Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trust, Respect and Relationships.

As teachers we are often stuck in our own bubble so when I was offered the chance to visit Kent Innovation High (KIH) this morning I jumped at the opportunity. KIH is a relatively young school, opened in 2011, and it has a unique project-based learning focus. Students spend the first part of their day there studying English, Math, Science and Social Studies in an interdisciplinary setting before returning to their home schools for a more traditional experience in electives and extra-curricular activities.

 Upon entering I was immediately struck by learning space envy. Classrooms are huge light and airy spaces with glass walls. Because of the interdisciplinary approach, each room can hold fifty students and two teachers and there are multiple big screens around the room. Hallways serve as collaborative learning spaces with couches, booths and tables fitted with screens the students can hook up their laptops to. My meeting room had four tables, each with their own big screen and it was a joy for me to be able to fully participate in the presentation without having to strain my old and tired eyes to see a screen at the front of the room.

After a quick introduction to the school by American Studies teacher Mike Kaechele we were divided into small groups and handed over to students for a tour. Each student confidently shook our hands and introduced themselves with full eye contact, and while that seems like a small thing, I knew by this first interaction that I was in a special place. My guides Megan and Katie immediately engaged us in conversation as we walked, telling us what the school was about, what each space was for and how classes were organized. They assuredly answered all of our questions and I thought they must have been hand-picked to impress visitors. As we went from room to room however, I began to think that any of the 400 students in the building could have conducted the tour just as well. In every classroom students greeted us naturally and informally and were happy to tell us what they were doing. I never felt like we were interrupting as there was a learning buzz and relaxed atmosphere in every room , with students and teachers engaged in independent, group and class activities.

My learning space envy grew as we visited classrooms with tall whiteboard walls, high cafĂ© tables, stools, and couches alongside regular tables. In the third classroom we visited I realized that I hadn’t seen a teacher’s desk anywhere. Megan showed me where the teachers’ desks where-all located in one room alongside each other. Later in the day teacher Jeff Bush told me that he felt this alternative version of a teachers lounge was one of the most important factors in the success of the building. It facilitates deep and meaningful communication between the staff as well as encouraging collaboration and sharing. Another thing that was notably absent was lockers. Open cubbies could be found outside classrooms stuffed with coats, instruments and backpacks and when I asked Megan about that her response was: It’s all about trust here. We are a family.

This sentiment was repeated several times during the final portion of my visit when we sat with a panel of students. I was so impressed with how articulate these young men and women were as they shared their own learning journeys. Colin told us how he had repeated the same math class at his more traditional home school, despite knowing the content, because he struggled to turn in homework assignments. He reported that he is flourishing at KIH because of the positive mindset of his facilitators (teachers) and the fact that he doesn’t get homework. He gets told what he needs to do and he is trusted to do it when he chooses to do it. Other students enthused about the constant feedback they got from their facilitators because that meant they knew how to improve their assignments and work towards mastery , a stark contrast to their more traditional home schools, where they fail but aren’t quite sure why. And the feedback isn’t a one way street. Reese explained that students provide constant feedback to their facilitators so that they too can learn and grow.

All students were completely aware of the standards they were working towards and appreciated the variety of assessments methods used by their teachers such as oral tests, written responses and one to one interviews, made possible with two teachers in every classroom. While rigor was evident, the most striking aspect of this school was the significance placed upon relationships. When asked what was challenging about being a student at KIH Colin told us the first two weeks were challenging because you have to flip your mindset. You have to learn how to work with others, how to be responsible how to focus on learning about each other. Every single hour of every single day begins with students sharing good news, every student knows each others name and this simple five minute sharing allows them to get to know each other. Keeley shared this with us:

I’m in love with this school. The facilitators are alive and alert and love what they do. They raise us to be like a family, we are comfortable with each other, we trust each other, we value each other. They want to engage us, to learn about our home lives and what is happening with us. We strive to succeed, to be the best we can be, to be diverse and honest; and the facilitators want us to succeed too.

So much about this school was impressive: the physical space, the technology integration, the 1:1 laptop program, the level of student voice, the interdisciplinary approach, the ping pong table, and the project-based focus. But for me personally, what really makes it a special place is the omnipresent emphasis on trust, respect and relationships. I had the opportunity to chat briefly with some staff members over lunch, but I’m hoping that I get to spend more time learning from them at the NovaNow conference in February. If you get offered the chance to attend this event, jump at it!

Inspirational pin-board in student bathroom


  1. Pauline, We really need to start a school like KIH on the East side! Our son currently attends KIH and we are moving soon to the Detroit area and sadly leaving our beloved school behind. Kent Innovations has made a huge difference in our son's life and to our family.

  2. Pauline, I found your post on Twitter and wanted to read it because I, too, recently visited Kent Innovation High and was beyond inpired by my visit. As I was reading, I noticed the similarities in the experiences of our visits. I thought to myself, this school has really perfected their public sharing experience to be consistent, no matter the day. Then, as I peered at the picture of the student panel and realized it was the exact same kids sitting in the exact same order, I giggled at myself, realizing I was in the picture too (bent down scribbling notes furiously). We were on the same tour, courtesy of the amazing Joyce Fouts! I loved re-living this day by reading your post. We were struck by the same things, the most important for me being the family-like relationships that are so alive in this school. Thank you for sharing. Hope to see you at Nova Now!