By Katie Boody
Part I: When Confronted with Constraints, Innovate
To be a teacher in Kansas City in 2008 was to be immersed in uncertainty. That year, the district was in the midst of reorganization under new Superintendent Covington’s “Right Sizing” plan. In laymen's terms, the district was gearing up for a large reduction in schools and staff to reflect a significant decline in student enrollment that had taken place over the last decade, a decade that saw students and families moving to suburban districts and charter schools at record high rates. Unfortunately, no appropriate reductions in school size or staff throughout the process had taken place, leaving many a behemoth of ornate, brick and mortar school buildings painfully under utilized.
To make up for the now massive loss in facility expenses the district was enduring, all of the middle schools in KCPS would close. Over a three year process, 6th, 7th, and eventually, 8th grades would be added to existing K-5 elementary schools (a decision that has since been reversed, with two new middle schools reopening in 2014).
Another first year teacher and I were placed at C.A. Franklin elementary school and were tasked with the implementation of the new middle school. We would repurpose a downstairs windowless wing of the building for roughly 60 new 6th and 7th graders that would be added to the building. The following year, we would add 8th grade.
We were up for the task—young, ambitious and naive, we were ready to design the middle school of the future. Personally, I saw the newness of the K-8 restructuring as a fortuitous opportunity. Without any precursor, we had the luxury of beginning with a blank slate and the awesome opportunity to forge something completely new. However, despite the zeal with which we approached the work, obstacles were inevitable. We tried to view these obstacles as simple constraints and worked to design innovative solutions regardless.
This isn't a middle school
C.A. Franklin was opened in 1968 as Kansas City’s answer to the Open Classroom Movement, a theory of experimental education design that had swept the coasts a few years earlier. The idea was to remove the constructs of classroom walls to build creativity.
Larry Cuban writes on the open classroom concept:
“For more than a decade, U.S. schools had been subjected to withering attacks, blamed for everything from the launch of Sputnik to urban decay. They were faulted for not developing enough engineers and scientists; for being racially segregated and hostile to disadvantaged children; and for producing uncreative graduates who seldom questioned authority. Critics thought that the schools could be the vehicle for winning the Cold War, furthering the civil rights struggle, and roiling a 1950s culture of conformity that suffocated imagination. Open classrooms’ focus on students’ “learning by doing” resonated with those who believed that America’s formal, teacher-led classrooms were crushing students’ creativity.”
Forty years later, most of the same concerns mentioned in Cuban’s work still existed. C.A. Franklin was 99% African American and Free and Reduced Lunch, a national movement for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education had swept national policy, and recent reports placed the U.S. behind other industrialized nations in academics. However, a full four decades into implementation, the open classroom concept at C.A. Franklin yielded little to no visible results in terms of creative, actively learning students. Cubicle partitions had been brought in to re-separate classrooms. Students sat in traditional school desks, often in rows. The teacher was still the center of the classroom. Student achievement suffered. Ninety-three percent of students below grade level.
However, one of the biggest constraints, and complaints, came directly from our students. “This isn’t a middle school,” they complained on day one, looking around at our restructured hallway, with its shoddy brown carpet, 1970s fixtures and lack of natural light. They had been working their entire elementary careers to graduate to one of the grandiose Gothic-styled school buildings; the ones that desegregation had retrofitted with Olympic sized swimming pools, lockers, and planetariums. Instead, they were in our makeshift version of a middle school, constructed by two dilettantes with a combined age of 44.
Photos courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections
Fortunately, our middle schoolers were never reluctant to alert of us of other existing constraints, which we did our best to build solutions for:
Constraint #1: No bell system. As our new middle school would be changing classes ever 52 minutes, we would need a system in which to signal the end of class, a passing period and the beginning of class.
Our solution: Hacked together bell system. We synced all of our clocks (mine being a digital alarm clock), and at the designated time, I would jump into the hallway with a kitchen timer and a hand bell to signal passing and start time.
Reality: This was a horrible solution. Clocks would continually lose their synchronicity, and we underestimated the difficulty of managing a hallway of 7th graders during a passing period, while simultaneously getting ready to teach another course in three minutes. Also, this solution was not foolproof. One of my former students, aptly named Princess, had the brilliant idea to fast forward my alarm clock one day. When the alarm went off, I cheerily exclaimed, “Wow! Time flies when you’re having fun, have a great day guys!” As students exited into the hallway (in an uncharacteristically quiet demeanor), I learned that Princess had fast forwarded the clock, and in a moment of pure genius, dismissed the class a full 35 minutes early.
Constraint #2: No lockers. As an open school concept, no permanent fixtures, such as lockers, existed. In fact, because all of the walls were cubicle walls, no solid enough structure to hang hooks or build shelves on existed in most of the classrooms.
