Education Choice: The Opportunity to Learn in Different Ways

4 Elementary aged students hold pencils and write on a piece of paper together

Someone once told me, “You will know you are successful if you can create a school where students line up outside the gates begging to get in, like they do when an iPhone is released at the Apple Store.”

So much of what you hear about school choice has to do with funding, accountability or public versus private schools. These are all important conversations on the topic of school choice and should not be ignored. I think it is also important to highlight the other types of school choice that exist. School choice provides students with opportunities to learn in different ways. As an educator and mother, I encourage everyone participating in the robust school choice debate to join together to create new, innovative, and effective models of learning for students. This is an example where a district (with the same funding and accountability) made big changes and gave parents a choice.

Several years ago, our superintendent challenged all of our schools to “change the way we do school.” In response, four teachers, one principal, and myself set off on a journey to create our district’s newest school, Design39Campus.

Design39Campus is a fully-funded public school that serves transitional kindergarten through 8th grade students. In the makeup of Design39Campus, we wanted to change the way students experience learning by rethinking the systems and structures of traditional schooling: Why force all students to learn at the same speed? Why aren’t all students allowed to pursue a learning method that works best for them?

Primarily, we wanted to shape our campus to fit the needs of those whom the school exists to serve – students.

In the early stages of Design39’s creation, we held workshops where parents and students shared what success in education meant to them.  Rather than tell parents what their kids’ school was going to look like, we asked them to complete sentences such as: “Imagine a place where students could…” The ideas and suggestions we gathered from parents laid the foundation for the culture of Design39Campus.

Even though Design39Campus is in our 5th year, we continue to ask the “why” questions. We never want to stop evaluating and prototyping with support and feedback from our teacher, parent, and student community.

And this constant evaluation has brought results.

“Let us in!” came the chant of 52 first graders insisting to come in from recess so they could continue working on their biography projects in preparation for an exhibition to showcase their learning. That challenge to create a school where kids line up, begging to get in? Mission accomplished!

Students at Design39Campus are invested in their learning because it’s real. Through inquiry, one of our 8 guiding principles, comes exploration and creativity. We explore concepts with questions such as: What do the stories we tell reveal about the values of our culture? How might what you measure determine how you measure?

Recently, our 4th and 5th graders played a role in choosing their next field trip destination. Teachers asked their students to research field trip locations that would match the topic of study. Then, after the students calculated the miles and cost of transportation, each student pitched their field trip proposal to be evaluated and voted on by their peers. Turning everyday tasks into valuable learning experiences is typical at Design39Campus.

We tap into the expertise of entrepreneurs and local businesses to share their experiences and give feedback to students. Currently we have kindergarten through 5th graders in multi-grade groupings developing businesses, designing products, conducting market research, and working with companies to produce products, such as skateboards, to sell.

This kind of learning is exciting, collaborative, and empowering for both students and educators.

When I am approached by parents considering Design39Campus for their children, they often ask, “Will my child be successful with this method of learning?”

I have learned that any child can be successful in our environment, but the determining factor for a child’s success is the beliefs of the family. With our innovative approach to learning, we want families to have discussions about what they are looking for in a school and choose whether or not this environment is right for them.

When schools clearly share their “north star” and define what success means to them, parents and students can make an informed decision about the educational setting that best fits their needs.

School choice opens up opportunities for innovation by looking at approaches to schooling and finding ways to redesign and increase student impact. As a society, we shouldn’t be afraid to harness our innovative spirit to provide a better education for today’s students. When we first began this journey of rethinking education, not many schools were having these conversations.

Today, as I travel around the country speaking with educators and visiting schools, I am inspired by how many schools, of all different types, are redesigning the education experience.

I don’t believe public, private, and charter schools are on opposite sides. We are all aiming for student success – we just have different approaches.

Some are focused on redesigning learning spaces and furniture. Others are trying out different pedagogy strategies or redesigning leadership structures. I’d like to see more of our conversations about school choice focus on innovating and adapting to the needs of students. After all, we are all on the same team working for the same result – student success.

 

Megan Power is a Learning Experience Designer at Design39Campus in the Poway Unified School District. She has been in education for 15 years and has taught students in Transitional Kindergarten – 7th grade. Megan was on the leadership team opening two schools for Poway Unified including Design39Campus, an innovative approach to public education. She was selected as one of 5 TOSAs (Teacher on Special Assignment) to change the way we do schools by researching, networking, and transforming education in creating Design39Campus. Megan served as a 2018 U.S. Department of Education Teacher Ambassador Fellow.

 Note: This blog is in a series of posts to highlight and recognize National School Choice Week. Every year in January, all across America, students, parents, teachers, state legislators, and more celebrate National School Choice Week. This week recognizes the importance of empowering parents to choose the best learning environment for their child, while highlighting the benefits of various education options. The U.S. Department of Education is excited to celebrate education choice. There are currently 54 private school choice programs operating in 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In order to continue to empower families with information that will help them advocate for a better education for their child, this week we will describe and explain the growing array of education options, highlight resources to choose the best learning environment for a child, and dispel common school choice myths.