Reinventing school

Innovative school prize goes to program that trains students in app design, coding

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir and Ivy McCottry, a senior marketing product manager at At&T who advises the program, pitch their ultimately winning idea for a new charter school to a panel of judges today at a Mind Trust competition at the Indiana Landmarks Center in Indianapolis.

Suppose you had $50,000 to scrap everything you know about school and design from scratch a new way for children to learn that would be better fit for new realities of life and work in the 21st century.

What would your school of the future look like?

A gathering in Indianapolis today took a stab at answering that question.

The idea that won the cash prize was STEMNASIUM, a school concept built on a Philadelphia-based after-school program that infuses computer science learning into all subjects with student projects built around designing apps, games and other technology tools.

The $50,000 award comes from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit organization promoting educational change that created the competition, but it could prove to be just a sweetener.

The group has a related grant program that will award a total of $1 million to four groups that offer the most groundbreaking plans to launch charter schools in Indianapolis. To win the bigger prize, their ideas will need to again impresses a group of judges as having the best chance to chart new courses in education.

Even defining what is meant by “new directions” in education isn’t easy, however.

“I don’t actually know what innovation in education is,” luncheon speaker Earl Martin Phalen, who founded a summer program and then a charter school after a Mind Trust fellowship lured him from Boston to try his ideas in Indianapolis. “Everything has been done somewhere. But our kids need excellence. Innovation coupled with cutting edge ideas — that brings excellence for children and that’s what we need.”

STEMNASIUM’s founder, Tariq Al-Nasir, built his program on lessons he learned from his own life as a boy who got into serious legal trouble growing up in Brooklyn, and as a father of a child with Asperger’s syndrome.

“I was a curious teenager,” he said. “Comic books felt outdated so I decided to learn how to write code.”

His computer skills landed him in court after he hacked into his school’s computer and changed grades for some of his friends.

A judge gave him a choice: face severe consequences or enlist in the military. He joined the Navy, where he became a counter-intelligence officer.

As a father, he struggled to help his son learn until a crystallizing moment.

“I saw him eating a sandwich and he tore it up,” Al-Nasir said. “I said there is a better way to do it. I cut it into small pieces. That was the foundation for STEMNASIUM.”

The “STEM” in STEMNASIUM stands for science, technology engineering and math.The 13-year old program teaches coding and programming to children as young as age three. It currently operates as an after-school program in Philadelphia.

His most famous student is Zora Ball, the youngest person ever to create a mobile phone app. She created her video game at age eight.

But Al-Nasir also has students in Indianapolis.

Two years ago, he offered a weekend program in computer skills for young children at Arsenal Tech High School. He’s kept in touch with a couple of his star Indianapolis students.  Al-Nasir pulled out his phone and showed pictures of the students, who he said occasionally consult him for advice on projects they are continuing to create.

“STEM is a language,” he said. “If we put children in front of this early on we can have amazing results.”

STEMNASIUM was not the only STEM-oriented pitch the judges heard.

In fact, as novel as some of the school designs proposed, many of them incorporated shared ideas, especially having students spend time outside of school, working on solving real community problems and learning directly from professionals at companies or other organizations.

Other ideas shared by more than one group was peer teaching, which uses students who have mastered skills to tutor their peers who are still learning them, and using online learning programs to fill some of the instructional needs.

The four finalists were selected from 12 semifinalist groups from Indiana, Tennessee, New York, Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Rhode Island and California. In all, 36 applicants were considered.

Like STEMNASIUM, runner-up HackSchool, based in Denver, also currently operates as an after-school program.

HackSchool’s co-founder Nathan Pai Schmitt is a former Teach For America corps member who now teaches at STRIVE Prep Excel charter school. He raised more than $35,000 through Kickstarter — twice the goal — for a pilot project that’s been underway since January.

Thirty students, about half of them girls, spend two hours after school four days a week in part of an art classroom that Pai Schmitt has converted into what he calls a “socially conscious maker space.” Using technology such as 3-D modeling software and 3-D printers, the kids create products to help solve real community problems.

One student who helped present, Anahi Gandara Rodriguez, is making a smart cane with an earpiece that warns blind users about obstacles.

“I want to be something in this world,” said Edgar Campos-Escobedo, another student presenter, “but I feel like education system today is making it hard for me to succeed.”

