Ten years ago, Courtney Dickinson wanted to create an innovative public school. She had a teaching degree and while she never got a job as a teacher, she had a lot of ideas about how schools should operate. Massachusetts has an innovation school law that Dickinson thought laid out a clear path to her dream, only she couldn’t find a school district to partner with. Eventually she had to admit defeat.
“I think that idealism really smacked up against reality for me,” Dickinson said.
Instead, she opened a small private school in Winchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston and one of the state’s wealthiest communities. It was a philosophical blow to her personal mission to work in public schools, but one she couldn’t avoid if she wanted to put her ideas into action. She also found a bright side: freedom from the constraints of public-school systems as she designed her innovative school.
Her school, Acera, The Massachusetts School of Science, Creativity and Leadership, gives students early, deep exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) topics; they focus on problem-solving and creative thinking across the curriculum; they work to develop their emotional intelligence rather than just academic skills; every child gets an independent learning plan; ability-based math blocks do away with age-based grade levels for part of the day; report cards are entirely narrative to keep kids from focusing on letter grades.
“The goal has always been: let’s prove that this works,” Dickinson said. With 10 years of anecdotal evidence about how these innovative school design choices help students thrive intellectually and socially, Dickinson wants to turn her attention back to public schools.
After leading a handful of conferences and workshops for public school teachers over the last couple years, Acera is in the first year of a three-year, whole-school partnership with the Joseph G. Pyne Arts Magnet School in Lowell.
While Acera serves 130 students in kindergarten through ninth grade at the steep price of $26,400 for elementary school and $28,300 for middle school, with limited financial aid offered, Lowell Public Schools is a large, urban district serving almost 14,500 students, 71 percent of whom are considered high needs. But despite their vastly different student populations, the two schools share similar educational philosophies.
Led by Wendy Crocker-Roberge since 2011, Pyne Arts is already one of Lowell’s more progressive schools. Its teachers have been focused on project-based learning for a few years now and they have been a part of the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, experimenting with ways to move away from standardized tests as the primary way to assess student achievement.
The partnership with Acera builds on this work, expanding Pyne Arts’ project-based learning efforts, increasing their focus on STEM topics and leaning into the idea that school success is about more than just test scores.
In establishing an outreach arm called AceraEI, Dickinson and her team boiled down the school’s priorities into three big buckets: leadership and emotional intelligence, sciences and innovation, and creativity and systems thinking. Across those three areas, they identified 10 “tools to transform schools” that Dickinson believes any public school can use, based on education research more broadly, her experience at Acera and her team’s expertise in public education. Lowell chose three to focus on through this partnership. (Acera raised outside funding to support the work, making their support free to Pyne Arts.)
So far, Crocker-Roberge finds Acera’s instructional approach to be “highly transferrable.” While schools in Lowell are held accountable based on how their students perform on state tests and they have to teach state-mandated standards, Crocker-Roberge said it hasn’t been a stretch to tie lesson and project ideas from Acera back into the Pyne Arts curriculum map. A major challenge has been navigating administrative red tape to get the right permissions and materials students need to complete their projects.
“Everything in the public world has 10 more steps,” Crocker-Roberge said.
Besides the hands-on, STEM-focused projects, the Acera team has helped Pyne Arts leaders develop a School Success Dashboard. The dashboard tracks school culture and student well-being, the use of evidence-based pedagogy, and student growth in what Acera calls “core capacities,” including systems thinking, problem-solving, creativity, ethical decision-making and emotional intelligence.
Dickinson believes this work is particularly important because it emphasizes an expanded definition of success. Too often, she said, schools narrow in on student attendance and test scores because they factor most heavily into state accountability systems, to the exclusion of other aspects of schooling.
“Part of our goal is changing the conversation about what matters at school,” Dickinson said.
So far the Acera-Pyne Arts partnership has been fruitful. Teachers in Lowell have studied new science topics to bring into their classroom and how to introduce these topics with new projects. Students have begun taking surveys about their perspectives on school culture and their own well-being, and they have been enthusiastic about the hands-on, science-based learning activities.
Leaders at Pyne Arts and Acera are moving ahead optimistically and determinedly. This is Acera’s first whole-school partnership and its most substantial test yet of whether the environment it created in its sheltered and private innovative school can really make a difference in the public-school world.
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