Brad Blue, founding
member, Upper Mississippi Academy,
and Jon Bacal, lead founder, Venture Academies
An Interview with
8301 Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
Notes of the
Verne Johnson (chair), David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Paul Gilje
(coordinator), Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz (vice-chair), Tim
McDonald, Denny Morrow.
Summary of discussion
- Brad Blue and Jon Bacal, education entrepreneurs leading
efforts to start new, chartered schools, talk about their experiences
midway through the process. They describe the strategies that different
school models use to motivate students, achieve measurable student success
and inspire lifelong learning for all students, no matter their personal
challenges. Noting the similarities and differences in their approaches,
they explain how they expect to accomplish better learning results than
traditional public schools.
Introduction of interviewees
Blue is the Director of the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools
(a single-purpose authorizer of chartered schools,
http://www.guildschools.org) and founding member of the Upper
Mississippi Academy (www.umissacademy.org),
a preK-12 chartered school campus scheduled to launch in 2013 on the Upper
Post of historic Fort Snelling. Blue was Founder and Director of the
(Girls in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science) and GISE (Guys in Science
and Engineering) initiatives.
the recipient of the 2006 Tekne Award for Innovation in Teaching, which
recognizes innovative classroom use of technology in K-12 STEM (Science,
Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, an Apple Computer
Distinguished Educator, recipient of the 1999 Presidential Award for
Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and has National Board
Professional Teaching Standards Certification. A graduate of Wheaton
College, Dr. Blue received his PhD from the
of Aberdeen, King's College (Scotland).
is lead founder of Venture Academies . He was the lead founder and
start-up director of
Leadership Academy in south Minneapolis and co-founder/co-start-up lead of
Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul. He also served as the founding executive
director of SchoolStart, a nonprofit that supported the launch of nearly
charter schools, and most recently was the founding executive director of
the Minneapolis Public Schools' Office of New Schools-the state's first
approved school district authorizer under the 2009 authorizer legislation.
Bacal previously served as education advisor for the City of St. Paul.
Blue and Bacal are leading teams in the establishment of new charter
schools to be launched in fall 2013. They are in the middle stages of
planning, each having obtained substantial startup funding and begun the
process of building their staffs.
PROBLEM: Despite the innovations of new school models and the use of new
technology, most schools today are not effectively designed to engage or
contends that the real problem facing education today is "the interminable
boredom brought on by schools and their irrelevancy." The students at the
top are being told "just stick with it, there's a light at the end of the
tunnel, there's a payoff if you can just get through and graduate." The
rest of students are either lost altogether, or otherwise operating vastly
below their potential.
agreed with Blue's analysis, and emphasized that schools are not designed
to help students believe that they have the potential to succeed. Schools
today often label children erroneously from the start as having some
impediment to success. There is evidence, Bacal asserted, that IQ may be
quite malleable into the late teens, and even more evidence that schools
can help all young people acquire the self-discipline and growth mindset
linked to making dramatic learning gains. This includes students learning
English, students with learning disabilities, and students from
economically disadvantaged families.
are almost no urban secondary schools in the Twin Cities or nationally
that enable most students from those three disadvantaged groups to learn
at a consistently high level," Bacal said. He noted that over the past
three years there has been an explosion in the capacity of learning
technology, but almost no schools have yet been designed to take full
advantage of this development. He believes that harnessing the potential
of new digital learning content and tools will be a key factor in
achieving high levels of learning among at-risk students.
GOAL: Create learning environments where students are engaged, motivated,
and fully supported in reaching their highest learning potential.
described the goal of schooling to be creating an environment in which
learners are engaged in non-routine, interactive learning. Currently,
that's often not the case; in most traditional schools and in many newer
charter schools, routine cognitive tasks are the order of the day. "This
is the exact opposite of what's needed in a knowledge economy," he said,
"to prepare students for the type of dynamic workplace they will
are familiar with the new non-linear, random character of the information
age, but most schools still cast them in a different mold from 9am-3pm, a
mold that puts them on a strict, narrow, and linear path with little
opportunity for divergent thinking; there is no wandering allowed. His
goal is to provide an effective alternative to that linear style of
learning, Blue argued, one that will both mimic the nature of the
information technology young people must master and better capture their
imagination and interest.
