The structure and systems associated with the Acceleration Academies facilitate personalized learning. The intervention is designed to give struggling students a significant amount of additional time with effective teachers, and to give teachers the resources and supports they need to meet the individual needs of the students in their charge. Each school has the opportunity to customize the Academies in a way that is specific to its context and local traditions.
Effective Structures Enable Learning
The district is responsible for creating or enabling the structures and systems associated with the Acceleration Academies. This includes setting aside a time and place to hold the program; allocating and raising funds to adequately support the program; negotiating contracts as necessary to ensure proper staffing; and coordinating logistical elements to keep the focus on teaching and learning at the school and classroom levels. One of the key enabling conditions for the Lawrence Acceleration Academies is the Sontag Prize itself, which draws excellent teachers and provides both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to participate.
The district’s “open architecture model” applies to the Acceleration Academies. Rather than espouse a one-size-fits-all approach across the district, LPS leadership sets basic policies and operating procedures to ensure common standards, but allows room for innovation at the school level. High performing schools are granted substantial flexibility to design their own programs, whereas schools that require additional support from the district to raise student performance have more limited autonomies.
More Time for Instruction
The schedule – the details of which are determined at the school level – provides a balance of time for instruction, enrichment opportunities, and teacher planning. Enrichment classes provide students with opportunities to recharge for their academic lessons and gain exposure to new ideas and activities – and give teachers time to reflect, prepare, and collaborate. Longer, uninterrupted instructional blocks allow teachers to be more creative and flexible with their lessons. If students need additional help with particular concepts, or are fully immersed and engaged with a topic, teachers can take a deeper dive. Students are able to concentrate more fully on the topic at hand because they aren’t being asked to switch mental gears at prescribed, and sometimes arbitrary, intervals throughout the day.
Classes at the Acceleration Academies are smaller than during the regular school year. Each class has 10 to 12 students per teacher, and students are grouped based on the use of data. Furthermore, student selection is deliberate and aligned with the purpose and goals of the program. School leaders carefully consider student data, as well as input from teachers, to determine which students are likely to benefit most from the intervention.
Aligning Systems with Goals
District and school structures and systems must align with goals and strategies for improvement, and must foster rather than inhibit teaching and learning (Childress, Elmore & Grossman, 2006). This includes allocating resources to programs and initiatives based on their relevance to district priorities, and creating the conditions that allow teachers and students to do their best work (Center on Innovation & Improvement, 2011; AdvanceED, 2011). For example, the amount of instructional time and material and fiscal resources must be sufficient to meet student performance improvement goals (AdvanceED, 2011).
Researchers in Chicago found that the likelihood of schools making meaningful improvement was dependent on their strength in the following areas: school leadership, parent and community ties, professional capacity of the faculty, school learning climate, and instructional guidance (Bryk, et al, 2010). While their research focused on schools, the authors concluded that “as school districts think about the task of strategic planning for school improvement at scale and redesigning their central offices to support such work, our evidence does suggest that districts are highly unlikely to succeed absent sustained attention to all five of these organizational subsystems.” (Bryk et al, 2010, p. 96).
Syntheses of the research on particular aspects of the structures and systems associated with the Academies can be found in Resources.
A Responsive System
All structures and systems should align with performance and improvement goals, and should promote rather than inhibit teaching and learning. This includes assessing how resources such as money, time, and personnel are being allocated, and encouraging flexibility and differentiation in order to be responsive to the needs within a particular school, district, or community. The ESSA legislation provides more latitude to the states to rethink structures and systems in accordance with their priorities.
A Cost-Effective Innovation
Innovative programs need not be cost prohibitive. Existing federal, state, and local funding can be leveraged to support a district’s goals and priorities, and additional funds can be raised to supplement the budget. On the other hand, outside funding does seem to be necessary to fully realize the model. One of the challenges of the Academies has been adjusting the number of students served each year, based on budget constraints and the availability of philanthropic dollars.
School Schedule as a Change Lever
Schedules are tools that can be adapted to enhance teaching and learning. Taking a look at how time is being used during the day through the lens of what students and teachers need to be most effective may result in alterations to the schedule that support school improvement efforts.
The amount of time students spend in school, or in other educational activities, should be commensurate with the amount of time they need to acquire the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their academic careers and beyond. Further, the amount of time students need varies among individual students. A program such as the Acceleration Academies expands the school year for students who are likely to benefit most from this type of intervention.
Reducing class sizes is infeasible in many school districts; however, there are innovative and effective ways to use technology and other resources to enable teachers to work with smaller groups of students.