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August 27, 2018

Driving Innovation Through Partnership

Ben Kornell, President and CEO

The Altitude Learning team at Odyssey STEM Academy, Paramount Unified School District.

How do you connect islands of innovation to build community, create connectivity, and radically transform education? President and CEO Ben Kornell reflects on his experience as a teacher and why collaboration is the key to scaling educational transformation.

I vividly remember my first day as a teacher. Gut-wrenching anxiety melded with a euphoric sense of possibility as I waited outside room 2 for my 6th-graders to arrive. Despite the heat radiating off the asphalt, everyone sported their “Sunday best” (on a Wednesday). The fan hummed overhead, the only sound in the otherwise-silent classroom, as we all sized each other up—and considered the adventure that would be middle school.

Sixteen years later, although my teacher nightmares have finally faded away, the memory still stirs embers of excitement and trepidation. I’ll never forget that first day. But that was probably the only thing typical about that first year.

Read about how to create a culture of innovation from our Chief Impact Officer and Chief Academic Officer Devin Vodicka.

No Teacher Is an Island...Even on an Island

The Altitude Learning team on site with educators at Menlo Park City School District.

Confession: My first year teaching was on an island in the Bahamas. We converted an old one-bedroom concrete slab house and Deep Creek Middle School was born. Founded to serve kids across the island of Eleuthera, our school had more chickens in attendance than students that first year! The first semester, I struggled with classroom management—and I had only 10 6th-graders. But I also juggled a load of three Spanish preps, one English prep, PE, and the after-school program.

Discussing the many ways students can document their work with teaching teams at Menlo Park City School District.

As I honed my craft and built relationships with my students Errol, Juliana, Laneisha, Joseph, and the rest of the sixth-grade crew, I started to grow as an educator. With encouragement from my principal, I started to veer off-script from the textbooks and focus on inquiry-based projects. We partnered with local community members to build authentic connections between literacy, Spanish, and health. The walls of the school disappeared as we began to explore the island as our classroom: Students learned about the cruise ship industry and eco-tourism; they created biodiesel and studied sustainability; and by the end of the year, they all learned to scuba dive—even though many of them couldn’t even swim on day one.

Like all first-year teachers, I got back much more than I gave. But the true gift of that first year was the sense of possibility it imbued in me—the possibility of what learners can accomplish, the possibility of the impact a teacher can have on students’ lives, the possibility of what education can mean for kids and a community. And yet in many ways as an educator, I felt alone—literally and metaphorically—on an island.

Building Bridges and Community

At Space of Mind, building curriculum using backwards design principles.

Fast forward to the past year: I’ve been working with a small group of teachers across our partner schools who share that sense of possibility, along with a sense of urgency. Like me, they felt as though they were teaching on islands. In small doses, sometimes isolation can feel like a good thing. It can provide shelter from the storms that may surround our community, our schools, and our districts. It can offer a cove for creativity and focus. But teaching and learning in this manner can only work so well for so long. Sheltering students from the outside elements won't prepare them for the future. Unlocking the potential of each student requires much more than a single teacher working alone. To fundamentally impact and empower learners, it’s critical that we build bridges across classrooms, schools, and organizations.

At Altitude Learning, we have a deep appreciation for how hard adaptive change can be in learner-centric environments, and over the past year working closely with our partners, we’ve developed a better understanding of our role in amplifying the teaching of the diverse practitioners within these communities. We have increased our resolve that students in a variety of models can drive their own learning. Partner districts and schools are taking a cue from our approach and "acting like a startup" to accelerate toward a learner-centric model.

Last spring, we convened an online “coffee chat” where a dozen educators from our network video conferenced to share best practices and ideas. The result was an exchange of quality lesson plans and units across schools and a deep discussion of performance assessment do’s and don’ts that informed educators' practice and ultimately had a positive impact on the student experience. As educators transcended the boundaries of their classrooms and schools to tackle the challenge of shifting to learner-centered practices together, authentic connections took root.

Moving Forward Together

Celebrating the new school year with educators at Arcadia Unified School District!

Today, more than 20 school communities are part of the Altitude Learning network. We are an archipelago connected by our vision of student-centered learning and a common learning platform. Our diverse and growing network includes school communities that range from public to private, secular to religious, whole-district to single schools. Together we are investing in the possibility that so many of us experienced in our first years of teaching. Together, we can and we must transform education.

As schools across the country open their doors for the 2018-19 school year in the coming days, Altitude Learning will add 300 partner educators to our growing community. I confess that I feel the same mix of anxiety and optimism from my first days as a teacher. With so much at stake, we must band together to build bridges between the islands of innovation that exist, and commit to a shared purpose of improving education for all children. There are bound to be storms along the way, but by working together, I believe we can weather them—and thrive.

Learn more about our partner school program