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Tearing Down the Schoolhouse Walls

Houston hopes to inject new life into schools with a radical museum-based model

Almost a year ago, Harvard GSE professor and edu-hero Richard Elmer shocked the education world with his bold assertion that learning and schooling might no longer be compatible. With educational resources peppering the likes of YouTube and access to experts now just a Tweet away, learning is no longer relegated to the four walls of a classroom.

There’s a new movement toward redefining what school looks like. At a Startup Weekend EDU in San Francisco last month, we heard about double decker buses (the "Real Magic School Bus") serving as mobile learning spaces around the city.

But leading the way is a new school in Houston, A+ UP, which is launching a new model this fall. For A+ UP, tearing down the walls means arming each student with laptops, Internet access, and "classes" in any one of Houston’s many museums. A+ UP will call the museum district home, allowing classes to change locations based on exhibits and student interest.

Operating as a free-tuition private school, A+ Up starts this fall with 40 sixth graders. Through its interdisciplinary approach, the school aims to teach students to drive their own learning by using resources available both online and in the city.

The Brave Pioneers

A+ UP comes out of non-profit Houston A+ Challenge. Its bread and butter has been focused on coaching principals and teachers, but it is no stranger to building new schools. It previously worked on charter school design with the Houston Independent School District.

Houston A+ Challenge will be funding the school through unrestricted reserve funds. In an interview with EdSurge, Melissa Milos Davis, Director of External Affairs simply said that “the time is now" and expressed optimism for its growth. "We are looking at this as a pilot project that we hope will catch on and be able to expand.”

The new school is led by two veteran teachers and coaches, Jennifer Mascheck and Cicely Benoit, who together bring teaching experience at every grade level from K-12 with expertise in both literacy and math. As Benoit explained, “We have the city as our learning space and all the professionals and institutions around us. We have all this knowledge and skills at our disposal.”

The Lucky Students

Once word was out about this experimental school, A+ UP received over 100 applications within a month. The application process involved both short answer questions and phone interviews for students and their parents. Benoit and Mascheck prioritized students based on who would be a best fit in the new model. They also prioritized diversifying their first class by balancing admissions both racially and ethnically, with an internal commitment to admit 75% who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

How Will A+ UP Pull This Off

To pull this experiment off, A+ UP will rely heavily on both partnerships and technology. Their partnerships include seven of the major cultural institutions in Houston, including the Houston Zoo, Museum of Natural Science, and Museum of Fine Arts. Through these partnerships, students will have access to the museums, along with the expertise of curators and researchers on staff. To take advantage of these resources, Benoit and Mascheck will be creating interdisciplinary curriculum based on these partnerships and student interests.

Technology will also play a key role. By being able to use computers anytime and anywhere, students will be able to access learning resources on the fly. Each student will have their own laptop, free of charge. Tech tools will be employed for skill building, differentiating based on students interests, and for research. (The school is still exploring what specific tools it will adopt.) The school will also work with local service providers to develop free ways of getting them access to Internet at home.

However, in giving students unlimited access to technology, a high priority for A+ UP will be to teach responsible use of technology. Benoit explains, “we have to do a really good job with teaching them how to be safe online, how to use and how to report things. We will also focus on how to deal with conflicts online as they arise.”

And Lift Off!

When A+ UP brings their sixth graders together in the fall, it will be one of the first schools to experiment with a schooling model where students and teachers are not attached to any specific location. The plan is to continue to add a grade each year, until the school span sixth through eighth grade.

As the teachers and students begin to chart new territory, it'll be worth watching closely as we question what unconventional schools can look like and how these schools can succeed.


About the Author

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Christina is a staff writer at EdSurge and a former teacher with experience in high schools in New York City, San Diego, and Shanghai.

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