Category Archives: school leaders

The MetWest High School Story (Part 3)

Here is a class I observed at the school.

From Design to Classroom:

A 27 year veteran of teaching in OUSD, Shannon Carey greets me at the door when I arrive at 8:30. She is wearing a UC Berkeley shirt (teachers that day wore clothes that advertised where they attended college) over jeans and dark ankle boots. The classroom furniture is arranged in a horseshoe with tables seating two tenth graders each facing one another across the open space in the middle of the horseshoe. There are two large couches in rear of room. The walls of the large classroom hold whiteboards in the front of the room with nearby easels showing assignments and homework.  Posters adorn other walls.

The schedule for this period is listed on the front white board:

Friday, February 1, 2019

I can reflect deeply on my strengths and weaknesses [Shannon mentions later in the lesson that this is the objective of the lesson]

8:30 Independent Reading

8:50-9:40 Non-Cognitive Variables: Self-Assessment and Interviews

Circles Today

HW [homework]

Gateway Project

–self assessment

–interview w/adult

–interview w/peer

Due Friday

As I scan the room at 8:45, everyone is reading a book or article—no devices or online reading that I see. Three students are sitting on the well-cushioned couches in the rear of the room. A sampling of what students are reading around me:

*Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

*Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

*Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods

In the open space within the horseshoe sits Shannon with her laptop. Sixteen students are there that morning. They walk in toss their cell phones in a box that Shannon holds [other teachers do the same at the beginning of class] and go immediately to their tables and take a book out of their backpack. The first half-hour is Independent Reading.

As students are reading, Shannon who is responsible for teaching English and Social Studies and managing her students’ internships while integrating both into her Advisory role in helping students become college-ready, scans classroom, walks around and checks students’ notebooks and assignments lying on table [students know this morning routine and have papers lying on tables]. She picks up and date stamps the students’ “work samples” such as “Semester Reflections” and papers from other classes at MetWest. Shannon submits these to the OUSD department of Alternative Education for certification that students are part of Independent Study schools. [i]

After a half-hour, Shannon segues to next part of lesson. She asks students to put away their readings and says: “I need everyone’s eyes on me.” She then begins a whole group discussion of handout on “Non-Cognitive Variables.” She cautions Juan to stop playing with stapler and Hunter to put away his book–he is sitting across from me and continues to read Food of the Gods.

Teacher asks: “Does anyone know a relative, adult, or friend who has gone to college?” Half of the students raise their hands. Shannon calls on students by name to tell about who they know and what they were told about college. A back-and-forth ensues between students and teacher on what they learned from those who have attended college.

Shannon then turns to “Noncognitive Variables” handout. “Does anyone know,” she asks, what “cognitive” means? A few students offer answers and teachers builds on their responses. She summarizes a definition–“mental processes”–writes it on whiteboard and asks class to write it down. Then asks a choral question: “How many of you knows someone who is school smart?’ Students call out and raise their hands. “What else do you think you need besides school smarts?” Student says: “high test scores.” Shannon replies that high scores does not mean you succeed in college.”

What unfolds is a whole-group discussion of non-cognitive variables–what teacher calls “people skills,” “soft skills,” and “social skills.” Asks class to take notes. As the teacher-led discussion proceeds with questions from the teacher and responses from different students, Shannon’s energy is obvious.

Calling it a mini-lecture, Shannon displays slides on front whiteboard of noncognitive variables listed on handout. She and class enumerate each one with teacher coaching individual students to define each one:

*Positive Self-Concept or Confidence

*Realistic Self-Appraisal

*Understands and Deals with Oppression

*Prefers Long-Range Goals To Short-Term Or Immediate Needs

*Availability of Strong Support Person

*Successful Leadership Experience

*Demonstrated Community Service

*Knowledge Acquired in A Field

Shannon asks different students to read each variable, group defines it–teacher asks students to put the variable in everyday language (“dumb it down,” she says), and then directs class to rate themselves on each variable on a four-point scale (e.g., 4= “This really, totally, positively describes me” to 1=”I do not think this describes me at all”). As the whole group discussion unfolds, the teacher constantly scans the class for students who are not attending, cautions them, and returns to Q & A of discussion.

For variable on “Oppression”, a student wearing a head scarf talks about sexism she recognizes in and out of school. Other students chime in. Shannon uses example of family discussions about immigration and fears about deportation. Teacher makes point that it is less a personal problem and more of a systemic, social problem.

Class’s progress through variables on handout halt as three students enter classroom and, with the teacher’s permission, announce a new tardy and absence policy. Also they say that they are selling cookies and candies for Valentine Day. They exit.

Shannon resumes lesson and asks individual students to read variables. For some, she offers personal examples from her life and occasional student chimes in with his or her experience. She asks Mohammed to read last variable and asks him for his “Knowledge of A Field.” She reminds him and others about internships they are involved in and their passions about cosmetic make-up, video gaming, and working with animals at a veterinarian’s office.

Now, for final part of lesson, Shannon turns to questions listed in handout such as “Which two variables do you feel you most demonstrate/ Give TWO reasons why you think this.” And “Which noncognitive variables did you score the lowest in?” As she eyes the class, she calls on Kevin to stop bothering student at his table. She asks students to read these questions and assigns class to answer them and turn in handout on Friday.

As time for session comes to a close, Shannon passes out green detention slips for being tardy and walks around checking on students’ completion of their assignments. Students begin packing up, picking up their cell phones, and wait for the buzzer to sound. Session ends at 9:40.

