Analysis: From a Lakota-focused microschool to service opportunities for children with disabilities, 161 schools innovating to support marginalized students


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Fostering innovation in schools can currently feel very out of step with the current realities of educators. As I heard a principal say in a focus group last fall, pushing innovation is like “trying to remodel your kitchen when your living room is on fire.”

But new data suggests that some schools are still finding ways to innovate — and focus their work on key equity issues.

The Canopy Project, a collaborative project to identify and share a variety of innovative learning environments, is releasing an updated dataset to shed light on the practices and priorities of innovative learning communities. The data is freely available and the project organizers plan to publish an in-depth analysis in the coming months.

An early look at the data made one thing clear: A pressing reason for innovation in schools is to develop solutions to the problems most often faced by marginalized students and families. Through approaches such as culturally nurturing environments and equal access to real-world learning opportunities, these schools demonstrate that innovation is not just about flashy initiatives, but about designing a more equitable system.

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Since 2018, the Canopy project has aimed to capture the diversity of K-12 learning environments and challenge old assumptions about “school.” First, the project invites hundreds of education-focused organizations to nominate schools they believe deserve greater credit for creating equitable and student-centered learning environments. Next, the nominated schools are invited to share more about the “what” and “why” of their innovations in a 20-minute survey. As the purpose of the project is to identify trends and patterns in school practice, schools are not formally evaluated before admission.

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Originally created by the Christensen Institute and now led by the Center on Reinventing Public Education and Transcend, the project recently updated its interactive portal to showcase new data from 161 schools whose leaders recently participated in the Canopy survey.

Historically, schools in the Canopy Project have come from a variety of regions and contexts for K-12 innovation, and this year’s dataset is no different. About half of the 161 included in the new survey are traditional district schools, while 35% are charter schools and 12% are independent (private) schools. Smaller percentages call themselves micro schools (7%), virtual schools (6%) or homeschooling cooperatives (3%). A quarter of the schools are led by leaders of color and 60% by women. Schools are located in 40 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico.

Of the schools that took part in the survey, four-fifths said they design their learning environments to meet the needs of students who have been marginalized. Of these, most say their designs specifically focus on children with learning difficulties and disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, and children of color.

What does it mean to focus on marginalized students in school design? A report from the Canopy project will provide a more in-depth analysis in the coming months, but the schools’ profiles offer some clues.

For example, one approach cited by 76% of Canopy respondents is to design learning environments that honor and connect with students’ cultural backgrounds. For example, the Oceti Sakowin Educational Learning Center in Rapid City, South Dakota, is a microschool — which supports just six students — that its co-leaders say is designed “centered on Indigenous learners.” The micro-school seeks to “cultivate and strengthen the cultural identity of learners by validating Lakota knowledge, using Lakota thought and philosophy as a point of reference.” Principals report that their approach is sensitive to trauma students may have experienced and the teaching relates their learning to the country and community around them.

Another common approach, also reported by the vast majority of Canopy schools, is to help students learn through real-world experiences. While this is by no means new, it is often perceived as a privilege reserved for interested or gifted students. However, schools that focus on innovation for equity offer these experiences to students who are not often given access to them. Chautauqua School, a charter company in Panama City, Florida, develops service learning experiences specifically for students with disabilities and learning difficulties. Students participate in both local and international trips (funded entirely by the school) during which they develop skills and knowledge by helping other communities. With 48 enrolled students, the school strives to develop social awareness and action in its students, reflecting its motto that people with disabilities are “the servants, not the servants”.

At Cañon City High School, a comprehensive high school in Colorado, students are mentored by neighborhood partners, complete community internships, and earn college credit while still in high school. The school offers career opportunities to students beginning in the ninth grade and helps each student identify career goals and a path to achieving them. The school’s Canopy profile describes the pairing of academic and professional opportunities with “preemptive and proactive” social-emotional learning support to ensure each student graduates and prepares for a viable next step after high school. Principal Bill Summers was recently named Colorado Principal of the Year, and during his six years at the school graduation rates have increased from 73% to 89%.

The moment could not be more urgent to direct innovation efforts toward solutions that reflect a radical commitment to justice. Rather than flocking to support initiatives because they are flashy and new, education leaders and policymakers should focus on how innovative ideas promote equity. As a coalition of education leaders of color recently wrote, “innovation must be defined by how a solution … recognizes, reflects and rewards a child’s dynamic dimensions” – particularly students who have historically been underserved by the traditional system.

This year’s Canopy data suggests that some schools are actively exploring these solutions. Going forward, CRPE and Transcend will continue to work with Canopy project staff to understand how schools are doing this, including in-depth research on select approaches that are producing results.

Chelsea Waite is a senior researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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