At the competition, Pai Schmitt pitched an idea for a HackSchool high school.

HackSchool students would make weekly schedules on their own, either choosing coursework teachers offer or working independently each morning. In the afternoons, they would do intensive study — advanced work, electives or extra help for those who are struggling — and internships with partner organizations.

Other runner up ideas were:

  • Rooted Schools, a New Orleans-based pilot program billing its idea as “micro charter schools” that trains small groups of students in skills for specific high-paying high-demand jobs.
  • Ubique, an idea from an Ohio-based group that would shift most learning away from actual schools toward community-based projects supported by four learning “hubs” with teachers.

The Mind Trust is known in Indianapolis for incubating charter schools and offering fellowships to educators with ideas for creating new schools. So far, most of the schools that have been born from that work have had innovative features but largely followed a traditional school design.

This latest Mind Trust effort is designed to reach for even more out-of-the-box thinking. All of the presenting groups were invited to apply for a share of the $1 million grant pool to create new schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified HackSchool co-founder Pai Schmitt as a former STRIVE charter school teacher. He continues to teach at STRIVE. The story has also been changed to clarify that HackSchool currently exists as an after-school program, not as a full school. 

getting in

Detroit district moves beyond test scores for admittance to elite high schools like Cass Tech and Renaissance

The Detroit school district is changing its application process for students hoping for a spot at selective high schools like Cass Technical High School.

Detroit’s main school district is changing the way it decides which students gain entry to the city’s elite high schools.

Students applying to Cass Technical High School, Renaissance High School and two other selective high schools will no longer be judged primarily on the results of a single exam.

Instead, an admissions team comprised of teachers and staff from the schools, as well as administrators in the district’s central office, will use a score card that gives students points in various categories.

Students can get up to 40 points for their score on the district’s high school placement exam, up to 30 points for their grades and transcripts, up to 20 points for an essay and up to 10 points for a letter of recommendation. Students already enrolled in the district will also get 10 bonus points that will give them an edge over students applying from charter and suburban schools.

That is a change over past years when  students with the highest test scores largely got automatic admissions to their top-choice schools. Other factors like grades, essays, student interviews, and letters of recommendations were typically only considered during an appeals process for students who didn’t make the first-round cut.

“You can imagine that there was a great deal of subjectivity to that, and if you’re a student who might not be a good test taker, you were at a disadvantage,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who, as a dyslexic, said he was not a strong test-taker in school.

“I can empathize with that gifted student whose intelligence is not always identified by a standardized test,” he said.

Vitti said he hopes the new process “will have more of a quality control … It’s a consistent process to ensure that we’re being equitable and fair when students are being enrolled in these schools.”

The district’s decision to reduce the role of testing in admission decisions mirrors a trend across the country where college admissions offices are increasingly moving beyond SAT and ACT scores to give more weight to grades and other factors in admissions decisions.

Cities like New York and Boston are reviewing their use of test-based admissions for their elite high schools in the face of an onslaught of criticism that the tests discriminate against students of color and students who come from poor families and reinforce already prevalent segregation in the districts.

“Tests tend to favor kids who come from backgrounds and whose families have the wherewithal to focus on test prep,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of schools’ reliance on test scores to make crucial decisions.

In addition to changing the admission criteria for Detroit’s selective high schools, the district is also for the first time requiring all district 8th-graders to take the exam. In the past, only students who applied to the top schools took those tests.

“Not every school emphasized the exam application process, so it would be dependent on an individual parent’s ability to navigate the system,” Vitti said.

Only about half of the district’s 8th graders took the exam last year. Data provided by the district show that several schools had just a handful of students take the test while others had dozens of test-takers. (See the full list of test-takers from district schools here.)

Vitti hopes that requiring 8th graders to take the test and encouraging more of them to write essays and gather letters of recommendation to apply will help prepare them to apply to college four years later.

“We’re creating a culture of college readiness,” he said.

The district is also using the exam to survey students about their career ambitions and plans to make high school programming decisions based on their answers, Vitti said, adding that high schools will also use the exam results to determine which students could benefit from advanced classes and which ones need more help.

Some parents and educators say they welcome efforts to make the application process more equitable.

Hope Gibson, the dean of students at Bethune Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, said students were excited when the school encouraged them to apply to the selective schools.

“They feel like we believe in them,” she said.

