The Achievement First charter school network is modifying its approach at several schools to test a new Greenfield model that give students more autonomy over their education, an effort to promote responsible learning that will help students through college.
Achievement First reworked its educational approach several years ago after data showed less than a third of its high school graduates earned college degrees on time. Officials at the charter network conducted extensive research and worked with consultants to interview parents, staff, and alumni to find ways to better support students through college.
“One (alumni) said, ‘In college you have to teach yourself more than half the content on your own,’” Dacia Toll, Achievement First’s CEO, told The New York Times. The reoccurring theme “sort of led to the whole concept of self-directed learning.”
The Greenfield model—which blends the charter network’s high expectations and strict rules with new elements designed to develop independence, and a sense of identity and character—is now in a pilot phase in three of the network’s 34 schools: Achievement First Aspire Middle School in Brooklyn, New York; Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island; and Elm City College Preparatory Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut.
According to the Times:
The model emphasizes what the network calls “student-directed,” or online, learning; three-times-a-year classes called expeditions, meant to allow students to explore their interests and discover possible careers; a social-emotional curriculum focused on developing students’ sense of identity and community; and a beefed-up role for parents and other caregivers and mentors. The aim is to cultivate students who are more self-directed and resilient, as well as to give parents confidence in their ability to support their children through the challenges of college.
Achievement First implemented an online learning platform and tasked students with completing units in humanities, math, science, vocabulary, and grammar by specific dates, with weekly progress reports sent to parents. Officials also added goal coaches to help students set goals for themselves.
Students participate in expeditions three times per year. These are two-week-long segments of three hours a day focused on their specific interests and potential careers. Students in 3rd grade and above select their own expeditions—which typically include full day field trips and hands-on action—from courses on things like debate, building and architecture, and the medical field.
Other changes include twice-weekly student “circles” borrowed from the social-emotional curriculum at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville. Achievement First students huddle in circles and use emojis to describe how they’re feeling, allowing teachers to follow up with struggling students. The circles also allow students to share ways to relate to each other, and build a sense of trust.
Aylon Samouha, a consultant who helped develop the Greenfield model, told the Times that helping students to feel they’re valuable and belong leads to improved focus in the classroom. “You can release some of that and free up your working memory to work on the tasks at hand,” he said.
While increased focus on autonomy and responsibility at Achievement First are ultimately aimed at improving academic success, they’re equally important for building character.
In its formal sense, character is comprised of moral discipline, moral attachment, and moral autonomy: the capacities of an individual to inhibit his or her personal appetites or interests on behalf of a greater good, to affirm and live by the ideals of a greater good, and to freely make ethical decisions for or against those goods.
Hunter and Olson argue that “this doesn’t happen in isolation from the social world.” Rather, it is formed in a “conversation” between “individual subjectivity, moral ideas and ideals, and the structure of social institutions.”
Helping students to take responsibility for learning and virtue are as important as the moral ideals presented in history, literature, and art. Together these constitute what Hunter and Olson call the “moral ecology” of a school. That moral ecology can form students who understand learning as a worthy end in itself, and teach them that their actions influence their learning.
The Great Hearts charter school network provides a paradigm that promotes a similar path. According to the school’s mission,”Great Hearts is passionately committed to cultivating the hearts and minds of students through the pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.”
For further reading on CultureFeed