added that the goal of society should be to enable children to learn and
contribute at their full potential-which is usually beyond what most
parents, teachers and students themselves think it is. Schools should help
kids set their learning goals, take ownership of their learning, discover
their own life passion and purpose, and develop a lifelong capacity for
learning to be maximized, it is critical that students help set their own
goals and understand how learning will help to achieve those goals," Bacal
said. However, some educational goals are not optional, such as advanced
literacy skills, which are essential to becoming a fully contributing
citizen. Consequently his school will seek to arm each student with a
critical set of tools - including reading, writing, speaking, listening,
reasoning - that all students will need to master, perhaps in different
ways, in order to become successful self-directed learners.
STRATEGY: Create new kinds of schools from the ground up.
Mississippi Academy: engage students with experiential learning pathways.
described the design of Upper Mississippi Academy as premised on the
belief that all students are creative and that divergence from, not
convergence to, some defined norm is desirable. They do not want or expect
that every student at the end of school to be the same person, have the
same competencies, conform to the same pre-determined expectations.
an environment that's conducive to play. We want to encourage a kind of
life-long kindergarten, where students are given gifts to be creative.
It's not only about using digital technology, but teaching them how to
weld, to create XM stations on their iPod, to concoct cosmetics in the
lab, to plant a garden and produce a nutritional lunch-active, vital and
inherently stimulating projects. We propose enticing kids to learn with
authentic experiential learning pathways that appeal to their natural
curiosity; rather than taking away recess and 'play time', rather than
anesthetizing them (especially precocious boys) with Ritalin, Adderall,
and a host of other
and teaching to a standardized test. Rather, we propose to wake them up,
encourage them to think laterally, make something."
Academy curriculum and teaching strategies will foster divergent thinking
with a low entry, early success strategy that allows for individualized
instruction. For example, National Instruments LabVIEW for NXT robotics
will be used. The software for this is icon-based. This means that
regardless of reading ability, a student can launch the interface and
begin programming and control the device. Because of that ESL/ELL students
and struggling readers are on equal footing with all other students. The
software is vertically integrated and affords slow to rapid development
depending on student interest, choice, and prowess. That's far more than
the average attempt at 'differentiation'. The role of the teacher is to
manage the broad direction and quickly trouble-shoot anomalies. This type
of model requires a different approach to classroom management. "That
threatens administrators in the conventional American system." Didactic
instruction is easier to 'see' than this type of guided, active learning.
male students in school; engage females in science.
the education at
Mississippi Academy will be single-gender. Boys are the most "checked-out"
or unengaged in school, Blue said. Looking at the trends in college
admissions bears this out. In 1950, 70 percent of college and university
students were male, but recently the Dean of Admissions at Yale asserted
that if Yale ran admissions gender-blind, 70 percent would be female.
other hand, girls, especially in the early 1900's, used to be prominently
involved in the sciences, until it began being pitched almost exclusively
to boys. It's all about engagement, and about the inherent capacity to
different role for teachers is envisioned.
Upper Mississippi Academy project has secured a venue, on the historic
upper bluff of Fort Snelling including the Clock Tower, Guardhouse,
Barracks, and ancillary buildings. In planning the use of the buildings
and as part of the effort to engage girls in science, Blue has arranged
for a lab to be formatted by Pat Peterson, formulation chemist and VP of
Research and Development at Aveda, for a project-based chemistry class
called "Makeup Your Mind." To use chemistry to create a product (shaving
gel, skin lotion, lip gloss, etc.) is tactical, Blue said, and leads to a
tangible goal. These products motivate learning. There is an engineering
component as well in the design of packaging and a mathematics angle in
the schematics of the bar code and in developing the formulations. The
product is by student design, much like the ideas generated in Ed
Carryer's Smart Product Design lab at Stanford.