Descriptions of Nick’s and Shannon’s classes are ones where social studies and English—called Humanities at the school—are integrated into the counseling, mentoring, and coaching roles that teachers have at MetWest. In most high schools, teachers are subject-specialists who do perform these other roles in varying degrees before and after school (and during lunch and preparation periods).

At MetWest (as well as Social Justice Humanitas Academy), teachers are expected to perform multiple and expanded roles that wrap into one bundle of academic, emotional, psychological, and social connections with students in class, outside school, and in internships. Close relationships between teachers and students evolve and become close since Advisor/Teachers stay with the same group of students for four years. Of course, individual teachers vary in how they manage the social-emotional connections with students. Whatever the variation, at MetWest, BPL and site staff expect Advisor/Teachers to display and enact a much larger emotional and social skill repertoire than teachers in regular high schools.[ii]

Every MetWest teacher, however, is not an Advisor. There are math and science teachers who teach and do not have formal advisory duties with a group of students. At MetWest, these teachers are crucial to insuring that all students meet university and college requirements in these subject areas and perform reasonably well on state tests, their Senior Thesis Project and final Exhibition.

[i] For description of Alternative Education in OUSD and where MetWest fits, see:


[ii] Teachers managing additional roles beyond subject matter expertise is a feature of many small high schools since the mid-1990s. Higher and expanded expectations of student-teacher relationships is baked into Social Justice Humanitas Academy and MetWest as my observations and interviews documents. Also see Kate Phillippo, Advisory in Urban High Schools: A Study of Expanded Teacher Roles (New York: Palgrave, 2013).

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The MetWest High School Story (Part 1)

Readers who have followed this blog know that I am writing a book about success and failure in American schools. Over the past year I have posted sections including descriptions of teachers I observed in two California high schools: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles Unified School District and MetWest High School in Oakland Unified School District. I have already posted the history and operation of SJHA and in a multi-part series, I now describe MetWest High School.

Oakland Unified School District: MetWest High School

MetWest High School is neither a magnet nor charter. Founded in 2002 as a Big Picture Learning school (more below), it is part of OUSD’s decades-long effort to create small innovative, academically strong, and caring schools for children of color in a district that is largely minority and poor, and low-performing on state metrics of “success.” That small schools strategy begun in the early 1990s yielded many new schools yet strained a district budget subject to school board overspending, accounting errors and poor projections. Oakland Unified’s history of financial crises was well known in the Bay area including a state takeover for fiscal mismanagement. [i]

OUSD has an average daily attendance of over 34,000 students distributed across 121 elementary, middle, and high schools (2018). Of the 121 schools, nearly one out of four is a charter (2018). In addition to charter schools, OUSD has alternative schools, magnets, and thematic schools. The district has 87 of those schools with an average size of 412 students (2018), prompting repeated public calls amid annual budget deficits to close the smallest of these schools.[ii]

In 2019, it faced a fiscal deficit requiring substantial budget cuts, identifying schools to be closed, and a week-long teacher strike that netted OUSD teachers significant salary increases, further adding to the deficit. Within a week, the Oakland school board made $20 million in cuts to programs and individual school budgets and laid off 100 employees (mostly district office and clerical staff) in order to give teachers the raises they won in the strike settlement and balance the budget. [iii]

Consider further that top district leadership has been a revolving door. Many observers have pointed out that reforming urban schools requires continuity in top leadership. Turnover among the nation’s urban superintendents since the 1960s was frequent; district leaders averaged over five years in office. Yet scholars of school reform estimate that it takes anywhere from 5-10 years for school board and superintendent policies and programs aimed at improving district, school, and student performance to show positive outcomes.[iv]

And the record of superintendent continuity in OUSD? Since 2000, the district has had seven superintendents, the most recent sworn in 2017.

Not a picture of a school district displaying organizational stability, fiscal health, or on the road to higher academic performance. All of this with a half-billion dollar budget to spend effectively and efficiently. [v]

MetWest High School: A Big Picture Learning School

Within OUSD sits MetWest High School with 160 students. Of these students, 76 percent meet the measure of family poverty. Twenty-two percent are English Language Learners. On ethnicity and race, 61 percent are Latino, 19 percent African American, seven percent Asian and seven percent white (less than 100 percent due to no reports and multi-racial students).[vi]

This small Oakland high school is nearly 20 years old. David Bromley and Matt Spengler, two former social studies teachers from Los Angeles Unified District, founded MetWest in 2002, one of a national network of Big Picture Learning schools. There are now 65 such schools in the U.S. with others in Australia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in the world. [vii]

It is, of course, so easy to say that two teachers founded the school and leave it at that. What is missing is the grinding essential political work in the community that these teachers had to do with students and their parents, OUSD administrators, community activists, and the school board to simply get the mission of this small high school accepted and then get it up and running. The political spadework was constant and unrelenting in meeting people, locating resources, sharing the Big Picture Learning school design, and showing how MetWest would fit into the district plan for small, innovative schools.

And even after the school board formally adopted MetWest, the gritty work of finding a location for the school, acquiring staff, orienting parents, students, and faculty to its mission and design—all of these tasks were “musts” that involved serious negotiating and political tap-dancing. But each step of the way was completed and the small high school opened in 2002. Achieving the political basics of adopting and opening a new school was a “success.”[viii]

Mission and Learner Outcomes

Reflecting the mission and design of Big Picture Learning schools, MetWest has revised its mission statement and goals for students a few times. The most recent statement I could find was it “Progress Report” prior to a visit from a committee from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) in 2018.

