How Transcend Education Partners with School Leaders to Build New Models

How Transcend Education Partners with School Leaders to Build New Models

By Marisa Busch     Sep 30, 2016

How Transcend Education Partners with School Leaders to Build New Models

This article is part of the guide: The Complex World of School Redesign: The Building Blocks and the Builders.

This profile is part of an EdSurge Research Guide about school redesign and the landscape of service provider organizations that support schools and districts throughout the process. The full guide includes a report highlighting trends, insights and challenges we learned about while studying the market over the course of six months.


Transcend Education is a nonprofit organization that provides design and implementation support to schools and districts as they experiment with fundamental changes to their school models. Transcend does this in three ways: building and replicating new school models, developing a community of talented individuals that can support school model redesign, and sharing knowledge on school model redesign. The organization, which launched in August 2015, was co-founded by Jeff Wetzler and Aylon Samouha; they met while jointly leading Teach for America’s (TFA) teacher preparation and ongoing support division in 2007.

Wetzler brings ten years of leadership experience from TFA to the table, in addition to nine years of consulting work with the Monitor Group. He received his doctorate in education from Columbia Teacher’s College. Aylon Samouha brings five years of school redesign experience as an independent consultant. He worked with Achievement First to build two Greenfield school models, as a consultant led research for the Charter School Growth Fund and the Clayton Christensen Institute, and consulted on the Chicago Breakthrough Schools Fellowship. He was also Chief Schools Officer at Rocketship Education and held senior leadership roles at Teach for America and SCORE! Educational Centers.

The seeds for Transcend were planted when Wetzler and Samouha were working on a project—with Achievement First’s Greenfield Schools—to design and build a school model focused on developing the skills that would lead to success in college. Samouha had been hired as an independent contractor, and Wetzler was a senior advisor on the project from the start. During their work together, they noticed a need for capacity building around design thinking and knowledge sharing to help schools create and bring about change—so that school leaders could apply this approach to important areas such as budget, schedule, instructional models and everything in between. During the course of their work with Achievement First, they formed Transcend to meet this need.

Who They Work With

Transcend’s sweet spot is working with schools, networks or districts that are led by visionary leaders who are looking to transform their existing model. The organization’s ideal partners have a strong vision, a culture of collaboration, and the necessary time and the resources to dedicate to the school model redesign.

What They Do

Transcend assists school leaders with planning and implementing new school models. There are three components of the organization’s work: partnering with school leaders to create and implement new school models; building a group of experts who can support school innovation; and helping schools share stories from their journeys of school model redesign.

Transcend’s leaders consider their work “research and development” for schools and districts that are redesigning their models because they apply learning sciences, motivation sciences and implementation sciences to the biggest questions school operators are wrestling with. They also believe schools need intensive support as they experiment, take risks, and test out changes to their currently functional models in order to find and sometimes create astounding models. The organization’s leaders are dedicated to sharing what works in as much detail as possible, and acting as a research and development engine for the entire field—in order to provide other schools with clear models they can emulate. Transcend plans to work with well known organizations to undergo significant experiments and then share the lessons it learns across the field.

Transcend uses the term “research and development partners” to describe the schools and districts with which it works. The organization’s model for supporting schools and districts through redesign has five phases: Purposeful Planning, Dream and Discover, Design and Develop, Capture and Codify, and Adopt and Adapt.

During each of these phases, Transcend helps schools answer questions such as, “What is my vision for this model I am trying to create?” and “How do we bring our vision to life?” The organization will work with a school or district regardless of which phase it is in. For instance, if a school has already been through a process to design and develop a model, Transcend will support that school to better record its decision making and codify what has worked. Each phase supports a different area of the process of transformation.

A Specific Engagement

Achievement First has been running a network of schools serving low-income students in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island for 15 years. In 2013, Achievement First’s Co-CEOs Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry were making observations about the current state of the network and decided that while it was making steady progress, they had not yet fully closed the gap in college persistence for low-income and high income students. They wondered how they could make more dramatic gains, better foster resilience, agency and other student skills that would lead to success in college and beyond. The network began the Greenfield Schools design project to research what the future of school could be, with the goal of opening two new schools in 2015—an elementary school and a middle school.

Toll and McCurry knew there needed to be a major redesign for the Greenfield model but their dilemma was finding the capacity necessary to make the changes. In November 2013, the network hired Samouha to lead the design effort and brought on Wetzler as a senior advisor to assist in planning and building the model for its Greenfield Schools.

