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Pop-up School

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Matt Candler, CEO of 4.0 Schools, and members of the 4.0 Schools community.

Josh Densen is the founder of Bricolage Academy, a new charter school in New Orleans that opens this summer, and an alum of 4.0's Launch program. Bricolage is the only school that's come out of our Launch program. We're excited that Josh's team is going right at the problem of school obsolescence.

I'm even more excited about what he's teaching us about how we test school concepts in the real world. If I could pick a good analogy for what Josh and other members of our community are doing with "pop-ups", I'd pick the day in 1934 when Edwin Link landed in heavy fog to demonstrate his new flight simulator to the Army Air Corps. They bought six versions of the Link Flight Simulator. Pilots went from being stunt men to real professionals. School creation as a professional venture instead of stunt work - that's cool.

Any computer-savvy entrepreneur can start-up a new business over the weekend. Just keep it small, address a pain point, listen to your users, and be ready to respond. The contemporary roadmap for this process is clear enough for most entrepreneurs. And sometimes it is revolutionary.

As a school founder, I've been struggling to answer my version of this question:

How do you prototype a school?

If a start-up school fails out of the gate, the consequences are much more dire than they are in tech start-ups: opportunities for student development are lost forever, families and communities are disrupted, and public funds are squandered. There's much more at stake.

Funders and authorizers - the people with the resources to make new schools happen - hedge their bets by backing replicated, proven models for new charter schools. But over-reliance on model-replication creates a monolithic system that cannot adequately respond to particular local realities or community feedback.

This reluctance to take chances keeps innovation from happening. But if the key to innovation is a series of small, informed bets - prototype, test, gather feedback, iterate, and prototype again - how do we do this in school design?

Enter the Pop-Up Classroom.

The pop-up restaurant is a temporary spot that chefs create to hone a menu, develop a concept, or practice hospitality.

This November, Bricolage created our first pop-up. We ran our one-time school on election-day - when many kids were out of school for the day anyway. We rented space in the Louisiana Children's Museum, contacted 15 - 20 friends with kids aged three to seven, and invited them to participate. As with all prototypes, it was a success due to what we learned from the experience. When it comes to Bricolage, we learned that yes, kids love to build and will grow socially and academically when they make things. Here were our key takeaways from the pop-up process:


● Pop-up classrooms are not only doable, but essential.

● We didn't like having children for one time only. So much of what happens in a great classroom is the result of a culture that develops over time.

● The primary goal of the pop-up must be to give us real user feedback, not for marketing the school or recruiting students.


After that first experience, we started planning version 2. Instead of just being a one-time event at a museum, we're holding our current pop-up after school for eight consecutive Tuesdays at a local charter school. All of our students are kindergarteners (the grade we will begin with next school year), and the same group of 16 attends each week.

We're using a unit from Engineering is Elementary, which will be part of the curriculum we're implementing in all Bricolage classrooms next year. We also wanted the student demographics of the pop-up to align with what we expect for Bricolage. We worked with our host school (Samuel J. Green Charter School, where 97% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch) to select eight kindergarten students in their after school program. We then recruited eight students from nearby charters and private schools that typically attract a higher-income student population.

We essentially have a Bricolage pilot. The Bricolage leadership has a chance to practice teaching again after a one year hiatus (due to our planning year). Prospective employees and funders are able to visit and learn more about the school at a concrete level, so they can make informed decisions. Most importantly, we are able to gather comments and critique from our users--students and their families. This feedback has already influenced our academic design, our classroom management approach, and the qualities we look for in prospective employees.

We're only about halfway through this iteration of the pop-up classroom. Who knows what we have left to learn from it this spring? But we already see the benefits.

Parents are asking if we will continue this in future years as an after school program for children who are too old to attend Bricolage this fall. And the idea is spreading: We're seeing other 4.0ers use pop-up classrooms as a way to get user feedback on early versions of educational programs.

Turns out we can test school ideas more quickly and cheaply than starting an entire new school. It's not expensive to run a school prototype, and after this experience, I think it is too costly not to.

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