MetWest prepares young adults to recognize and take advantage of all resources to further their well-being and the well-being of their communities. Our graduates will have the skills, habits, knowledge, and networks to overcome obstacles to their success, access four-year colleges, engage in fulfilling work, and contribute positively to our world.[ix]

The generic-sounding mission gets more specific with its statement of Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLRs) which came about from preparation for a WASC visit in 2014. Prior to that, there were few specific curricular goals and objectives that the entire staff had agreed upon and enacted in their classrooms in a consistent way.

As one would expect in small schools such as MetWest with its largely low-income enrollment and being part of the Big Picture Learning network, different literacies (e.g., reading, writing, math, and science) and “critical thinking” were expected as student outcomes. In addition, there were ESLRs that reflected BPL such as “Real World Learning” (“Students will have the communication, independence, and self-advocacy skills … to follow their passions and successfully navigate professional and higher education environments”).   Social and emotional intelligence was another ESLR. Finally, there was an ESLR for “Social Change Agents/Promoters of Social Change” where students were to “understand the historical roots and current effects of oppression in society and affect social change in their communities and in themselves through conscious and liberatory actions.”[x]

This combination of a range of student academic, personal, and activist outcomes echoes the Social Justice Humanitas Academy’s mission and expected student outcomes as well (see previous chapter). While SJHA had continuity in leadership and a coherence in linking its mission to daily school activities with two of the founding teachers who had been colleagues for years at a previous high school serving as principals since 2011, that has not been the case at MetWest.


[i] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at:

Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, ”Oakland Unified School District: Assessment and Recovery Plan Update, September 30, 2003 at:

Katy Murphy, “Oakland’s Small School Movement, 10 Years Later,” Scope Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, May 6, 2009 at:

[ii] Ali Tadayon, “Grand Jury Report: Oakland Unified Operating Too Many Schools,” East Bay Times, June 28, 2018; Ali Tadayon, “ Oakland Unified Scrambles To Identify as Many as 24 schools That Could Be Closed in Five Years,” East Bay Times, January 8, 2019.

[iii] Theresa Harrington, “Oakland School Board Cuts $20.2 Million from Budget, Including 100 jobs,” EdSource, March 4, 2019.

[iv] Gary Yee and Larry Cuban, “When Is Tenure Long Enough,” Educational Administration Quarterly, 1996, 32(1), pp. 615-641; In Michael Fullan, “Whole School Reform: Problems and Promises,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, June 2001, he estimates eight years for a district “turnaround,” meaning improved student achievement. In my experience as a superintendent and research I have done on sitting superintendents, it takes five-plus years at the minimum and up to a decade to show positive results. See As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Larry Cuban, “The Turnstile Superintendency?” Education Week, August 22, 2008.

[v] Joel Shannon, “ ‘When We Strike, We Win;’ Tentaive Agreement Reached In Oakland Teacher Strike,” USA Today, March 1, 2019; Thomas Ultican, “Oakland Is California’s Destroy Public Education Petri Dish,” San Diego Free Press, April 4, 2018. In addition, I have tracked the arrival and departure of Oakland superintendents since the 1960s.

[vi] EdData, Alameda County, Oakland Unified School District at:

[vii] Information on founders comes from documents and interview with Michelle Deiro, current principal, February 1, 2019 and Young Whan Choi, April 4, 2019. Because the first Big Picture Learning high school, located in Providence (RI) was called the “Met,” the Oakland unified high school was named MetWest. Brief history of the network is at the BPL website at:

[viii] Joseph McDonald, “Scaling Up the Big Picture,” 2005, “Unpublished study funded by an anonymous foundation, 2002-2005” in author’s possession.

[ix] Oakland Unified School District, “MetWest High School Progress Report,” for April 17, 2018 visit from Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western ssociation of Schools and Colleges, p. 2.

[x] Ibid., pp. 2-3.


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MetWest High School Story (Part 2)

Part 2 deals with MetWest High School principals, the design of the school, and the Big Picture Learning network of schools to which MetWest belongs.

School Leadership

The founding teachers left in 2005 and since then there have been four principals who have accepted and adapted the Big Picture Learning design to the contours of OUSD and Oakland students. Eve Gordon an Advisor/Teacher at the school became principal in 2005 and stayed until 2010 when she took a post in the OUSD district office. Thus far no principal has served five or more years.

Sean McClung succeeded Gordon in 2011. Coming from an assistant principal post in another OUSD small high school, the former Teach for America instructor left after two years for a principalship at Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, 20 miles south of Oakland. Charlie Plant from the Big Picture Learning network arrived in 2014 and served four years after leading other BPL schools on both East and West coasts. A former house painter and business owner, Plant turned to teaching and administration becoming an advocate for youth who wanted to work in the trades. He returned to BPL in 2017 to coordinate the Harbor Freight Fellows program that have high school students working in manufacturing and craft trades. [i]

Michelle Deiro is the fifth principal of the school since the founders exited MetWest. A former English teacher and department head in an East Bay district, Deiro came to MetWest in 2004. As a Advisor/Teacher, she spent nine years before getting her administrative credential and leaving MetWest for a string of posts in another district, with a charter school in the area, and a hospital. She returned to MetWest after Charlie Plant departed applying shortly thereafter to be principal of the school. She was named principal in 2018. [ii]

Except for a commitment to the student internship experience, this instability in leadership exacted a price in pursuing consistently and coherently the school’s mission and expected learner outcomes over the years.

