Creating schools from scratch: 8 lessons learned

  • Elementary
  • High School
  • Middle School
Irene Smith

 “WELCOME! We cant wait to see you in are school.”

When my daughter was in the fifth grade, we received a letter in the mail from her upcoming middle school. It was riddled with misspellings and shared a less than appealing vision (to students and parents) of a tightly run school, with clear behavior expectations and consequences, but unclear learning opportunities and expectations.

At that moment, I decided not only to homeschool my daughter, but to create a licensed private school in my home, so she wouldn’t be alone in her learning. I ran the tiny Hearthside Middle School for four years using an “unschooling” style of teaching based on students’ interests, developing critical thinking, and involvement in constructivist and community activities.  

Hearthside Middle School wooden sign

Shortly after I began Hearthside, the Yakima Public School District invited parents to join a steering committee for the creation of a small school utilizing the ideals of the Essential Schools Movement. I would be on that committee and participate in the creation of the Discovery Lab School. Later I would become one of its teachers. 

My experiences in the trial and error, and successes and shortcomings, of these school programs gives me some unique insight into what may occur over the next few months as schools seek to change over their programs in readiness for a different educational landscape in the fall of 2020. I hope my learning will provide insight and caution to help improve the evolution of education after COVID 19.

1.       Systems and Traditions Resist Change

An educator appears to listen skeptically to another male and female, also wearing blue.

People are naturally more comfortable with what they already know. “I showed my child how to do math the old fashioned way, which is much easier.” “I’ve got the curriculum I need, why should I have to change it?” “The principal takes care of those things.” “We’ve always had the Awards Ceremony at the end of the year.” Stakeholders resist change. Anxiety levels will rise as schools seek to provide a different method and schedule for education delivery. There will be pushback. Everyone will require frequent reassurance and understanding of why changes are taking place. There needs to be clear, valid, and educationally sound reasons for changes, not just reactionary, desperate change, in order to reduce anxiety and to create the esprit de corps needed to push past our natural resistance.

2.        Passionate and Charismatic Leadership is Needed to build a Positive Community

A principal in a dress shirt and tie smiles while students stand in the background.

As much as we’d like the consensus model to lead change, more often than not, it is a few committed leaders, who are willing to envision and support change, who make it possible.  Their passion and ability to share a powerful view of the summit everyone is climbing towards, helps make the struggle worth it. Their confidence in their team helps individuals be willing to take positive risks. Their advocacy and support help dispel fears as team members move forward with new ways of doing their jobs. When they articulate progress and show confidence, others are inspired, motivated, and happier in their work. Change becomes purposeful and meaningful. Students and parents know who to look to for answers and know that they will be treated respectfully, that their ideas and concerns are important. With strong leadership, all stakeholders feel supported, and the community works positively with a leader they have come to care for and respect. Even when team members disagree, they recognize when their leader has true concern for them and the students they serve. They are more willing to do the hard work change requires.

Note: When the leader changes, if the staff did not have sufficient buy in to his or her vision, it will not continue, particularly if the new leader feels strongly about creating a new vision.

3.       Not everybody is ready. Not everybody has to stay.

A woman working from a laptop with scattered papers around her is seen from above.

New challenges and academic rigor may be resisted by students and staff. Life circumstances may require that individuals are unwilling to participate in positive change and improvement that requires professional development, new tasks, and new expectations. Their personality and approaches may be unsuited to working positively with others for change. They may dig in and present obstacles. This is different than civil disagreement and negotiation which are necessary and helpful. Although, students often don’t have a choice to work somewhere different, staff members certainly do. A schools’ first obligation is to student learning. If a staff member isn’t interested in participating in their building or district’s efforts to meet student needs, they should seek a different setting or role that is more suited to their own style and needs. Many organizations and buildings hold on to the status quo of employment, which isn’t always in the best interest of maximizing student learning. This can be an elephant in the room when trying to effect improvement.

Students can also be empowered by being able to choose how and what they will learn. As schools seek to change to a combination of in-person and remote learning opportunities, strict and linear lesson design can give way to a variety of paths and options that help students meet standards. Improvement must take into account student opportunities for choice, as well as equity in high expectations for every student.

4.        Social Emotional Health, Autonomy and Creativity combined with High Expectation Towards Standards needs to be the Culture

A crowded group of young students are smiling and giving two thumbs up.

Every school system needs to take into account the health requirements of its educators and students. (After all, isn’t that the reason we are scrambling to create a system responsive to pandemics?) Our profession has a high rate of burn-out, but this needn’t be so. Healthy environments for students should be healthy for staff, as well. For good mental health, all humans require positive connections to other people, to meaningful work and meaningful values, to status and respect, to a hopeful future, and to nature. Schools can support this through explicit teaching as well as modeling it as an intrinsic part of school culture.

