How the 'Harbormaster Network' Plans to Spread Nationwide Personalized Learning

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(L to R): Ken Bubp of The Mind Trust, Bing Howell of New Schools for Baton Rouge, and Armen Hratchian of Excellent Schools Detroit. (Education Cities) / Education Cities

Like tech entrepreneurship, building and leading new schools can be overwhelming and finance-draining. But what can even be more difficult is figuring out just how to best personalize for the community that you intend to serve.

Oftentimes, it helps to have a support system, and that’s exactly what nonprofit Education Cities hopes to do through the “Emerging Harbormaster Network” (EHN), an incubator for regional groups that hope to become school incubators like New Schools for New Orleans and LEAP Innovations.

Why make Harbormasters?

In the summer of 2014, The Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), an initiative from EDUCAUSE, selected six partners for its Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools Initiative, which provides funding to local foundations and school incubators. Those organizations would in turn put the money towards building 'breakthrough school models' that support personalization.

Yet aside from these six winners, many other groups (more than 30) submitted applications or expressed interest, but weren’t yet fully matured enough, in the eyes of NGLC. “We were interested in improving the pipeline and in increasing the list of nonprofits at scale. But [NGLC] realized that there were a lot of cities that wanted this school model development work and weren’t ready for it.” shares Christine DeLeon, Senior Director of Personalized Learning at Education Cities, a network of school incubators.

Education Cities and NGLC put their heads together to figure out how exactly they could help these organizations become sustainable and support personalized learning. By December 2014, the Harbormaster Network was born--an “incubator for incubators” bringing together ten aspiring regional groups (shown in the list to the right) and providing them with training on personalized learning curriculum.

The Harbormasters are on a six-month timeline from December 2014 to June 2015. Here’s what the ten partners are working towards.

1. Creating a Community of Practice

The first goal of Harbormasters is to provide these ten groups with a personal learning network, where school incubators of different sizes and from different regions can come together to share what they’ve learned. Between December and June, the Harbormaster cohort will convene three times, discussing their progress in developing their respective school model goals and action plans, and then going back to their respective cities to implement ideas on the ground.

“We wanted to create a community of practice. Essentially, we know that there’s no one answer how to personalize yet, and the more these cities can collaborate, the better,” DeLeon shares.

It’s an opportunity where older groups can share their wisdom with the new kids on the block. The amount of time and experience with supporting school model innovation and personalized learning varies among the group--The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, for example, is eight years old, while Nashville’s Project Renaissance has yet to launch formally.

Bing Howell with New Schools for Baton Rouge, which has been around for 2 ½ years, looks to older, more experienced organizations for advice on generating school models and bringing in outside models that ultimately can scale and pull the entire state of Louisiana out of its academic slump. (The state is performing 49th out of fifty states on countrywide standardized tests, he reports.)

“Will personalized learning have a role in that?” Howell wonders. “Well, this is a very new space, so we can either be pioneering on our own, or work with others.”

2. Identifying Community Needs Through Design Thinking

Learning what constitutes and supports a “personalized learning environment” is what Christine DeLeon and the Education Cities team consider their big job.

The Education Cities team provides Harbormasters with tools and frameworks developed by the likes of the Gates Foundation, but doesn’t prescribe any best practices in particular. In fact, the Harbormaster meeting functions much more like design thinking workshops than instructional courses on personalized learning.

“This is as much about school design, feedback loops, and continuous improvement as it is personalized learning,” explains Carrie Douglass, Chief Strategy Officer of Education Cities.

During the group’s second convening, DeLeon presented the following framework, developed by Denver Public Schools, which evenly distributes focus amongst educator roles, curriculum, individualized learning paths, and strategic use of physical space and technology. Note that technology only gets mentioned in the circle to the left:

Personalized Learning Vision Framework derived from that of Denver Public Schools. (Christine DeLeon, Education Cities)

With framework in hand, Harbormasters discussed how they might figure out what works for each of these four prongs in their respective communities. For example, conversations with both superintendents and educators on the ground has led The Mind Trust’s Ken Bubp to drive more accountability and autonomy in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Andy Calkins of Educause and NGLC shared his observations, noting that “for the Harbormasters, it was a bit of a surprise for them that they showed up for the first meeting and that we did not present them with a playbook on personalized learning,” but adding that there’s no one right way to personalize. “It’s far too early for anyone to specify what the outcomes are coming out of this work,” he said.

3. Learning About Funding and Successful School Incubators

Personalized learning doesn’t always mean technology, as it sometimes is misconstrued, and no school incubator can succeed without money or knowing what’s worked in the past.

At the San Jose convening, Harbormasters met with NGLC regional partners like Citybridge and LEAP Innovations to learn from the incubating experts, and visited schools models like Summit and KIPP Bay Area to see what types of personalized learning are possible.

And though there’s no guarantee for NGLC funding at the end of this six-month program, the Education Cities team is helping the Harbormaster figure out where else they can look to for money. The NewSchools Venture Fund, especially given its recent shift in focus, is a good option, for example.

For someone like Project Renaissance’s Wendy Tucker, all of this information and mentoring sets an example for the type of organization Project Renaissance hopes to become. “We potentially want to be a funding stream, offer incentives and fellowships, and we're having conversations about potential mentoring programs.”

Will these Harbormasters develop into the organizations the country needs to support budding school models? Only time will tell. But until then, these groups will work together to learn and grow, a PLN all its own.

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