From the founding teachers who served as co-principals through Deiro, these principals had moved in and out of different locations in OUSD before moving in 2014 into a new building shared with an elementary school. Through these changes in facilities, site administrators remained attached to the design of a Big Picture Learning school. Even with principal instability, these administrators found the commitment to students working outside the school and integrating academic and work into daily lessons worthwhile enough to serve as its leaders. Knowing the Big Picture design, then, is an important factor in understanding how this small high school expanded traditional notions of “success” and “failure” in U.S. schools

The Big Picture Learning Design

The Big Picture Learning vision, mission, goals, and program design are intimately tied together and mirror the intentions of MetWest staff over the years.

It is our vision that all students live lives of their own design, supported by caring mentors and equitable opportunities to achieve their greatest potential. We move forward prepared to activate the power of schools, systems & education through student-directed, real-world learning. We are activists.

The mission “is to activate the potential of schools, systems, & education through Student-driven real-world learning.”[iii]

The Big Picture Learning website is clear on how that it is to occur. Under the title, “How It Works,” the design of the model becomes evident.

Each student at a Big Picture Learning school is part of a small learning community of 15 students called an advisory.

Each advisory is supported and led by an advisor, a teacher that works closely with the group of students and forms personalized relationships with each advisee.

Each student works closely with his or her advisor to identify interests and personalize learning.

The student as the center of learning truly engages and challenges the student, and makes learning authentic and relevant.

Each student has an internship where he or she works closely with a mentor, learning in a real world setting.

Parents and families are actively involved in the learning process, helping to shape the student’s learning plan and are enrolled as resources to the school community.

The result is a student-centered learning design, where students are actively invested in their learning and are challenged to pursue their interests by a supportive community of educators, professionals, and family members. [iv]


But every Big Picture Learning school is not like matching cupcakes sitting in a muffin pan. Although following the same design, there are differences that set apart MetWest in Oakland from The Met in Providence (RI) and others in its national network. While there is much that is common in the design and the umbrella organization wants the design to be adhered to across BPL schools, contexts differ causing design adjustments to be made.


Rural and urban BPL schools, for example, have different students and stakeholders. Community politics vary across settings. Some schools are in spanking-new buildings, others are in trailers and re-opened old schools. SomeBPL schools have stability in principal leadership, some do not. Then there is demography. Students coming to the Lafayette Big Picture High School in Onondaga County (NY) differ racially, ethnically, and academically from those arriving at MetWest in Oakland.

Most of these features stem from the small school movement in which BPL participated yet one key component missing from most small urban high schools founded in the 1990s and at the core of the BPL design—its “heart and soul”–is the internship. Students leave school twice weekly to work at a hospital, school, city agency, and business. That is central to BPL as it is at MetWest. [viii]

Nonetheless, there remains a tension between fidelity to the BPL design and the inevitable adaptations that occur in the different settings in which schools are located. Sticking to the elements of the design while tailoring those important pieces to fit a particular set of students amid changes in principals is a tightrope walk that each school, including MetWest, undertakes. BPL leadership acknowledges and encourages local adaptations as long as key design features are incorporated.

In what ways does MetWest vary from BPL design?

Neither a charter or magnet school, as a regular public school in OUSD, MetWest has carved out autonomy to meet BPL requirements for advisories, teachers staying four years with the same group of students, internships, a flexible schedule, focus on the humanities, and activism in the community by applying and receiving independent school status. Hence, MetWest conforms to the design, especially the role of Advisor/Teacher, internships and connections with the community. Where it swerves from the design is due to the Oakland students entering the school.

For example, MetWest accepts many students whose prior experiences in school left them minimally prepared to succeed in high school academic subjects, meet college requirements, and graduate. To conform to the BPL design and deal with the wide variation in student academic knowledge and skills, MetWest needed to adjust to the diverse and demanding academic needs of their students. To do that, MetWest had to be free of many, but not all, OUSD policies and procedures.

To gain that essential autonomy and adjust key features of the BPL design, MetWest school founders applied for Independent Study status as a school. As an Independent Study school, MetWest had wide-ranging autonomy to have smaller classes, much tutoring and mentoring of students, extra time in academic courses, teachers who doubled as advisors, afternoon internships, and, equally important the discretion to design an infrastructure for staff growth in expertise and skills. Savvy political negotiations on the part of MetWest leaders to become an Independent Study school made possible the creation of a high school very different from others in the district while tweaking both OUSD and BPL requirements.[ix]

Variation in design requirements occurred in the school’s work to strengthen students’ academic skills in reading, math, and writing. Elementary and middle school preparation left gaps in many students’ academic portfolios. MetWest students in 2017, for example, did not score high on state reading and math tests; proficiency levels in math are very low (seven percent with the state average 39); in reading it is 46 percent with the state average at 50. Moreover, students take few advanced courses and are ranked low in college readiness factors even with a 95 percent graduation rate. Such metrics only confirm the amount of work that needs to be done during these high school years for students, many of whom are the first in their families to consider college.[x]

For students to graduate and be prepared to enter college, much attention had to be paid in and out of class on sequencing of skills and knowledge from one course to another and one grade to another insofar as Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLR). Additionally, a consistent strengthening of study, note-taking, and inquiry skills necessary for students to do well not only academically but also in their internships and planning for college had to be coherently planned across Advisor/Teachers.