Reforming school must assist the building of positive relationships and meaningful teaching and learning. There is ample research on this. For teachers that means there must be autonomy in crafting lessons that provide ample opportunities for students and staff to clearly see progress. Progress is motivating. Incremental progress must be noted, celebrated and recorded. When summative assessments are the only measure of student learning, it’s easy to demoralize staff and students. Standards based learning and assessment allow the stakeholders to recognize progress. Standards must encourage creativity and problem-solving  and be attainable. If schools design a positive, progress driven culture, where high expectations for everyone are the norm, where relationships are cultivated, every person’s successes are seen, and a positive future is consistently envisioned, it will be a healthy place to learn.

My experience is that age and grade levels shouldn’t be a driving force in scheduling. Multi-age learning and strategic grouping of student learners is powerful and provides the best environment for encouraging learning, celebrating progress, and building healthy relationships. Consideration of alternative groupings, scheduling and calendaring, should be paramount as students’ learning needs after this prolonged period of inconsistent instruction will vary greatly (not that they didn’t before.)

5.        Entropy over Time Requires a Reinfusion of Passion

A man is asleep in an auditorium audience surrounded by bored looking peers.

Overtime, every system, no matter how tidily it has been moving along, tends to fall into certain ruts. The comfort zone of corner cutting, blaming, or shifting problems to others bends and damages the structure. Unaddressed building up of dissatisfaction and/or weariness frays the edges. A period of time where the work is unrelenting and difficult without pause or renewal creates cracks and holes.  Also, the arrival of those who don’t share the same vision and bring negativity and distrust, or don’t value the culture of the school because they haven’t learned it yet, affects and breaks enthusiasm.

Because this is a natural development over time, it is necessary to have remedies and repairs built in to the system to stop the damage. When problems come up, there must be a way to identify and address them before they become too large. Regular staff meetings that encourage communication and problem solving without blaming are key. Building in joyful activities, humor, music, nature and other shared experiences, particularly when energy is flagging can correct a downward cycle. Training and encouraging new stakeholders is essential for keeping school culture alive.

6.        Flexibility is Necessary Because Every Student & Situation is Different

Two young female students are using a computer collaboratively.

Being responsive to the needs of individuals and systems recognizes the reality that each person is unique and responds in different, sometimes unpredictable ways. Flexibility and a commitment to moving forward no matter what comes along, allows systems to adapt, improve, and evolve. Viewing students and staff members as individuals, rather than groups and classes, improves planning and helps people feel valued.

A warning is necessary here. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it is also reassuring and helps everyone feel safe and prepared. Consistency in areas that matter must be preserved. Recognizing what can be changed and what needs to be preserved is something that should be considered by the whole group, and should not be lightly toyed with when a new leader arrives.

7.       Families must be Valued Partners at every stage of the  Planning and Implementing

A group of women talk animatedly around a table while using computers.

I was one of those challenging parents. My PTA friends and I were once asked to leave a collaborative meeting because we asked if discussing where the coffee pot should go was relevant to the instructional improvement we thought was the focus of the meeting. Parents don’t always know that the coffee pot decision is a big deal!

When parents are shunted aside because it’s easier to make decisions without their involvement, the system is fundamentally shortchanged. Families know their children better than anyone. They can be passionate about their schools’ success or failure.  They can strengthen or damage their children’s perception of teachers’ skills and the relationships they form, affecting classroom behavior and student effort. Their perspective is unique and useful and should be solicited regularly, not just to help them feel valued, but because they are valued. Disengaged parents, who may see schools as daycare centers, or teachers as out of touch, might feel differently if engaged in positive ways.

8.       Time makes all the difference.

A clock image reads "Time to Plan" and a hand holds a marker that wrote "Plan" in blue marker.

Time is the currency of schools. Staff members’ time, students’ time, families’ time must be considered when new ideas are being floated. The reality of planning time and grading time can’t be forgotten when curriculum is being developed or adopted. The reality of at home responsibilities and time needed for relaxation and play mustn’t be minimized. No matter how great something is, it can’t be wedged in if the schedule can’t be adapted to support it. This requires prioritizing good, better, and best, and letting the best take precedence.

I am still teaching at the school I helped design. It has not been perfect. I have past students, now teachers themselves, who call our little school Narnia, as if it is a mythical place, impossible in the real world. Being a part of creating schools from scratch has been a great learning experience for me, but I believe what we have learned as a laboratory school has benefits for remaking the larger system. Not all educator dreams have to disappear when we wake up.

  • community building
  • family and school partnerships
  • instructional planning
  • partnerships in learning
  • school climate
  • student centered learning
  • Sustainability
  • System and School Improvement
  • Teacher Leadership
Log in to post a comment:

Please log in or create a new account in order to comment on posts.

The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Irene Smith Board

National Board Certified Teacher at Discovery Lab School

Irene Smith teaches middle school Language Arts and Social Studies to clever, interesting, and energetic students.She is married to her best friend, Brad, and they have five grown up children.She loves backpacking on the Olympic Peninsula, spending time with her grandchildren, reading and writing books, and going to Shakespeare plays.

Twitter: @TeachLearnHope
Website: irenesmith.org