Visitors to the Acceleration Academies invariably see what’s on offer: a genuine celebration of teaching and learning. It would be easy to dismiss this value as icing on the cake of a well-designed week of deep instruction, but we came away feeling that celebration and appreciation are key enabling conditions that are absolutely essential to the success of the Academies.

Students are celebrated for their hard work and earnest desire to better themselves by using their vacation time to improve their learning outcomes. Teachers are celebrated for their talent, creativity, and willingness to give up their vacation week to teach students in greatest need.

Learning is celebrated as the key to a positive and hopeful future, and as a joyful pursuit. As Superintendent Riley told us,

“I think we live in a time of compliance-driven joylessness. Sometimes, people talk about joy and it’s almost like they’re forcing that term. What we’re trying to do is make education fun and exciting.”

Celebration comes in many forms in the Academies. Obviously, the Sontag Prize is certainly one important vehicle – an appreciation of teaching talent. In addition to receiving a generous honorarium, teachers receive a handsome Lucite plaque, an iPad, and a custom-made Sontag jacket – all of which are presented to them on the Saturday night prior to the Academies at a festive dinner at a fine hotel. In addition, in the middle of the Academies week, teachers from out of state are taken to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End.

For students, getting the “golden ticket” is cause for great celebration. Schools often hold assemblies to announce the winners, and students receive a prize for returning the signed golden ticket. At one school, for example, the prize was a jeans-wearing school day, something highly valued by students who typically don uniforms. Students with perfect attendance receive a $40 gift card at the end of the week; this idea originated with the lead private funder of the Academies, who said he wants students to treat school as they would a first job, enabling them to make a concrete contribution to their families.

During the week of the Academies, there are daily raffles, often at lunchtime. Some schools have assemblies at the end of each day during the Academies. At the elementary and middle schools, prizes might include video games and the like. At the high school level, students are rewarded with Red Sox tickets and ChromeBooks. 

Most schools also offer incentives beyond what the district provides.  One principal mentioned that her school takes students on a field trip as an added bonus. In another building, the students are allowed to miss the last three days of the school year (though many students said that they’d be in attendance because they want to be with their friends). At yet another school, dozens of used bicycles were brought to the school for students to take home at the end of the week. Perhaps the most notable prize is the “money booth,” a phone booth-like structure into which dollar bills are placed. A student is chosen to stand in the booth as a leaf-blowing machine sends dollars swirling around; the student keeps whatever money she can catch in 30 seconds.  

In our survey of students, teachers, and administrators who participated in the Academies:

  • 14 student survey respondents (4.1%) said, in response to an open-ended question, that the prizes/incentives were what they liked best about the Academies.
  • 92.5% of respondents to the administrator survey and 76.5% of respondents to the teacher survey indicated that incentives for student attendance were important or very important to the success of the Academies. 

For the high school focus group respondents, earning 2.5 credits in a week was the biggest incentive; the rest was “bonus.” Most said they would go to the Academies to get the credits, even without the prizes. In fact, many younger and older students said that, while the prizes were very much desired, they were often not the primary reason for their attendance.     

It is rare in an era of high-stakes accountability that exemplary teaching and engaged learning are truly celebrated. The Academies seem to have found a sweet spot by setting the conditions for teachers to inspire their students, and for students to aspire to goals they never thought possible.