MetWest’s daily schedule reflects the increasing concentration on improving academic skills and meeting ESLRs. For example, while most BPL schools set aside two days a week for internships uninterrupted by in-school classes, MetWest’s schedule calls for Tuesday and Thursday as Learning through Internship (LTI) permitting students to leave for their work-sites after 10: 00 AM except for those students taking math and science classes each day. Those students leave around 11:30 AM. In addition, there is an array of volunteer tutors, adult mentors, peer-help, and daily coaching by Advisor/Teachers that supplements course-work making MetWest more academic-focused, more time spent in strengthening and consolidating subject matter and skills than other BPL schools. And the current principal sees even more tightening up of a coherent academic program necessary.[xi]


[i] The names of MetWest principals come from interviews with Michelle Deiro and Young Whan Choi, Internet search and videos. See, for example, one with Charlie Plant at:

[ii] Interview with Michelle Deiro, April 4, 2019.

[iii] The mission statement comes from the Big Picture Learning website at:

[iv] At the Big Picture Learning website, “How It Works” can be seen at:

[v] See the Lafayette School District website at:

[vi] Principal Michelle Deiro pointed out to me that MetWest has no formal policy on teacher looping with students for four years. At MetWest, it can be 2-4 years depending upon the teacher. Email to me from Deiro, July 3, 2019.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Of the ten BPL design features described above, for MetWest I will focus on the Advisor/Teacher role as enacted within classroom lessons, the internship experience, school leadership and organization, and assessment of work in classroom and school.

[ix] Interviews with Michelle Deiro, February 1, 2019 and April 4, 2019.

[x] Great!, “MetWest High School,” at:

[xi] Interviews with Michelle Deiro, February 1, 2019 and April 4, 2019; Interview with Young Whan Choi, April 4, 2019.



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Goodbye AltSchool, Hello Altitude Learning

Begun by wealthy high-tech entrepreneur (and ex-Google executive) Max Ventilla in 2013, AltSchool made a splash with its string of private “micro-schools” in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area (tuition was $26,000)–see here, here, and here. Ventilla saw AltSchool as a string of lab schools where progressive ideas could be put into practice and the individualized software that staff designed and used in the “micro-schools” could be bought and used in public schools.

AltSchool “micro-schools’ were ungraded, used project-based learning complete with individually designed “playlists,” small classes, and experienced young teachers. Were John and Evelyn Dewey alive, they would have enrolled their six children in AltSchool.

But, there is always a “but,” running these “micro-schools” was expensive. The business plan (Ventilla raised venture capital of $176 million) was anchored in a dream drawn from the film Field of Dreams: “build it and [they] will come.” The plan depended upon tuition and licensed software bought by public schools. Didn’t work out as Ventilla had dreamed. Spending $40 million a year and taking in $7 million in revenue is a recipe for financial disaster. Ventilla closed some of the “micro-schools in 2017.

And on June 28, 2019, in a press release, came the news:

AltSchool to become Altitude Learning, an educator-run startup powering the growing learner-centered movement

Expanding support for districts nationwide with new approaches to professional development and the products schools need to shift to learner-centered models

  • Altitude Learning to formally launch later this fall
  • As R&D focus ends, tech co-founders pass torch to education industry veterans: Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka
  • Fast growing partner network representing 300K students: 50% of new contracts for 19-20 school year are public districts, from Alaska to Texas
  • Lab schools to continue, operated by Higher Ground Education, using the Altitude Learning platform

In a blog post six months earlier, Ventilla signaled readers that AltSchool would be changing.

In 2017 we were fortunate to attract a number of world-class career educators and administrators to our team, to guide everything we do. Moving forward, I am pleased to announce Ben Kornell will become President of AltSchool. Ben joined our team back in 2017 as VP of Growth. He’s dedicated his life to reducing educational inequity; he started as a Teach for America middle school teacher and later went to Stanford Business School to learn how to cultivate educational change broadly. As COO of Envision, he helped lead a network of charter schools and scaled a performance assessment system to public schools across the country. Since joining AltSchool, Ben’s led our company’s transition to partnering with public and private schools nationwide. As we continue to integrate the platform into existing school systems, it is essential to have education leaders like Ben at the helm.

I interviewed Ventilla and AltSchool classrooms in November 2016. The creation story of AltSchool, according to Ventilla goes like this:

He and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.

In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He saw beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wanted to do well by doing good.

In 2019, that dream has foundered. New leadership has been appointed. Another organization takes over the remaining “micro-schools.”

Now this is a familiar story about start-ups in Silicon Valley. Plenty of hype, promises, and dreams at the beginning and then the initial slog to turn a profit. More often than not, the pain of hemorrhaging dollars leads to death. Employees update resumes and seek other jobs. But start-up schools are much harder to create and sustain than start-up companies. And when they go belly-up or shift to other managers, both students and their parents plus teachers bear the consequences.

And what did Ventilla learn as he stepped aside as leader. Here is the lesson he learned after six years running AltSchool:

People often ask what I wish I’d known before starting AltSchool and I say: However difficult you think working in education is…multiply that by 10. Life at a startup is hard, but education is exponentially harder.

No kidding.


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Why Streaming Kids According to Ability Is a Terrible Idea (Oscar Hedstrom)


Oscar Hedstrom is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne, [Australia]. He is interested in creative and critical thinking in education. This appeared in Aeon , May 3, 2019.


Mixed-ability classes bore students, frustrate parents, and burn out teachers. The brightest will never summit Everest, and the laggers won’t enjoy the lovely stroll in the park they are perhaps more suited to. Individuals suffer at the demands of the collective, mediocrity prevails. In 2014, the UK Education Secretary called for streaming to be made compulsory. And as the former British prime minister David Cameron said in 2006: ‘I want to see it in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works.’ According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, 98 per cent of Australian schools use some form of streaming.

