google Doc. Students are expected to complete a math lesson, made up of Carnegie Learning and open content, each day. (Take the virtual tour.)

A+UP students ride public transit to visit an amazing network of museum and community partners. Students visit the Museum of Fine Arts each week, and make regular visits to the Museum of Natural Science, The Holocaust Museum, Asia Society and the Houston Zoo. "You get to experience more stuff than at our old school," said 12 year-old Laysha Chapa to the Wall Street Journal.

Benoit doesn't rely on canned writing prompts, she presses students to develop interesting questions. Sometimes a new vantage point, like the top floor of the Chase Tower, is just the inspiration students need to see their community from a new perspective.

Homework includes reading at least 30 minutes and writing two pages. Students are often online at home. "They're on Edmodo all the time, and expect me to check in on weekends and evenings," said Benoit. Parents also use Edmodo to monitor student progress.

Students choose their own reading from a physical and digital library. When a book is not in the library, Benoit said "I'll just buy a book on my phone and hand it to a student."

Innovations. Everything at A+UP is focused on four key areas: communication, character, community, and college and career readiness. The clarity and coherence around these themes is unusual. There are six other ways A+UP is an innovative program:

  1. Blend of online and onsite, print and digital, individual and group learning;
  2. Blend of guided and self-directed personalized course of study;
  3. Content acquired through skill development (i.e., the opposite of traditional schools);
  4. Mobile, frequent use of community assets;
  5. Multi-aged grouping; and
  6. Small learning cohort leads to parent and peer support.

Benoit writes a regular parent blog where she discusses academic pacing and upcoming partner visits. She recognizes students making good progress and contributing to the community.

Regional catalyst. Houston A+ Challenge, the area's largest non-profit working toward public school improvement, is the sponsor of the mobile middle school. Over the last 17 years A+ Challenge has raised $90 million to promote literacy, numeracy, leadership, and school improvement. Scott Van Beck has served as Executive Director since 2007 and architected the innovation agenda.

Paul Castro, former head of schools for KIPP Houston, joined Houston A+ Challenge as

Director of School Performance in 2013. Castro supports application for public charter schools with three campuses of 180 students.

Five eighth graders will graduate from A+UP this spring. Benoit wonders where they will attend high school. It's unlikely that they'll find the same level of challenge, engagement, and ownership common at A+UP.

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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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