Brendan Campbell teaches at Southeastern High School in Detroit, which is under the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan, a statewide recovery district for schools consistently in the bottom five percent according to test scores. In other words, it’s a failing school in a violent, poor, bankrupt city. But this fall, Campbell and his collaborators have used meager resources to construct a new approach to truly student-centered learning that is drawing interest and acclaim from educators and reformers all over the country: The Preparatory Academy at Southeastern, or PASE.
PASE students spend five hours of their school day in a big open space that’s been designed to feel like a college library, with quiet spaces for individual work, and places to meet with teachers or in groups. This time is theirs to prioritize and allocate over their core courses and up to two electives. The curriculum, based on the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards and Michigan state standards, has been broken into manageable chunks–a set of learning targets in each subject, written in student-friendly “I Can” statements. Students move at their own pace towards mastery of each target through a sequence of “learn, practice, apply, assess.”
On a given day, students could choose to attend a “scheduled learning opportunity,” such as a lecture or a science demonstration; watch a video of a previously recorded lecture by their teacher or a curated resource from elsewhere on the web; work on a group research project; or review peers’ work with reference to a rubric. At the “assess” stage of each target, they take a 3 to 10 question formative assessment. They must score at least 75% to get their “exit ticket” and move on to the next target; otherwise, they’ll conference with a teacher on what went wrong, and go back to pursue mastery. Over the course of each unit, the students also work in groups to complete interdisciplinary performance assessments. In this first semester, students researched the science, ecological, health, and community benefits of planting a garden on campus and presented the case to the administration.
The planning process for teachers within PASE is novel. “When I used to make lesson plans it was focused on: I have 50 minutes to fill, if an activity takes 40 minutes, what happens for the last 10? That can mean a lot of busywork or wasted time,” says Campbell. “Now we’re only concerned about what is necessary in order to truly learn and master the content. Really, that’s a more productive use of student and teacher time.” Each student will be getting a different combination of direct instruction, reading, video, and more, so all the resources, and assessments, must be carefully curated to ensure that each student has access to what they need.
Each student has a laptop, and the program uses an online learning management system to help everyone keep track of students’ progress, but online is not the main focus. “We wanted it to be truly blended so there would be online and in-person components,” says Brendan Campbell. “Students always have a choice.” Students have the choice of up to two online electives during their PASE time, and have chosen from dozens from Psychology to Art History.
PASE isn’t designed for the strongest students in the school. Many must use their elective time to retake failed classes online–the average incoming reading level at the school is 4th or 5th grade. Students were asked to apply, and teachers were also asked to help identify those who they thought could benefit from the flexibility of the program and the chance to take ownership over their learning.
“One thing we’re struggling with is, do we hold all students to the same pace even thought they’re at different ability levels?” says Campbell. “Right now we’re at uniform pacing, and we want to create individual pacing for each student.”
I think what intrigues me most about this model is the sense of autonomy, respect and trust. Urban public schools like this one, majority minority and poor, have been criticized for forming a “school-to-prison pipeline.” When someone’s experience of an institution is primarily about being forced to sit in a certain seat, to quietly listen to authorities speaking, to move from place to place at the sound of a bell, to be labeled as a discipline case if you don’t do it, and you’re never asked what you’re interested in or what you want to do, it’s hard not to see how that could interfere with motivation and learning at one’s best.
“We’re trying to build students’ understanding of how they learn, and what they need in order to be effective learners,” says Campbell. “We talk to them all the time about, ‘in college there’s not going to be a teacher telling you to be quiet.’ I’ve been blown away with how students have reacted to the level of trust and respect. They give it back to you almost all the time.” He says that students wear their PASE lanyards with pride, and are particularly proud of the many national and state visitors that the brand-new program has hosted.
On the other hand, it must be recognized that the PASE model is taking place within a grim economic and political context. They started this September with 70 students in grades 10 through 12, and ten weeks into the semester, because of staff cuts, they had to nearly double the size to 115 students. That’s with just four teachers presiding. If this model succeeds, it is possible that it might be used as an blueprint to lower student-teacher ratios in the name of hyper-efficient blended learning, which would certainly be an unintended consequence. In either case, the nation has a lot to learn from PASE’s first year.