Despite all this, there is limited empirical evidence to suggest that streaming results in better outcomes for students. Professor John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, notes that ‘tracking has minimal effects on learning outcomes and profound negative equity effects’. Streaming significantly – and negatively – affects those students placed in the bottom sets. These students tend to have much higher representation of low socioeconomic backgrounds. Less significant is the small benefit for those lucky clever students in the higher sets. The overall result is relative inequality. The smart stay smart, and the dumb get dumber, further entrenching social disadvantage.

In the latest update of Hattie’s influential meta-analysis of factors influencing student achievement, one of the most significant factors – far more than reducing class size (effect: 0.21) or even providing feedback on student work (0.7) – is the teachers’ estimate of achievement (1.57). Streaming students by diagnosed achievement automatically restricts teacher expectations. Meanwhile, in a mixed environment, teacher expectations have to be more diverse and flexible.

While streaming might seem to help teachers to effectively target a student’s ZPD, it can underestimate the importance of peer-to-peer learning. A crucial aspect of constructivist theory is the role of the MKO – ‘more-knowledgeable other’ – in knowledge construction. While teachers are traditionally the MKOs in classrooms, the value of knowledgeable student peers must not go unrecognised either.

It is amazing to watch a student explain an idea or skill to her peers in ways that their teacher would never think of. They operate with different language tools, different social tools and, having just learnt it themselves, possess similar cognitive structures. There is also something exciting about passing on skills and knowledge that you yourself have just mastered – a certain pride and zeal, a certain freshness to the interaction between teacher and learner that is often lost by the expert for whom the steps are obvious and the joy of discovery forgotten. As a teacher, I often find I do a better job teaching material that I am not overly familiar with. In these circumstances, we hit authentic learning snags where I am not an expert-knower, but become an expert-learner, and we all have to negotiate the learning together.

Having a variety of students of different abilities in a collaborative learning environment provides valuable resources of relative-experts who are able to help each other meet their learning needs, never mind the benefits to communication and social skills. Look to the old adage: the best way to learn something is to teach it. If so, streamed classrooms reduce authentic opportunities for peer-to-peer teaching and learning, with both less and more capable students disadvantaged. And today, more than ever, we need the many to flourish – not suffer at the expense of a few bright stars. I go on a hike with a motley array of student once a year. It is challenging. The fittest students realise they need to encourage the reluctant. There are lookouts who report back, and extra items to carry for others. The laggers – who have never walked more than a kilometre their entire life – struggle, blistered, chafed and out of breath. But they also inevitably surprise themselves. We make it – together.


Filed under school leaders, school reform policies

Making Schools Business-Like: The Case of Summit Charters (Part 3)

Many educators use business-speak. Students are customers. Principals and superintendents are CEOs. School board members ask staff what the return on investment is. Another common phrase educators use borrowed from the corporate community, especially when seeking dollars from donors, is “scaling up.”

Going to scale is what occurs when an innovation “works” (in quote marks for the word has different meanings to different people) and donors or high-ups want to spread the “success” (ditto for this word also) to other schools in the district, state, and nation.

The history of diffusion of innovation–that is the phrase that academics have used–is a checkered one. Some innovations have, indeed, spread (think of the mid-19th century age-graded school and early 20th century kindergartens, and small high schools later in the century) but when an innovation is complex with many moving parts, permeable to outside forces, and dependent on relationships with teachers, students and parents for the program to work, then scaling up is damn hard to do. Variation in putting the innovation into practice occurs frequently making it difficult to impossible to assess whether the new model or innovation caused changes in student and teacher outcomes. Recall what has happened to the innovative New Math in the 1960s or the Common Core standards in the past decade.

And that is the story captured by recent articles on what has happened to the Summit Learning Program for “personalized learning” (ditto again) that Summit charter schools have given away free to many schools and districts. Donors gave a pile of money to Summit schools to prepare the high-tech tool and transfer the model elsewhere in the nation. Keep in mind that these pieces come from an intricate, organic, and complex operation deeply dependent upon teachers, a complicated weekly schedule, mentoring, a software tool that becomes a dashboard for each student’s work, and frequent enrichment activities. Also that parents choose to send their sons and daughters to the schools (see David Patterson’s comment below). Teachers’ expertise and relationships with students are at the core of the 11 Summit Charter Schools. The Summit Learning Program–the components and tools given away to schools and districts–is the skeleton of the program bundle. Unbundling a complex operation into its constituent parts of an interconnected whole  and claiming that it can individualize learning and make students “successful” (ditto again) is as close to magical thinking as any prior effort to “scaling up” innovations, what business-driven entrepreneurs strive for.

The Summit Learning Program

The program promises personalized learning:

Summit Learning gives every student:

  • Support from a caring mentor
  • Life skills that they can apply to real-world situations
  • An ability to use self-direction to develop self-confidence, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and prepare themselves for life after graduation

What is the program?

Summit Learning seeks to replicate each aspect of the Summit high schools in California and Washington. Or as the website says:

Creating a Summit Learning environment requires a fundamental change to the way teachers and students approach learning, so enthusiasm and a growth mindset are critical. Everything from grading policies and assessments to bell schedules and how teachers and students spend their time will need to be thoughtfully designed to create the conditions for successful implementation.

Subject matter embedded in the projects within which students work span four academic subjects. Directions and help to introduce teacher mentoring of individual students, altering the calendar and schedule, and providing student self-direction are part of the package given to schools.

Student self-direction comes from a software platform (using Clever software) that provides teachers and students with nearly 200 projects connected to the world outside the classroom (see here), a dashboard that shows each student’s goals, and their individual progress in completing current projects. The platform dashboard is accessible to parents also (see overview video).