Langton, noted Twin Cities chef and restaurant owner, is a community
expert and advisor of the school's orchards/gardens and culinary programs,
which will be the focus of other project-based learning. Such topics as
plant biology, sustainable farming, conservation principles, nutrition,
and the chemistry of cooking are expected to flow from these endeavors.
Robotics labs will introduce engineering concepts and an in-house,
student-led "genius bar" will invite a range of technology-based problem
solving. A school orchestra will benefit from a connection with MacPhail
educational model of the school is competency based. Learning progress is
documented, tracked, and shared. To accomplish the learning model they
intend to build the school up around the individual interest and strengths
of the teachers, and focus on professional development and retention while
planning for succession. The key is the teacher, Blue said. Teachers will
be wholly responsible for the development and delivery of curriculum. They
will take personal and collective ownership of their professional issues.
The most important thing for our teachers to do is to nudge the students
into the place of the learner every day and keep the learning well beyond
the realm of the routine. And with a sandbox as large as the Upper Post,
play is not optional and no class will have a fixed, assigned room number.
school will function as a community campus.
Academy, at capacity, will be a preK-12 school. The school will have the
feeling of a campus with the inherent benefit of a community site for
learning spanning all age levels. The school will be a gathering place for
the community and a magnet for under-served ethnicities. "In addition to
having single-gender classes that will have an appeal to some immigrant
groups, we will have a community garden with family plots.
also have a full time staff person that manages volunteers. In this decade
in Minnesota more people will retire than the prior four decades combined.
We expect to take full advantage of the experience, interests, and talents
of volunteer retirees and others who have much to contribute to the
Venture Academies: creating innovators and entrepreneurial leaders via
personalized digital learning and passionate teacher coaching.
Academies' mission is to inspire college- and career-ready, innovative and
entrepreneurial leaders who imagine opportunities, take initiative and
create solutions. Bacal said that Venture might be the nation's first
school model focused on the challenge raised by Tom Friedman in 2010: "We
need to get millions of American kids, not just the geniuses, excited
about innovation and entrepreneurship again."
June, Venture Academies was selected as one of 13 winning breakthrough
school models in the national Next Generation Learning competition funded
by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Hewlett foundations.
described the approach of Venture Academies as helping students discover
their own passion and lifelong sense of mission. "This approach is
important for two reasons. First, student self-motivation and
self-expectations are the most important demonstrated factors to
accelerate and deepen the learning of adolescents. Second,
and the nation urgently need many more innovators, entrepreneurs and
leaders. It's time we designed schools to cultivate the learning, passion
and sense of purpose required to become innovators, entrepreneurs and
many affluent kids going to school, going to college, finishing college,
and still wondering what their purpose is-and not
coincidentally-struggling to find meaningful work," he said. "There is no
reason why all students, including those deemed educationally fragile,
cannot by age 15 or 16 come to understand more fully where their passions
lay and gain the skills to pursue them." He said the Academy will work to
provide an environment of "play, passion, perseverance and purpose" with a
view toward developing students that excel as innovators, entrepreneurs
noted that in designing Venture Academies, the team began by addressing
the fact that most students entering Venture's first school in south
Minneapolis will be significantly behind in their English language skills
and in their learning generally. So the school's expectations, learning
methods and curriculum must be sufficiently ambitious and motivational to
assure that the school's overall goal is reached. "Our aim is to have all
students by the age of 16 prepared for college-level learning. We believe
without exception that all our students will be capable of college-level
learning while still in high school."
happen in various ways, he said - by helping them take college-level
courses online or via
College in the Schools and Post Secondary Enrollment options.
don't have it all figured out yet, and we won't on day one," Bacal noted.
The most important element of Venture's model is a commitment to
continuous, rapid cycles of experiment, measure, fail, learn, iterate, and
improve. "We aim to create a pervasive student and educator culture where
everyone's mistakes are admitted and embraced as learning
opportunities-where taking calculated risks and making mistakes is
actually cool. That's how the world's most innovative organizations
work-and that is very different from the way schools operate today.
