There is no shortage of innovation in school districts across the country as educators look for ways to balance new tools for learning with greater attention to the importance of relationships and students’ well-being.
Meanwhile, there is greater interest than ever from researchers in which districts are improving, which students are more likely to benefit and what strategies teachers and administrators are using to help students be successful.
Here’s a look at just a few districts—and one multi-district effort—that are attracting attention for different reasons.
Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS)
With 25 schools in 24 buildings, ACPS, based in Charlottesville, VA, is a diverse district that includes urban, rural and suburban communities. With the philosophy that “making is how we learn,” there are makerspaces and making experiences that fit each of those contexts — from traditional crafts, such as foundry work and woodworking, to game design, 3D printing and even room-scale virtual reality. Middle schools have mechatronics labs and libraries include music construction studios.
Schools are working to integrate making into the curriculum, explains Ira Socol, the director of learning technologies and innovation for the district. “Students build things and write about them, or write and then build. Making really supports our drive to teach in cross-curricular ways," Socol says, adding that educators are also moving away from maker-related clubs and after-school programs. This helps to ensure that making activities reach all students.
“In most schools, making is for the supposed ‘gifted,’ but that is not where the big wins are,” he says. “Making done right expands opportunity; it gives you far more ‘winners.’”
Dallas Independent School District (DISD)
As part of its plan to have 10% of students involved in a personalized learning model by 2020, the 157,000-student district has launched an Innovation in Teaching Fellowship to prepare teachers to make the shift to more personalized models, such as “individual rotation” and “station rotation.”
While personalized approaches began at five pilot sites in the 2015-16 school year, the fellowship was made available to 50 teachers across 25 campuses last school year. The fellows are testing these strategies in their own classrooms and have access to coaching, workshops and other support.
A third cohort for the 10-month fellowship will begin in February. Elementary schools in five of DISD’s feeder patterns are also beginning to make the transition toward personalized instruction through a blended learning program, supported by a local foundation.
Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD)
With about 17,400 students in seven schools up the California coast from Los Angeles, OUHSD is a relatively small district, but it’s taken a big step into using open educational resources (OER) to meet changing needs for curriculum materials.
District leaders realized they didn't have the budget to purchase the textbooks needed to implement the Next Generation Science Standards, so in preparation for this school year, they brought together a team of science teachers to spend a week curating, customizing and creating content, according to this post for New America. That experience prepared them to shift toward OER in the social sciences as well.
District leaders also see the process as a valuable professional learning experience for teachers. The end of net neutrality, however, could hinder OUHSD’s and other districts’ efforts to implement OER, explains Lisa Petrides, founder and CEO of the International Society for Knowledge Management in Education, which runs OER Commons.
"The promise of open education depends, in part, on an open Internet,” she says. “Any steps taken to restrict access here in the U.S. will impede the availability of educational resources and learning opportunities for all.”
Chicago Public Schools
Despite declining enrollment and a controversy that led to recent resignation of CEO Forrest Claypool — events not uncommon in large, urban school systems — we are interested in how the nation’s third largest school district is boosting academic performance more than districts in other U.S. cities, as shown by a recent Stanford University study.
Despite three-fourths of the district’s students coming from low-income homes, the researchers found that in the elementary and middle school grades, students are gaining about six years’ worth of learning in five years’ time, across all racial groups. In addition, they found that from 2009 to 2014, test scores among cohorts of students rose two-thirds of a grade level, compared to a national average of one-sixth of a grade level. In addition, the growth is reflected on both state standardized tests and in 4th and 8th graders’ National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, suggesting “real improvements in students’ academic skills,” the researchers write.
Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE)
PACE is a growing effort at the New Hampshire Department of Education in which cohorts of districts are building expertise in using performance assessments as an alternative to standardized assessments in most grades. The state defines these assessments as “complex, multi-part tasks that ask students to apply what they have learned in sophisticated ways.”
The effort, which was approved by the U.S. Department of Education in 2015, “will balance local control with state-wide accountability and comparability,” according to state officials. The original cohort of four districts has grown to include roughly 20 schools and districts. As more districts move toward competency-based approaches, which suggests that students take assessments when they are ready, not on a fixed testing date, lessons from PACE will be interesting to follow.
New York City Department of Education
Leadership and decisions affecting the nation's largest school district always attract national attention. With Chancellor Carmen Fariña stepping down in the coming months, her successor will oversee a growing community schools initiative, one of the nation's largest public pre-K programs and a new "Rise Schools" designation indicating those schools that were low performing, but are now making progress.
Working with community organizations, the district is aggressively addressing absenteeism issues and is also still working to improve school safety following the fatal stabbing of a student earlier this year. The school where the incident occurred is among the 14 that the department decided to close because they have not made enough improvement.