To achieve the Summit model’s transfer of content knowledge, skills, and personalizing of learning to schools enlisting in the program, each school/district has to make an explicit commitment to Summit Learning, make the requisite changes in how the school (or pilot) is organized and, move expeditiously to putting the program into practice. Summit Learning trains teacher teams a few times a year and provides coaches to help teams implement the new program, schedule, and use of software (see here).

The rollout of the program has been documented extensively (see here and here).

As of 2018, according to the Summit Learning website, it is in 330 schools  working with nearly 2500 teachers and serving 54,000 students. Promotional videos show its entry and use in, for example, the Pasadena (TX) district serving 56,000 students (see here).

Media accounts, of course, also describe those schools and districts where parents and students object, walkout, or dump the program (see here, here, and here). Keep in mind that program implementation of innovations adopted in schools within a district and  across other districts historically has encountered stumbles and disasters. No news there. In this instance, thus far, donors’ deep pockets continue to fund Summit Learning to “scale up” and spread the Summit model across the U.S.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to replicate its apparent success in high schools and “scale up” a case of?

Is it the business model of franchising McDonalds or 7/11s across the country? No, it is not. Franchisees have to invest their money into franchise and must follow the requirements of the franchiser or risk losing the investment.

Summit Learning is free to schools and districts. Schools and districts have to agree to follow terms but there are no penalties for adapting program components.

Is it the careful, tightly controlled expansion of “Success for All,” an elementary school program located in low-income and minority neighborhoods to insure fidelity to the model (see here)?. No, it is not.

Success for All requires fidelity to the model dropping sites that omit components, adapt elements, and, in general, do not follow the implementation plan.  Success for All has a blueprint that expects schools entering the program to follow.

So what is Summit Learning’s effort to “scale up” a case of?

As I read the background and history of Summit Learning and its launch, the outreach program to replicate Summit High Schools in many other U.S. schools is a case of seeing the problem of personalizing learning in schooling, especially for low-income minority youth as a technical problem that can be fixed inexpensively by adopting a working model that seemingly “succeeded” in 11 high schools in two states.

The cost of replicating the entire model of Summit schooling with its many inter-connected components to many schools is extremely high (the Summit network has not released actual and total per-pupil costs of running the program). Summit Learning then–donors and boosters believe–is an inexpensive way of solving the problem of high schools individualizing teaching and learning and reaping the benefits of increased academic achievement, graduation rates, and college admissions as has occurred in the original model in the San Francisco Bay area. Summit Learning is a low-cost, efficient ways of transforming teaching and learning.  It reeks of the Silicon Valley magical thinking that any social, political, economic problem can be solved technologically.

But I could be wrong. The growing resistance to Summit Learning documented in media articles could just as well be a case of schools and districts coming face-to-face with the historic and persistent grammar of schooling that has pervaded U.S. public schools for nearly two centuries. The next series of posts examines the possibility that resistance to Summit Learning involves the grammar of schooling.








Filed under school leaders, school reform policies, technology use

The Geology of School Reform: Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles (Part 1)

Many readers have visited the majestic Grand Canyon. It is an unforgettable sight.




What is obvious to visitors are the strata, geological layers of different shades of red, beige, and brown, that reveal plant and animal life that lived eons ago.





OK, Larry, I get the strata part giving a glimpse of past life in layers piled atop one another. What’s the connection to school reform?

Every district, every school in the U.S. has historical layers of reform piled atop one another although the time frame is far less than an eon. A case in point is the Social Justice Humanitas Academy located within Los Angeles Unified School District. Consider the following official information about the school.

Our mission is to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual. In doing so, we increase our students’ social capital and their humanity while creating a school worthy of our own children.

According to the website, that mission is the school’s vision of what it aspires to:

A school’s vision is its inspiration, articulating the dreams and hopes for the school community. At Social Justice Humanitas Academy, our vision is: We will achieve self-actualization [original bold-faced]. The concept of self-actualization comes from Abraham Maslow, a leader in humanistic psychology, who understood a good life to be one in which an individual maximized their potential to become the very best version of who they are.

Directly below the mission statement is the following graphic.


While the above statement is general, the mission for the 9th grade entering class in 2018 is more specific:

Our mission is to provide a loving transition into young adulthood by:
-Providing relevant, authentic and rigorous instruction,
-Further developing academic, social skills and self worth,
-Fostering a growth mindset and self-efficacy,
-And prioritizing parent engagement and community activism.
As a result, students will self-actualize.

These mission statements act as a guide to all decision making” for a school that opened in 2011 on a new campus. Consider the school’s demographics and academic profile then and now.

Since SJHA opened its demographics have stayed consistent. SJHA has 513 students (2019) enrolled in 9th through 12th grades. On race and ethnicity (2015), 95 percent were Hispanic, 2 percent African American and one percent each for Caucasian and Native American. Of that number 12 percent were English Learners. Special education students were 10 percent of enrollment. And 88 percent were eligible for free and reduced lunch (the poverty measure for LAUSD schools).

And some of the academic results were sufficiently eye-catching to attract media attention (see below).

* Graduations rates increased between 2011 to 2015 from 83 to 94 percent. Both exceed LAUSD and state rates of graduation.

*Ninety-six percent of students have an individual graduation plan.

*Seventy-five percent of students passed all college required courses.

*Suspensions sunk to 0.2 percent in 2014.

