After a two-year design collaboration between Phoenix’s Kyrene School District and ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, a new Kyrene program will open this fall in Kyrene de las Manitas Elementary. Nearly 100 students will be met by six instructors — three lead teachers from the district and three resident teacher candidates from MLFTC — working in teams led by the lead teachers and distributed across the two grade levels.
Overseeing this new type of school is a new type of teacher-leader — two of them — who wear the title teacher executive designer.
Mary Brown is the lead TED. A veteran teacher and education consultant, Brown was hired in May to begin staffing the school, recruiting students (third- and fourth-graders throughout the district were invited to apply), drafting curriculum and overseeing the physical transformation of a vacant space in Manitas into a flexible, functional, innovative school.
What’s most exciting to you about the concept for this school?
MB: The flexibility it offers us. We’ll still be teaching Common Core; we’re still teaching the standards. But we’re teaching them in a way that allows students to apply them to real life situations.
Is that because the curriculum is project-based?
Yes. What students will be doing with a portion of their day will be content learning aligned with a driving question. Students will then apply that learning in projects, using different formats, to demonstrate learning. So instead of taking a traditional test to demonstrate content knowledge, our students will create projects. They might create a podcast for the group and do episodes of that podcast over time. They might make a documentary or a webpage to bring public awareness to an issue. The projects will all be in support of that driving question, so all of their content learning gets applied through the meaningful task they choose.
That will require the students to do a lot of discovery while working through a project.
More than that — they have to come up with the questions, then seek out the answers. That’s something we miss sometimes in traditional curriculum design. We ask questions that have one answer. But these kids will be coming up with questions that might have different answers, finding different solutions and critiquing them. It’s going to take some training for them to learn to think in a deep, outside-the-box way.
You’ll have a faculty of six working with nearly 100 students across two grade levels. Talk about this team approach to teaching.
That’s something else that’s very exciting to me. When I was a classroom teacher, I often felt isolated. There were a lot of needs in my room, and trying to meet them all on my own could be really challenging. With six adults on the faculty in teams we are able to wrap kids with the support they really need, with large- and small-group learning.
These kinds of innovations are things you might find in a gifted program, a private school or a purpose-built charter school; not in a typical public school classroom.
That is probably the most important thing to me. I get phone calls from parents saying “my kid is really struggling with X, Y and Z,” and I tell them this is the right program for them. We welcome your student who is struggling to read because we are going to support them. We welcome your gifted student because we’re going to give them opportunities to take off. We welcome students who struggle with behavior. We have high expectations of our students, and our learning will be rigorous, but this type of atmosphere can be tailored so that every student can be successful.
How are parents responding to that?
They’re thrilled that we are embracing whatever their child brings to the table and their unique needs. It’s exciting for parents to hear that, with our teacher candidates and our staff, we’re at a 1 to 13 teacher-student ratio. That will allow us to meet kids’ needs more easily than in a full class with just one teacher.
Do you hear any concerns they might have?
I’ve had a couple of parents who want reassurance that their child who has struggled in the past might be successful here. I think they want to hear that because they’re feeling defeated. But all of our parents are thrilled about the opportunity to make something different. They are ready for something different for their children. And they understand that the way we do things may change. What we say on day one is, if we decide something could be better, we’re going to change it. They understand that.
What is success going to look like?
The team spent two years designing the program with the help of ASU. There was a lot of vetting that went into it, a lot of iterations over time, and we decided that success will be measured against the five principles this program was created around.
The first is student-centered learning. Students will have opportunities to come up with questions they want to answer, then we facilitate time for them to research those things and present them.
To be successful, we also have to establish a culture of community and collaboration; a space where students have a growth mindset so they can take feedback, utilize it and make something better. And then equity and inclusion are key. We invite all students to be part of our program. We don’t target just one population of kids. Last is the idea of utilizing space in a more transformative manner, for example in the groupings of kids.
How will you measure learning success?
Learners in our space will be working toward the same state standards as any other students across Arizona. However, in lieu of performing only on an assessment, students will be provided opportunities to show knowledge in creative and nontraditional ways. Teachers and students will be utilizing a variety of rubrics to guide learning that outline key areas of content learning, as well as skills that we know students need in order to be successful in the future, such as collaboration, utilizing feedback and critical thinking.
And assuming success this year, what does next year look like?
We hope to see increased student and parent demand for this program. At this time, we can facilitate learning for only 120 students, but know we have far more who would benefit from this program. If more parents become interested, that will be a good indication that we’re doing something right.
It’s also different to have a program like this within an existing school. What kind of opportunities does that provide?
Our team is inviting other teachers to bring their classes to do some learning in the space, and we’re offering to take some of our resources out to their spaces to support their classes. A couple of teachers have said they want to sample project-based learning and see what it’s like, so we’ll be helping them create those plans, giving them any training or professional development they need.
What will the dynamic be like between Manitas students who are in the new school and those who aren’t?
They’ll interact, of course. They’ll have lunch together, for example. Some of the work we do in our space is going to be about embracing others, and that will also translate outside our classroom.