Building Relationships

From the moment they set foot in the classroom, teachers know that their first order of business is to build a relationship with each student and establish a strong sense of community. “I want them to feel that even though we’re together for just five days, we have a relationship and classroom culture that they can remember for the rest of the school year and the future as well,"one teacher told us. Creative icebreaker activities, special class handshakes, and many other simple, but clever, devices helped the teacher and students get to know one another well in a condensed period of time. “I think so much about education is getting the students’ viewpoint and finding out what’s important to them,” said another teacher.

Some of the LPS teachers may already know many, if not most, of the students in their charge, which gives them a running start, but we were struck by how quickly all of the Academies teachers whose classrooms we visited created a relaxed atmosphere that was also highly purposeful. 

Class Size

One of the defining characteristics of the Acceleration Academies is the student-teacher ratio: classes during the Acceleration Academy weeks each have between 10 and 12 students. Ninety-three percent of administrators and 94 percent of teachers rated class size as important or extremely important aspects of the Acceleration Academies’ success on their respective surveys. Indeed, over half of teacher survey respondents cited small classes as one the things they liked best about teaching at the Academies.

School and district administrators, teachers, students, and parents all talked about the benefits of small classes. In addition to setting the stage for positive teacher-student relationships, small classes allow teachers to identify students’ areas of need early on and tailor instruction throughout the week to address those needs. "So it’s almost like a personalized learning approach and small group tutoring," Superintendent Riley told us. 

Keeping class sizes small means that the number of students served at Acceleration Academies is reliant on funding for the program, as the budget dictates how many teachers can be hired for the February and April Academies. 

 Growth Mindset

A core idea in K-12 education today is “growth mindset,” a way of translating into laymen’s terms the recent discoveries in neuroscience. The research suggests that intelligence is not fixed at birth, but rather that the brain has tremendous plasticity, meaning it can grow over time with the right set of supports and opportunities. This research challenges the highly entrenched notion that some students are intelligent and others are not, and focuses on the development of intelligence over time through hard work. Growth mindset is a central tenet of the Lawrence Public Schools Turnaround Plan.

At the beginning of receivership, the Superintendent asked administrators and teachers to read and discuss the best-selling book, Mindset, and they, in turn, introduced the concept to students. During the Acceleration Academies, at least one teacher we interviewed actually begins the week with a discussion about growth mindset and how the brain functions. “Providing students with the right opportunity to struggle and teaching the class to be receptive to each other’s struggle and to encourage the struggle has been really important,” this teacher told us. “So that they see that they’re not giving up and that they can push through. I think setting that norm where struggle is expected has been a really important part of not just telling students about growth mindset but teaching students how to have a growth mindset.”

“We’re trying to instill in our kids the idea that hard work matters. So when our kids give up their vacations to get extra help or they stay late in the day for a longer school day, we think that effort is the key to success and if you put in the hard work, that is how you are going to do better.”
— Superintendent Jeff Riley

Personalizing the Learning

The approach that sums up what is most distinctive about the Acceleration Academies is known as personalized learning. At its core, this approach seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment – what, when, how and where students learn – to address the individual needs, skills and interests of each student. Students can take ownership of their own learning, while also developing deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers and other adults.

“You have to know who’s in front of you before you can really start to instruct them. You have to know how they learn. You have to figure out what clicks with them.”
— Tawonia Wilkes

In a personalized learning environment, the learning objectives and content, as well as the method and pace, may all vary from one student and one classroom to the next. Personalization also encompasses differentiated instruction that supports student progress based on subject matter mastery. Often, technology is utilized in a personalized setting.

Instructional Strategies

We saw a variety of instructional strategies in play during the Academies: project-based or thematic units, and a lot of hands-on activities and movement in the classroom, particular in math and science classes. In English Language Arts, teachers prepared lessons that were relevant to students’ lives or experiences, or connected to real-world events. 

Teachers also designed their learning spaces in multiple ways: some arranged chairs or desks in a circle, while others arranged their own desk to abut those of their students to create a sense of intimacy. Quite a few teachers created stations in their classrooms, whereby students rotated from one activity to the next to do a mix of independent and group work. In some classrooms, the students had the opportunity to use iPads at a station. Some refer to the method of using multiple media and methods as “blended learning.” While the method itself has been around a long time, its meaning has evolved significantly such that it almost always includes some form of technology.

The Co-Teaching Model

We also visited one classroom with a co-teaching model. The two fulltime, licensed teachers, who typically work together in another district during the regular school year, have developed a well-calibrated rhythm in the classroom based on each of their strengths and inclinations. As one of the teachers told us: “We can leverage each other in a multitude of ways so that we can really divide and conquer and meet the kids where they are and differentiate for their needs. So that is really quite a gift to be able to be entrusted with that model of teaching.”


Despite trading a week off from work for a week of working very hard, many Acceleration Academy teachers reported feeling rejuvenated when they returned to their regular classrooms. The ability to get creative with lesson planning and to perform their craft to a receptive audience – and to see changes in students’ attitudes about learning and confidence in their capabilities – reminded them why they went into teaching in the first place and why they constantly strive to improve their practice. They also have a replenished repository of instructional strategies that they acquired during the professional development weekend and/or from collaborating with other excellent educators throughout the week.

In a survey of Academies administrators:

  • 98% reported that teacher skill and talent are important or extremely important to the success of the Academies
  • 78% reported that teacher autonomy is important or extremely important to the success of the Academies
  • 80% reported that professional development for teachers is important or extremely important to the success of the Academies

In a survey of Academies teachers:

  • 98% reported that teacher skill and talent are important or extremely important to the success of the Academies
  • 88% reported that teacher autonomy is important or extremely important to the success of the Academies
  • 79% reported that professional development for teachers is important or extremely important to the success of the Academies
  • 82% reported that being able to develop own curriculum was important or extremely important to their decision to apply to Sontag Prize
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