*Six Advanced Placement courses are offered (English language, English literature, analytic geometry/pre-calculus, macroeconomics, Spanish language, Spanish Literature)

Yet much work remains to be done in boosting academic achievement.

Consider that in 2018, 25 percent of 11th grade students tested proficient in math (state average  is 39 percent) and 64 percent did so in English (state average is 56 percent).

The school’s demographic profile has remained fairly constant since its re-location into the new building housing Cesar Chavez Academies. Academically there have been improvements and much work remaining, given the mission statements noted above.

But a school is not an island. District changes spilled over SJHA prior to its becoming an Academy and in the subsequent decade after it re-located in 2011 to become one of the four academies in the Cesar Chavez complex. LAUSD reforms going back to the early 1980s are as visible as strata in the Grand Canyon in SJHA.

The strata of SJHA

To fully appreciate this LAUSD school (neither a charter nor a magnet but a pilot school) is to dig into its history.

First layer: Humanitas 1980s-1990s.

In 1986, four Los Angeles foundations, the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP) and LAUSD launched an interdisciplinary high school program combining literature and history, science, and art and other combination of subjects to engage students in conceptual and critical thinking skills, writing, and other learning activities around themes that cut across disciplines. The program sought to engage both the minds and hearts of teenagers. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1991:

At the heart of Humanitas are small teams of teachers who volunteer to work long hours together, creating interdisciplinary curricula aimed at making lessons relevant to students’ daily lives. The approach creates small “communities” of teachers and students, providing a more personal, supportive environment for youngsters at very little added cost to the district.

The themes–including the American Dream: From Rags to Riches; Women, Race and Social Protest, and the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism–are vehicles for coordinated instruction in English, social studies, art and sometimes science or math.

Although the courses meet state and district curriculum requirements, many teachers chuck textbooks in favor of novels, biographies or writings in politics and philosophy, and substitute for standard classroom fare materials they pull together themselves.

Extensive writing assignments are an integral part of the program, as is student interaction.

Humanitas students, recruited with the help of school counselors, have many of the same classmates throughout high school, while their teachers share ideas and notes on their progress, lending hard-to-find continuity and intimacy to crowded urban campuses.

By 1991, Humanitas enrolled 3,500 students including English Language learners and potential dropouts in 29 of 49 LAUSD comprehensive high schools.

A decade later at Sylmar High School in Northeast San Fernando Valley where mostly poor and Latino youth attended, a group of teachers designed a Humanitas program for a small number of students that slowly expanded.  As Jose Navarro, one of the founding teachers, put it:  Our job is to make these four walls magic… the reality is that education starts way before they enter my room. So we need this collaborative environment and not just on campus. It has to be in the community. (See 12 minute YouTube called “The New School” about how these Sylmar teachers teach in their Humanitas program and then decided to propose a separate school in a newly built high school nearby).

Another founding teacher, Jeff Austin, described the growth of the program within Sylmar to become a school-within-a-school and then the Humanitas teachers’ decision to start an entirely separate, free-standing school outside of the large high school.

This movement towards more started in 2000 when three teachers came together to start the Multimedia Academy at Sylmar High School. These teachers wanted to develop engaging interdisciplinary lessons to better support their students. By 2006, this group grew to become the Humanitas Academy, one of several Small Learning Communities at Sylmar. Humanitas included three teams that brought together a history teacher, an English teacher, and an art teacher working with students in grades 10-12.

We had incredible success with students who faced challenges in a community overrun by poverty, gangs, crime, and low expectations. We were doing a lot right. Our test scores were the highest in the school, our mentor program became a model schoolwide, and we introduced student-led conferences. Our students were getting accepted to universities. But it still wasn’t enough.

So we began to push our school to let us do more. Many pushed back. Some teachers said that we only worked with the best students. District officials had little confidence that we could build something better than their policies. Even some of our own students said that we were asking too much. In response, we did something that, at the time, was rare for teachers in Los Angeles—we stepped outside of our school buildings and began to search for solutions.

We networked with other Humanitas schools through the Los Angeles Education Partnership, developing our own benchmark assessments. Soon after, we were given exemption from district assessments by the superintendent. At every turn, when we brought solutions, people moved out of our way.

But our journey toward designing a better learning experience for our students had plenty of speed bumps. The further we pushed, the more we encountered people who didn’t think a group of teachers could do all this. In 2009, we began to seek more independence, and we first learned about the pilot school model—a small school led by teachers who have autonomy over many of the school’s operations. To get there, we would have to battle union politics, district policy, and a paradigm in which teachers didn’t call the shots.

A year later, we joined forces with a group of like-minded 9th grade teachers, and Humanitas became a full 9-12 grade small learning community. We were given permission by the principal to interview and hire our own math and Physics teachers, and we created our own master schedule. The school set aside special space for us and even remodeled a classroom so our students could stay in that room for science classes.

For the first time, our students had only Humanitas teachers. This meant that when students left my classroom, I knew it was to learn with another teacher who offered the same level of engaging and rigorous instruction. It also meant that I working as part of a dedicated community fostering a positive learning experience.

The Humanitas program in LAUSD is the first layer of reform. It took root in Sylmar in the early aughts. As Humanitas became a school-within-a-school, the teachers wanted independence. In LAUSD as charters and magnets expanded and parental choice became the bumper sticker, the District adopted the Pilot School idea (initially in Boston) which extended even more autonomy to teachers and principals. And the Pilot School phase is the second stratum of school reform that helped shape the Social Justice Humanitas Academy.

I take up that stratum in Part 2.








Filed under Reforming schools, school leaders, school reform policies