Friday, November 16, 2012

A study in chaos - ACE Leadership High School

Earlier this week, along with other National Faculty members of the Buck Institute for Education, I shared the opportunity to visit ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Under considerable direction and guidance from fellow BIE NF Tim Kubik it's clear that ACE is changing lives and is perhaps a model for changing high school as most of us know it. With the understanding that this school is a work in progress, in it's infancy actually, ACE has it's faults, problems, and challenges but as Principal and Co-Founder Tony Monfiletto noted during our visit, lives are being saved here.
ACE (Architecture, Construction, and Engineering) is a charter school in a public-private partnership with AGC - New Mexico. Even those most critical of charter schools have to take notice of the successes here as a great example of how, when freed from some of the traditional constraints and parameters, schools can meet the needs of even the most challenging populations. And make no mistake about it, this school does indeed serve a challenging population. If I recall correctly there are currently 290 students (with plans to grow to over 400), mostly Latino, who think of school as unnecessary and irrelevant. Actually as I walked and talked during my visit I saw only one young lady with blonde hair, one African-American, and one young man who appeared to be white. The focus is on educating low income students of color and with the local industry clearly tied to a work force that is nearly 90% Latino, of which 50% are without a high school diploma, this connection makes sense for all parties involved. 
The incentive for AGC's investment is access to a more skilled work force and ACE helps provide that by building capacity in students using effective project based learning. ACE emphasizes the three C's of Collaboration, Communication, and Client Driven. The latter is important in this context as their mission "is to prepare young people to have successful careers in the construction profession." To increase the relevancy and authenticity students do real work on real projects for real clients including a rubric used to teach and assess "Client Driven" work. This rubric includes three categories; deriving value, innovative solutions, and professionalism...all from the client perspective. Just as teachers and schools should be focused on student needs, the ACE students are pushed to understand their work is primarily about the client and it's in this context that they ask students, "what are you doing to build your reputation today?"
ACE Leardership Morning Meeting
The distinct difference in climate going on here was palpable. This is a chaotic environment. There were no "classes" for students to rotate through. There was very little of the "sit and get" traditional didactic teaching. Instead students and teachers started their day huddled together with general announcements from all parties involved, including students, and then transitioned to short advisory groups for direction from teachers/advisors for their morning projects. Then all hell broke loose and students began working. Some stayed in those small rooms while others retreated to corners and more comfortable work spaces throughout the building with teachers floating through to support that work. Were there some students off task? Of course, and the ideal of 100% engagement was just that, an ideal. But in thinking of how real adults work, is 100% engagement realistic? Instead this was a place where student behavior and thinking were being shaped by the culture to norms and expectations that would help make them successful in the present and future and sometimes that looks messy.
One concern I did come away with is how effectively they are teaching all areas of content. While math and science are natural fits helping students understand key historical content seems a bit more difficult. For instance, how does one shoehorn D-Day into a project about construction without it feeling contrived? It takes some creativity and a full embrace of the necessary paradigm shift but perhaps it makes sense when you start considering the rebuilding that takes place in the years after major wars. ACE is grappling with this problem in much the same way their students are struggling with their projects and while these kinds of issues are sure to be fodder for opponents of charters and non-traditional education my hope is that this will open the doors to questions we need to discuss to move forward. Is it time to question the content? Is it what you know or what you know how to do? As a former US History teacher I must confess that I almost never made it through the content that grows yearly and I know I'm not alone. Nearly any teacher will agree that depth is better than breadth and one has to wonder the impact of the trade-off of creating lifelong learners and contributors to society instead of repositories of facts that might excel on Jeopardy. In the meantime I'd like to reflect on Tony Monfiletto's statement referenced earlier in a way that is important in the context of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. I'm not so sure that this school is saving the lives of these kids as much as I'm sure that this school is equipping these kids to save their own lives. As messy as that might look I'll take that every single day over a set of test scores.