The first Greenfield Schools launched in August 2015 in New Haven, CT. The elementary school opened with kindergarteners and the middle school started with fifth and sixth graders.During the 2015 - 2016 school year, the kindergarten and middle school pilots took place at separate sites. In 2016 - 2017, grades K-6 will be housed in the same building and a decision will be made in fall 2016 about whether to move forward at multiple sites or a single site.

Transcend is supporting the network with planning, design, implementation and iteration for the Greenfield Schools. Samouha has been working on the project full-time since the beginning and he manages a team of eight people including an education technologist, curriculum design experts, a social-emotional learning guru, a school operations expert and a project manager. The team has been involved in planning, building and refining the school model.

Purposeful Planning

Transcend and Achievement First engaged in the Purposeful Planning phase from September through December 2014. The phase began with Wetzler and Samouha having conversations with the leadership team around purpose and the goals of the project, including identifying what problem the network was trying to solve. The next step involved developing a strategy for the work; together they decided that the best strategy was to design a new school model from scratch. During this phase, there were also meetings to discuss the change management strategy, to build a budget for the project and to assist Toll in raising funds for the work.

Dream and Discover

This phase lasted about six months, ending in summer 2014. During that time, Wetzler and Samouha brought in IDEO to offer human-centered design expertise, help the leadership team conduct user research, and to apply principles of design thinking when planning for the work ahead. The leadership team explored various school models, finding inspiration in Summit Public Schools, Acton Academy, High Tech High, Match Next, BASIS Independent Brooklyn, Ron Clark Academy and Montessori for All. The team engaged in more than 70 design sessions and one-to-one interviews with members of the Greenfield community, including students, family members and staff members in order to build and iterate a vision for the Greenfield model.

Design and Develop

The work in the Dream and Discover phase resulted in an emerging blueprint for the transformation. The next step was to support the school in testing out some of the blueprint’s aspects of change; this Design and Develop phase started in summer 2014 and will continue at least through spring 2017. Transcend has been working side-by-side with the Greenfield Schools to pilot some of the new structures with small prototypes [see below]. Then Transcend helped Greenfield scale up what was working, expanding the pilots to kindergarten at the elementary school, and grades five and six at the middle school. Finally it helped the school leadership team figure out how to test out what was working on a whole-school level.

During the pilots, the Greenfield Schools tested out “running partners,” in which students work in pairs to share feedback and push each other to meet their weekly goals. The school also tested out Dream Teams, which are like support groups for each student. Each dream team includes the student’s running partner, a goal coach (which is a teacher), a family member and a community member—all of whom support the student inside and outside of school. Greenfield students lead quarterly meetings with their Dream Teams to share about their progress and goals. The model also incorporates self-directed learning time, and one of the pilots focused on making that time purposeful so that students could “race deeper” rather than “race ahead” on their competency-based progressions. The model also introduced “Expeditions,” which are experiential opportunities for students to explore how to apply their learning outside of the classroom in specific areas of interest such as photography. These expeditions occur every eight weeks and last for one or two weeks.

Compared to the original Achievement First school model, the Greenfield model has students spending substantially more time in small group learning (two hours daily), self-directed learning (two hours daily) and expeditions (four to eight weeks per year).

In order to make these changes, the school model reimagined staffing and integrated technology. There are now content-specific “leads” (experienced teachers) that facilitate large-group learning, and instructors (new teachers) that lead small-group learning and support self-directed learning activities. Expeditions are led by a specialist team that includes experts in the relevant subject area. The school uses InnovateEDU’s Cortex Platform to help students get organized with goal-setting, tracking their own progress and communicating with their Dream Team.

During the 2016 - 2017 school year, Achievement First is expanding its pilot to grades K-6, which will all be housed at the same site. Their ultimate goal is to refine the model and plan to expand to other schools in the network.

Capture and Codify

As of summer 2016, Transcend and the Greenfield Schools are beginning the Capture and Codify phase with plans to ramp it up during the coming school year. The organization will support Achievement First until it can comfortably spread its model to other schools in the network.

Some schools from outside the network have contacted Achievement First with interest in replicating aspects of the model. Transcend is starting to help the network think about the Adopt and Adapt phase so that Achievement First can easily share their story of transformation with other schools and networks so that others can replicate the Greenfield model.

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