The Trials and Tribulations of Building a New School

The Trials and Tribulations of Building a New School

By Timothy Dohrer

I’ve been lucky to be involved with several “start-ups” in education, whether inventing a new course or designing a school-within-a-school. Several of these new ideas are even still operating today, which makes me a very proud parent! But I have never had the chance to start an entire school from scratch. In today’s ever-changing world of education, there is a real temptation to imagine what it would be like to use all our new knowledge about teaching and learning and kids to create something new and different.

Several years ago, a group of educators, professors, and families in California did just that when they created East Palo Alto Academy in 2001. The story of its birth and formative years is outlined in a very honest, optimistic, and readable book called Be the Change: Reinventing School for Student Success (2015) written by several founders of the school, including Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond, who served as an advisor on the project.The book outlines the history and context of East Palo Alto, a neighborhood quite different from its tony neighbor Palo Alto, where two powerhouse high schools cater to more wealthy families. East Palo Alto is quite different, with low socio-economic demographics and without a formal high school in the community. The “small school” movement of the 1990s coupled with local interest in starting a new school with Stanford’s help led to a charter school housed in an old elementary building and staffed mostly by graduates of Stanford’s Teacher Education Program.

The rest of the text goes into detail about the curriculum and instruction of the school, as well as the students and teachers who helped create the first iteration of the school. It was a great opportunity to try out many methods of learning often described as “best practice.” This included personalizing learning with small class sizes, teams of teachers and students, an Adviser Room system, and a focus on creating close working relationships between teachers and students. Another essential element of the school was creating a culture of high expectations and rigorous learning that is both experiential and relevant for life and college. They accomplished this through careful hiring, developing teachers, and staying focused on the school’s mission. Finally, the school also developed a culture of professional learning and growth for teachers, staff, and families.

The results? Well, in our current world of charters and closings, the good news is that East Palo Alto Academy continues to be successful today. Not only does is continue to operate but its graduates have gone on to college in record numbers and to persist to college graduation as well. In 2005, 90% of their graduates were admitted to college, more than double the rate for all students in the state and triple for low income and students of color. In 2015, those rates have continued proving that this model has staying power that other schools could emulate.

Maybe the best review of this book comes from my graduate students, who were enthusiastic in their opinion of it. They appreciated the focus on school context, the implementation of student-centered practices, and the frank discussion of the trials and tribulations of opening a new school. Their main assignment in my course is to create a proposal for a new school and Be the Change was a powerful model on how to imagine a different way of “doing school.”

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