Our solution: Rolling coat racks hacked into “lockers.” We had access to several armoires on wheels that were left over from the school’s early days. There was a cut out at the end of the middle school hallway where we could position the coat racks together so that they created a locker hallway/coat rack room scenario. We removed the doors on the armoires so students could put their coats and backpacks inside and take their required materials with them to their classes. We tried to tie the different armoires together to create a uniform system.
Reality: Students would break the coat racks free, rolling them down the hallway during passing periods (and sometimes during class), “mooing” and making animal sounds, as if the armoires were wooly mammoths grazing the great plains of our open hallways. When we tried to take the wheels off to stop the rolling, we realized that the armoires were extremely hazardous and were prone to toppling over, potentially onto one of our students. Overall, this innovation could most likely be categorized as a failure
Constraint #3: Classroom management. So we were teaching middle schoolers. And as it turns out, pre-adolescents are difficult to manage. Beyond mooing and rolling a breakaway armoire down the hallway, our middle schoolers would talk incessantly, throw paper over the cubicle partition walls, and get into the occasional fist fight.
Our solution: Despite their hard-to-please nature, our middle schoolers still desperately wanted lockers. Real lockers. In a moment of genius, we found lockers on Craigslist from an old school and devised a management system we were sure would work. We spent an entire weekend making laminated index cards with each child’s name on it. The kids would earn stickers for good behavior on their card. Good behavior was discerned by some rating rubric we had devised with “must dos” for each class period (stay on task, bring supplies, work diligently, etc). Kids would “bank” their stickers at the end of the weekend in file folders stuffed into milk crates, all building up to the day when they had “earned” their lockers.
Reality: Finally, after months of trial and error, it seemed like we had hit on something that was working. Our kids were working hard to earn their lockers and holding one another accountable. It was great! And then our principal, after initially approving the whole ordeal, decided that it would require a district engineer to green light the locker initiative -- and she wouldn’t pay the man from Craigslist for lockers. Again, we saw this as just a minor set back, devised a plan to raise the money independently and were ready to march downtown with our proposal in hand to get an engineer in our building. However, our principal met us again with a hard “no,” a resounding “no.” “Lockers will not be coming into this building,” we were told. Upon recounting the disappointing news to our middle schoolers, nothing short of a mini-riot ensued.
Constraint #4: Student achievement. Ninety-three percent of our students were not on grade level, meaning that only 7% were reading and doing math on a level appropriate for 6th and 7th graders. Of the 93% that were behind, many were significantly struggling with basic numeracy and literacy. One of our students was completely illiterate, only knowing how to spell his name. Another was still struggling with basic subtraction. Yet, we knew had to make significant gain to have any hope of not being closed the following years as reductions continued.
Our solution: Novice teachers, we hacked together whatever resources we could. We spent hours scouring the internet for master lesson plans. We tried to use the textbooks we had, although they were often misaligned or given to us in incomplete sets. We set up a Saturday school academy, orchestrating massive car pooling efforts to get students to a church site for a few hours for additional tutoring.
Reality: Our scores improved by 10%, gaining us some recognition under AYP (Annuall Yearly Progress) mandates from No Child Left Behind. Yet the reality remained that more than 80% of our students were still underperforming. The following year, the school was slated to close. Our students would be displaced, this time with the district again deciding to restructure middle schools, creating 7-12 centers at area high schools. They would finally get lockers, swimming pools and have “real” classrooms. Yet they would enter high school vastly underprepared academically.
The Need to Innovate
Originally, I was convinced that we needed to innovate around the mundane tasks that were eating at our instructional time. Why were expending so much energy on hacking together bell systems, lockers, and management systems, rather than spending every last second fixating on our students’ actual academic needs? If we could just streamline and automate all of the mundane processes -- making copies, grading, bulletin boards, scheduling, bell systems -- we would be able to get ahead and redirect all of our energy toward student success.
However, it’s never that simple. After the closing of C.A. Franklin, I had the opportunity to be a founding teacher at Alta Vista Charter Middle School. This time, things were different. We were in a building with real walls, a working bell system, a brand new copier, a supportive principal, small class sizes, etc. We even had a volunteer crew help clean the building and paint and decorate our classroom walls. However, the challenge of moving student achievement was still a beast of a problem. At our new school, again only 7% of our students were on grade level. I was facing an almost identical academic challenge with my students. Through traditional teaching methods, and a lot of long hours, we were able to eventually make some remarkable gains, moving students to about 30% proficiency. However, that wasn’t enough. We weren’t teaching to all of our students’ needs, and the diverse array of challenges our students experienced were too much for one teacher to remediate through traditional teaching strategies. So this begs the next question—how do we not only innovate solutions that free teachers to fully focus on students, but how also do we dream up new school designs, products and services that radically transform the learner?
how do we [...] radically transform the learner?