The changes, however, have put some families on edge as they worry about how the new approach will affect students’ chances at landing a spot in their first-choice school.

Aliya Moore, a parent leader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, a K-8 school that typically sends roughly half of its graduates to Cass and Renaissance, said parents had trouble getting information about the process and have been frustrated with Vitti and the school officials he brought to Detroit with him from his last job running schools in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I don’t like these new people coming here and criticizing our old ways,” said Moore, who graduated from Cass Tech in 1998 and has a daughter enrolled there now. “The district is now full of changes. Some are good, but some are like, if something is not broken, why are you trying to fix it? We support Dr. Vitti. We have nothing negative to say. But when you come in and you just totally dismantle what was, even if it was working, we don’t understand that.”

Among Moore’s concerns is the district’s use of  a new test this year, which makes it more difficult for the school to help students prepare. Also, this year’s test is being administered online while prior tests were on paper.

Vitti said the district is using a new test this year because last year’s exam wasn’t an option.

“The license expired years ago and the district was illegally using it,” he said.

The new test will be online, he said, though students with disabilities and other students whose parents request it will be allowed to take the test on paper.

The Detroit district now has four examination schools including Cass, Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. The district this year converted Southeastern High School into an exam school after Southeastern returned to the district from five years in the Education Achievement Authority, a now-dissolved state-run recovery district.

How I Teach

From bikes to blue hair: how one Denver kindergarten teacher shares his passion with students

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher at Denver's Maxwell Elementary, with his class.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Andres Pazo, a kindergarten teacher in an ESL Spanish class at Denver’s Maxwell Elementary School, doesn’t do things halfway. Before Denver Broncos home games, he’ll come to school with his face and hair painted orange and navy. For holidays or school book fairs, he wears full themed costumes. A passionate cyclist, he dresses in professional cycling gear to teach bike safety to children.

Pazo, who colleagues say has a smile for everyone he meets, received one of Denver Public Schools’ four Leadership Lamp awards last summer.

He talked with Chalkbeat about the teachers who inspired him to enter the field, why he uses secret codes to get his students’ attention, and how he gets to know students before school starts.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I’m from Caracas, Venezuela, and decided to become a teacher during my last year in my country. For all the universities that I applied to, I put elementary education as my first choice, and I got accepted.

During high school, I had some teachers that impacted my life — I think because they taught with their hearts and reached mine. Hector Zamora was my geography teacher in college. He didn’t care about scores. He just wanted us to know, love, and feel geography. Also, I can add Evelia Mujica, my eighth grade biology teacher. She was super-strict and funny, but in the end, I think she just wanted us to love and really know about biology. These two still inspire me every single day to be a good teacher.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a room where my students feel safe and loved, and where they try hard all year long. It’s also messy, and you can see many masks and hats that I use to engage my students in lessons, and, of course, their projects throughout the year.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____. Why?
Motivation. It is what keeps me thinking of activities, projects, lessons, and ideas so my students enjoy anything that they need to learn.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
My favorite lesson to teach is a writing unit at the end of the year, called “All About.” I always bring in things that I love — like my bikes — and write about them. I let students write about any small moment: about something that they love, the food their parents make, a family trip, a family visiting them, a good or sad day … anything they would like to share. They usually bring in their favorite toys.

The students’ writing is amazing because they apply everything they’ve been learning. They try so hard to write everything about their toys. You can hear them sharing their stories with others, and their pictures are incredible. Writing is a good indicator of how much they have grown during the school year.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I sit with him or her after the lesson is taught and work on the skill that needs to be mastered.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I use a lot of “secret codes” with my students. For example, when I say “mustache code,” they put a finger across their upper lips. They can be working, reading, or playing, and when I say it, I have 100 percent of students’ attention right away.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
It starts before the first day of class. I usually write letters to them or do home visits. I take the first two weeks of school to get to know them and what they like to do. I take time to welcome them so they can feel safe and confident in the classroom.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
When I was working at Denver Center for International Studies at Ford, we started a home visiting program. We first thought parents didn’t have time for us or that they didn’t want to take the time. But, once we started making the calls and found that parents wanted us to come, we understood that parents didn’t know about the program. After that, some parents became more involved in their kids’ education and with the school.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
A lot of mountain bike reviews about bicycles, parts, or trails to ride.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Never change my personality.