First Person

Commentary: A model of empowered education

Peg Hoey describes Kunskapsskolan Education, an international school model based in Sweden and now in the U.S.

As the world becomes increasingly complex and interconnected, new opportunities open for our children every day. To gain access to all that the world has to offer — education, social connections and careers – they need to have the curiosity, courage, stamina and resilience to recognize opportunity and turn it into their futures.

Since 2000, when our first school opened in Sweden, Kunskapsskolan Education (KED) has continuously redeveloped its model of personalized education to meet this demand by providing the supports, resources and tools for students to discover that they can learn from anything – that there is always a way around – given the right mindset and educational foundation.

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Our core values drive our approach to personalized education:

  • All people are different
  • We have clear goals and challenging requirements
  • Education is for life
  • Life is what I make it

The KED model provides the foundation for a personalized, empowered education. Since “all people are different,” we focus on each student as an individual. Every student has a base coach who meets with her in a base group twice a day in addition to engaging in a 1:1 coaching session each week. The focus of this session is to look back on what worked well and what needs revision as the student and coach reflect on what strategies the student employed in meeting her goals. Over time – for some students, a little and for others, a lot – students build their personal backpack of strategies that work for them, from where and when to study to whom and with what to study. Our students build a constructive attitude towards learning to pull out of that backpack when the world gets tough or confusing.

Different people have different goals. For students to achieve academically and socially more than they think possible, those goals must be clear, challenging and reasonable. First, the goals should be clear: Everyone working with the student should be able to understand the goals so we can work together to make sure the student is more than successful.

Goals in our schools are unabashedly tied to academics and flow backwards and forwards to the quality and quantity of knowledge the student wants to achieve by the time she leaves our school.  Goals must be challenging and represent an enticing stretch for the student, and at the same time, the goal must be reasonable – something that the student can achieve in a time span that she can grasp and that is in line with her abilities.

In addition to goal setting, strategy experimentation, and coaching, we provide the student with an integrated set of tools so that personalization can happen:

  • We use time as a resource by organizing it into different teaching and learning sessions so that students and teachers can use it most efficiently. Students attend labs (inquiry-based sessions), workshops (time to work with subject teacher support), lectures (short, intensive presentations to a group), communication sessions (oral dialogue) and seminars (structured discussions to deepen understanding). Students’ schedules are a mix of compulsory and non-compulsory sessions that they chose to meet their academic goals.
  • Our teachers have three different roles: As base coaches, subject teachers and general teachers. As a base coach, they are students’ guides and facilitators. As a subject teacher, they are responsible for students’ mastery over their content area; as a general teacher, they help and are role models to all students.
  • Our Steps and Themes curriculum is housed in the Learning Portal™, which can be accessed 24/7. Our subjects meet students where they currently are in their knowledge development, and they organized around authentic projects that where students prove mastery over the content. In Steps (ELA, Math, Spanish) students progress at their own pace. In Themes, students study the humanities through multidisciplinary themes with their grade cohorts.
  • We use space differently. Our walls are transparent so that everyone can be seen, which creates safety, collaboration, and creativity. Wasted space is kept to a minimum, since all spaces are learning spaces.

KED is now educating students in three countries – the U.K., Sweden, and the U.S.; our first school in India opens in 2013. To leverage this global field of practice, we have co-developed core manuals, performance management tools, and a KED teacher certification path. Our network-wide working groups in special education, math, and curriculum meet monthly via Skype. The KED common maps and language stimulate innovation and collaboration among our thousands of students and teachers: Since they can “speak” to each other, they can share best practices, plans, and exemplar work.

Our first Skype session between a 6th grader at Innovate Manhattan and a 6th grader in Stockholm showed students’ joy when they discover that someone so far away is learning in a shared model. Daniel offered to help Wilma in math, and they devised a plan to take a field trip to India to introduce students to the KED program. The fact that they saw these plans as possible and doable – their empowerment – is why we do what we do.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.