In northern California, miles from the Nevada border, +Impact Schools, an independent school offering K-12 classes, is working to build upon its successes as an expeditionary-based learning school. At the same time, it continues to develop methods to partner and assist other schools throughout the country, particularly district public schools that may be in danger of funding cuts.
"We're looking at our vision values, and making sure we're still grounded in that. We're sitting with a group of extremely educated educators and looking to build on our program," Mara Jenkins, a history teacher and the Dean of Students at the school, said. “No one has fixed education yet, but we are endeavoring to do so."
+Impact School’s efforts to strengthen other schools as it strengthens itself is not an isolated action, according to Myra McGovern, a vice president of media relations at the National Association for Independent Schools. As school district budgets face trimming, endangering school programs and other amenities, independent schools are finding opportunities for partnerships via the dissemination of materials online and through professional development and collaboration.
McGovern said the initial worry about collaboration is usually centered around whether independent or private schools would dictate strategy, but she believed schools and teachers were better suited for teamwork. Both public and private school teachers offered strength and unique insight.
“From the public school side, public school teachers bring in experience working with a vast range of ability levels and because public schools serve all students they have to differentiate their instruction a great deal more than private schools, which are generally geared towards students of a particular ability level,” she said. “Private school teachers can have more autonomy in the classroom and fewer stipulations of what they teach.”
+Impact’s classwork and teaching methods are based in a personalized experience for students that can involve significant field work; Jenkins described a visit to Diné land, visiting with elders and learning about the tumultuous history of the tribe’s relationship with the U.S. Government. Classwork and expedition work go hand in hand, permeating the conventional lecture-based, teacher-led approach of a K-12 classroom.
“The kids are just so excited, because they feel like ‘I’m not just learning math, I’m actually doing something that’s relevant and with real people, not just the people that are in their classroom,’” school founder and CEO Mark Kushner said.
In terms of public collaborations, Kushner pointed to the real-world benefits of the projects students were engaged in, calling them the “environmental watchdogs” of the Tahoe Valley. About 30% of the budget goes to tuition assistance, with Jenkins remarking that about $500,000 was available for scholarships.
The school had previously partnered with Summit Base Camp, an LMS powered and supported by Facebook that enabled the school to offer online materials for public schools, but Jenkins said it was difficult to translate the expeditionary learning and mastery-based grading at +Impact into Summit, and the school will not be using it in the coming year.
According to McGovern, there are many examples of schools disseminating their models via platforms such as Summit, and she had seen a small, though burgeoning trend of private schools that are licensing their curricula and learning platform for use in other schools or school districts. She cited the example of AltSchool, an education startup founded in 2014 that had opened several small schools and was developing open educational resources for use by private and public schools throughout the country.
Online opportunities can be of use to public and private schools, because independent schools are often able to offer services that may not necessarily be available for cash-strapped districts. +Impact’s many expedition-based amenities are a significant expense, though Jenkins asserts that through collaborations and professional development, the school has takeaways to offer for other districts, even if funding is not necessarily comparable.
“We want to be the best little school in the country, and we want to be sure they can inform what we do and we can help what they do,” she said, speaking about other schools and districts. “The world that our students are joining is different than the world we graduated from in high school.”
McGovern also believed there were lessons and opportunities for collaboration and lessons learned between public and private schools, even with the lack of equitable funding.
“The real asset of independent schools isn’t the facility or budget. It’s the human capital; that’s the greatest asset, and that’s something anybody can focus on,” she said. “For a teacher in any kind of school setting, the key is to take that mentality of private school, of teacher creativity and innovation and model that in whatever circumstances.