School Transformation: Scaling What Works

As I mentioned in the article ‘Teacher Institute: Teaching Our Ways’, when we originally developed TAF Academy, our goal was to open a total of five TAF Academy schools in the Puget Sound area. The re-emergence of charter school interests and the 2012 charter school initiative made it very difficult for TAF to get additional investment in the model—regardless of how successful it was. While that was disappointing, it really opened up our minds to a much better solution for scaling the TAF Academy academic model. Things happen for a reason, and when the time is right.

At the end of our first STEMbyTAF Teacher Institute offering, we had conversations with the principal and teachers from Mountview Elementary (Highline) about the notion of turning their entire school into a STEMbyTAF model because their experience at the Institute left them wanting more. We were already in the process of identifying what it would take to transform a school with existing staff and students into a STEMbyTAF model. We knew it would take a lot of work because we’re talking about changing an entire culture, but we felt it was the best way to spread the STEMbyTAF model as a whole for those who wanted the TAF Academy experience. We had a willing school to pilot the idea, so off we went!

We had several meetings with the staff and leadership and once we came up with an approach, we had to take the final step—having the teachers vote on implementing the model. About 90% of the teachers raised their hands and the ones that didn’t were more skeptical than unwilling. We started the school year with a few simple goals: 1) Get teachers grounded in our brand of project based learning 2) Do two exhibitions of learning and show measurable progress in planning, content and execution 3) Collaborate on projects by grade level 4) See improvement in student engagement.

We placed an instructional coach on the campus to provide daily support and our other program managers (college and career, education technology, and STEM integration) added value at points along the way. During the first project planning meeting I gave my usual ‘your first project is going to suck, but you and the students will learn a lot’ speech. Then off they went using their tools from the STEMbyTAF Teacher Institute to refine their work.

The first exhibition was as expected—obvious variations in preparedness and quality—and we addressed every point of improvement in the debrief that followed. The second exhibition was much better and gave us a signal we were on the right track. Sadly the principal moved after the first year and while we continued with the teachers through the second year, the new principal had a different direction and we mutually agreed to halt the pilot.

Word got out about the possibility and we were hired by Two Rivers School (Snoqualmie) to implement the model. We made it through one year, but they were unable to fund the next.

We learned a lot from working with both these schools and we have developed what we believe is the right approach with just enough room for modification based on the school culture. We added in safeguards like school board approval and superintendent approval on top of the things we were already doing.

We are now in our second year with Boze Elementary School (Tacoma) and, man, can we see the difference! Between our experience, the sponsorship from the board and superintendent, the excellent leadership and the willingness for staff to learn something completely different, we have seen the vision come to light. Just like students, adults learn at different rates. We are continually paying extra attention to how we move teachers along the process to make sure their students benefit every step of the way.

The goal is to support schools for four years in order to make it sustainable by the school community. The cost to transform an entire school (elementary and middle) is $150K-200K per year, which translates to about $350-$400 per student per year. With some shifts in how spending is allocated, this is totally affordable for schools.

You can read more about STEMbyTAF School Transformation here:

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