Teachers integral to school design process.
with the potential to tap into student passion, our greatest asset will be
the strength of our teachers," Bacal said. "We believe that innovative,
empowered and passionate teacher-leaders are required to create
innovative, empowered and passionate student-leaders. Teachers won't be
randomly selected widgets brought in a month before school opens to fill
openings. The school will be designed, led and continually improved by
Blended learning, new software allows individualized curricula.
the Venture school day, most students will spend most their time on
individualized online learning or reading or writing. The rest of the time
will involve small group teacher-guided learning, including seminar
discussions and project-based learning. The program includes frequent
student analytic writing and public speaking assignments-two key skills
not well learned in most traditional schools. Students will also engage in
STEM (science, technology, engineering/entrepreneurship, and math) work in
an "Innovation Lab" setting, coached by real-world innovators and
exact learning mix will be different for each student, based on their
individual student needs, progress and interests," Bacal said. "Recent
advances in technology enable students and their teachers to track and
adjust their personalized progress and goals weekly and even daily using
digital dashboards, with continuous feedback, formative assessments and
other input. Similarly, there is a rapid growth in adaptive digital
learning content: software that adjusts learning assignments to challenge
individual students at exactly the right level, minimizing student
frustration or boredom. In any traditional classroom, some students are
bored and some are struggling; most teachers agree that "differentiating"
whole-class instruction to meet every student's needs is very hard. It is
now increasingly unnecessary.
Running personalized schools for a fraction of conventional district
money will it take to do these things? Bacal answered, "By the time we
reach full enrollment capacity, Venture will be able to operate on $7,000
per student, far less than current statewide per-student funding levels
and a fraction of urban district per-student funding levels.
formula to make that work: pay expert master teachers much more but hire
fewer of them per student, while maximizing the support of
paraprofessional educators, trained volunteers, peer tutoring and student
self-direction. It's not about the level of resources; it's about the
example, Venture students will have major roles in providing tech support,
peer counseling, monitoring student behavior and tutoring. Over time,
students will be increasingly capable at these tasks, and benefit from
shouldering increasingly significant responsibilities.
Innovative schools must be organized differently.
past year, these two school design teams have been hard at work developing
plans for the schools, and the work so far has been pro-bono.
"Minnesota began opening the system to school choice with Post-Secondary
Enrollment Options and open enrollment," Blue observed, "but in 1991 with
the advent of chartering, the opportunity for teachers to exercise choice
became a reality. 'You now have a choice', chartering said to teachers.
'You can design the learning community around teaching. You are a Local
Education Authority.'" District teachers still often don't understand they
have the right to take up to a 5-year leave of absence to teach in a
chartered school, he said.
organizing legislation for charter schools requires all charters to be
approved by an authorizer. Both schools plan to work with Innovative
Quality Schools (IQS), which is what is termed a "Single Purpose
Authorizer." A single purpose authorizer focuses solely on authorizing the
establishment of charter schools and overseeing them on behalf of the
speakers have in common a determined optimism about the prospects for
doing a better job of educating students. "A year ago at this time I was
very skeptical of the benefit of technology in education. I'm what you
might call a late adopter," Bacal said. "Then I had an opportunity to go
see some schools that are doing what we're now talking about doing here."
He described visiting a school in Los Angeles, in the state's most violent
neighborhood, operating on $6,500 per student, with a 48:1 teacher student
ratio. "I've never seen students more engaged, and it is because of the
way the school is organized around blended face-to-face/digital learning."
level it's not strictly about the benefits of technology, but rather it's
about helping students accelerate their learning in whatever way suits
them best," Blue said.
participant asked one of the attending guests, Denny Morrow, retired
Brooklyn Park school superintendent and board chair of Venture Academies,
how his former fellow superintendents would respond to a proposal for the
school he is now helping launch.
first reaction would be 'show me,'" he replied. "'You're promising more
than you'll be able to deliver.'" Most school boards would still say this
is too risky, he continued. That's why the charter route is going to be
the best path for tackling this level of innovation.
biggest differences in education will be made now on factors unrelated to
increases in funding, the speakers said. "Let's try putting creative
teachers and students in charge, and give up the conventional images of
what school should be."
chair thanked Blue and Bacal for the informative visit.