“Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.” That’s one of those oft-quoted phrases that I genuinely don’t like. Yes, perhaps sometimes progress can be slow, and yes, perhaps sometimes slow can be strategic and purposeful. But I am one of those people who wants to see consistent, steady progress, and I want to see that progress as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality.
When we were formally awarded an XQ Super School grant last summer, I had a very ambitious vision for how things were going to unfold. I already had it worked out in my head. We would formally announce in August, by September we’d have a fiscal sponsorship agreement in place, by October we would have everyone hired and by the close of the first semester we would be rolling.
That’s not exactly how it turned out. It would be easy to assume that the slower than hoped for pace was a function of working within a large bureaucratic organization. That would only be a part of the truth. Part of the learning curve when pursuing innovation in education – and perhaps especially so in the context of a public school district – is understanding how to engage and adapt the system. It’s easy to throw your hands up and blame the “system.” What people sometimes forget is that how we educate our children is contested space. There are lots of opinions about the best way to teach our children. The layers of state and federal law, local control, community and parent advocacy, non-profit investment, political interests and private industry, all push on the space we call public education. No matter the vessel we ultimately deem appropriate for public education, the myriad opinions and interests don’t magically sort themselves out. They just push on the new system. Educational governance is messy business.
As I look back at the past year, an interesting narrative starts to emerge. While we struggled to put together the big pieces – the funding mechanisms, hiring, and systems structures, a much more quiet revolution was taking place. With virtually nothing more than vision and determination, we had three pilot sites that pushed forward the core innovations of Círculos at the student level. We had classrooms where teachers brought students daily into a circle to discuss the challenges and goals of the learning day. We saw students engaged in flexible learning environments, accelerating their learning pace and exploring increased ownership of their learning. Of course seeing students engaged in these practices meant that we had teachers – curators of learning experiences – practicing and implementing new instructional practices and competencies designed to increase student engagement and authentic connection.
Perhaps most ambitious of all were the place-based learning projects. We launched a set of remarkable partnerships with marquee partner organizations, the Heritage Museum of Orange County and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Our Círculos @ Advanced Learning Academy students spent two days a week at the Heritage Museum. I knew something special was happening when in May I stood and watched our 9th graders lead 90 minute museum tours, dressed in period clothing, for a couple bus loads of visiting elementary school students. That feeling repeated itself when our Círculos @ Chavez students unveiled their installation artwork on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts campus. The students envisioned and then constructed an immersive multi-media art installation that represented their unique perspective on what it means to activicate a community space through the arts. The vision of Círculos has always been to enhance our students’ access to social capital – to facilitate entry to relationships and institutions that might otherwise feel inaccessible to our students. These culminating moments belied the daily planning and work that is required to make that access a reality.
Last week, we stood in a circle with students, staff, and aspiring candidates to join the Círculos staff. We discussed the history of our shared journey, the core values that drive us forward, and the core innovations that define the program. Integrating students into the interview protocol was a first for the district. Closing the experience with expressions of gratitude as a team was a similarly strange sight for an interview day. These were practices informed by our Círculos values, helping our system rethink what is possible.
Despite our progress, I can’t shake the feeling that it is not adequately ambitious. For our kids, in our schools right now, it feels like the pace of organizational improvement cannot be fast enough. Luckily, I am surrounded by teachers, adminstrators, community partners, and other colleagues who share that sense of urgency. When I fall short or don’t fully deliver on my own expectations for this work (which happens more than I care to admit), there are others there on the team to push forward and hold the vision.
Which leads me back to where I started this post. Innovation in education is not most accurately captured or told as a series of structural innovations or technical solutions. It is a story of perseverance and tenacity – both from the students who take the leap of faith in designing and navigating a high school experience that breaks from tradition, and from the staff with the courage to allow them to try.