We have been deeply engaged in public education reform in Albuquerque, N.M., since 2007. In particular, Eagle Rock has been working with Tony Monfiletto since his tenure as principal of Amy Biehl High School and now as executive director of the New Mexico Center for School Leadership (NMCSL).
NMCSL is an incubator for local charter schools that serve communities in greatest need. In apparent contradiction to this long and healthy relationship, Albuquerque and New Mexico in general are well known for distrusting solutions imposed by outsiders. In fact, Gov. Lew Wallace — the former territorial governor — famously claimed in the late 1870s that, “All calculations based on experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.”
Fortunately, Eagle Rock’s facilitative processes are effective at surfacing local wisdom to solve local problems. We have a clear advantage as an outsider, because we demonstrate over time that we come to nurture and foster the best local thinking rather than impose a turnkey framework.
We have supported schools in Vermont and Iowa to foster competency-based systems, facilitated professional development in Detroit to enhance project-based learning, and launched Mid-Atlantic critical friends groups for Big Picture Learning principals to convene and learn from their collective experiences. In all cases, the center of our work is to identify what is most important to the local educators and systematically support them in what they care about. (To learn more about this approach and the thinking behind it, please read my April 22, 2013 blog post, Experience With Professional Development Influences Eagle Rock’s Approach.)
As a result of our ongoing work in New Mexico, I was invited to attend TEDxABQ Education held on Friday, March 27, 2015, at the African American Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque, where 17 educators offered up visions of reform rooted in their experience in that central New Mexico community. Presentations ranged from transmedia platforms (Elaine Raybourn: Engage Learners with Transmedia Storytelling), to simply getting involved as a parent (Van Overton: Rise of the Supermen), or taking the time to observe engaged students in a portfolio of innovative schools (Paola Peacock Friedrich: Adelante Adolescentes! Empowering our Adolescents).
And each speaker powerfully wove in images from stories in the region to illustrate the assets available in this community. Most emblematic of this theme, Santos Contreras spoke of the power of art as he stood on the stage next to a sculpture created by his students at Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School to represent the theme of thinking outside of the box.
While simply attending an event such as those affiliated with TED may appear passive, the listening aspect is essential to our Professional Development Center’s theory of action. We begin by embedding ourselves in the context, shadowing practitioners, conducting interviews and most important, observing and listening. Our past year’s work with developing New Metrics in New Mexico with the McCune Foundation is characterized by these cycles of listening to what school leaders value and then returning to observe for those values in the school setting.
Recently we have been engaged to help Albuquerque schools better document and scale up their approach to personalized learning (see: New Metrics Initiative Taking Shape in New Mexico). Consistent with our approach, we have Kelsey Baun (Eagle Rock Professional Development Center Fellow) and four Eagle Rock School students flying down to Albuquerque to embed themselves in four local schools conducting focus group interviews. Our attendance at TEDxABQEducation reflects this first step. I listened to each of the speakers and followed up with them during breaks to gain a better sense of what they think works in light of local challenges.
The following day we collaborated with the Learning Alliance New Mexico and the New Mexico Center for School Leadership to hold an Education Collective Consulting event. The Learning Alliance is “a unique model designed to support dialogue on education issues at both the local and state levels. To that end, the Learning Alliance [works] in partnership with local community organizations and networks of education reformers.”
We are pleased to be considered part of that network and asked to lend our expertise in moving from the stage of collecting assets and information to action.
Following deep observations, we convene and reflect back to participants what we have heard and witnessed. This is a key area where being embedded in our own Eagle Rock School provides a clear advantage. We are credible fellow school practitioners integrating our reported findings with connections we see to our day-to-day experience at Eagle Rock.
Dr. Larry Myatt, a national educational consultant, delivered a most interesting talk, where he reframed the conversation around core school design (Reimagining our Schools: The Problem and the Promise). Founder of Education Resources Consortium (ERC) Myatt claims too many reformers take the current school structure for granted and simply push for greater performance.
However a critical analysis might suggest that the underlying design of schools today generates its own host of problems. Dr. Myatt presented — with a mixture of seriousness and humor — how our present-day system would be completely familiar to President Grover Cleveland whose presidency saw the work of the Committee of Ten in 1892 — those university presidents and intellectuals who standardized the approach to public education we are familiar with today.
They determined that the same age of students would learn all together and learn the same material in 50-minute chunks. And, as Dr. Myatt powerfully presented, these were all designed to serve the needs of college admissions departments. In other words, there is no learning science to substantiate these practices.
Our follow-up consulting event took a deeper look at the way schools are designed. For example, Dominic Pettine (TEDx talk: The Most Dangerous Item in a Classroom), spoke of integrating service into every subject area so that students could work on something beyond themselves.
Tony Monfiletto of the New Mexico Center for School Leadership (NMCSL) presented his challenge of scaling up his schools’ unique approach to personalized education that involves socio-emotional supports, community engagement and project-based learning. How do we scale it to become a practice throughout Albuquerque and New Mexico? The previously mentioned work in Albuquerque with Kelsey and students will be the first step of supporting NMCSL to grow this approach and this reflecting back phase is a critical step to our theory of action.
As we contributed to the conversations and the consultations, it became clear that Eagle Rock had some processes that would further support the work of these local educators. The final key part of our approach is to turn insights into actions, ideas into commitments. We have multiple processes available to take the assets harvested and grow them into change projects.
For example, our work on personalized education interviews builds upon the methods of Appreciative Inquiry. We shared another process — design thinking — when Moises Padilla shared his challenge of how to engage staff in conversations about race and equity. In a similar vein, TEDx speaker John Simms (Go with the Flow: Dual Floods of Tech and Trauma as Curriculum), contributed his insights based on the indigenous knowledge movement and its application to surfacing local solutions.
In the end, Eagle Rock was invited to further participate beyond this event and partner with the Learning Alliance. We drafted a plan to partner, use our processes and then support leaving the Learning Alliance in a stronger place to carry on their own work.
This exemplifies our model, and despite General Lew Wallace’s knowing admonition, we think it is possible for outsiders to come in as long as we recognize local strengths, respect context and support the solutions generated by the educators who live and work in that setting.
Readers: What work are you engaged in that would benefit from this approach?
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About the Author: Michael Soguero is the director of professional development at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. There, he is primarily responsible for developing strategy that positively affects public education throughout the United States.