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February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Accelerated Schools: Hands-On Learning in a Unified Community

Stanford's Accelerated Schools Project is transforming hundreds of schools across the country with its creative teaching and learning philosophy, but each school applies this model in its own way.

At the Thomas Edison Elementary School in Sacramento, California, 2nd graders are learning about organizational management and quality control issues. They have organized themselves into a factory that produces “ants on a log”—a snack food consisting of peanut butter and raisins on a celery stick. Students take on different roles during production, working on the production line, purchasing and managing supplies and equipment, fielding personnel complaints, and serving as the company's proprietor.
Although there is a lot of laughter and nudging at first, the youngsters quickly settle into their roles and focus on their factory's operation. After this activity, they evaluate their project, discussing what has hindered or contributed to production, how they worked through problems, whether they used employees and resources effectively, and ways to make the operation run more smoothly.

Edison's Changing Face

This 2nd grade project shows how Edison is committed to providing all students with the rich educational experiences traditionally reserved for those identified as gifted and talented. Yet this elementary school can hardly be considered elite.
In the late 1980s, as the result of rapidly shifting urban demographics, the student population mushroomed from 360 to 525. As it did, the number of students receiving Aid for Dependent Children and free or reduced-cost lunches surged from 36 percent to 80 percent. The school, which formerly served only native English-speaking students, now included children whose first languages numbered 14.
Prior to 1990, Edison was fairly traditional in its operations and teaching practices. Decisions were usually made from the top down—from the district office and the principal to the staff and school community. Parents, students, and many staff felt they had little say in the daily workings of the school. And the environment did not foster collaboration and risk-taking—teachers worked mainly in isolation from their peers.

A Change for the Better

In 1990, Edison began a transformation that would leave it much less traditional. After a full year examining various reform efforts around the country, the school community—including staff, students, and parents—decided to enter the Accelerated Schools Project founded at Stanford University. In the 1994–95 school year, Edison was one of 700 Accelerated Schools in 37 states working with the project.
To judge from the students' performance over the past four years, the school made the right decision. Despite the rapid changes in the student population, 6th grade standardized test scores have risen in all three areas tested (Keller 1994a). The attendance rate has increased from 93 to 97 percent, and the mobility rate has diminished from 37 to 22 percent. Most dramatic, the total days of student suspensions have dropped sharply from 103 a year to only 17.
While these are positive indicators of Edison's accomplishments, staff members consider the less quantifiable changes as the ones that truly reflect the transformation. A schoolwide survey completed last spring showed that both students and staff had greater self-esteem and took greater pleasure in learning. Staff members described an environment that was much more participatory and inclusive, where everyone felt supported and valued. Students said they believed in themselves and looked forward to school. As one 6th grader wrote: I can only compare Edison to my last three schools. I have never once before been to a school where the staff values your opinions as much as here at Edison.
Edison attributes its growth to the fact that the school community has internalized the Accelerated Schools philosophy and process into its own culture. While the changes seem dramatic in retrospect, staff members are quick to point out that change has been neither sudden nor without resistance. It has, however, firmly taken hold over the last three years.

Powerful Learning

Edison classrooms are organized around constructivist lessons, which give students much more responsibility for and input into their learning. They are actively involved through hands-on activities and open-ended problem solving. And they construct their own meaning as they see connections between their school activities and what they do in their own lives (Keller 1994b). The teacher's role, meanwhile, has shifted from a provider of information to someone who helps guide students through exploration and discovery.
Consider this 6th grade classroom, several doors down from the 2nd graders. Students are learning about video development. The five-month unit, called Video Language, will culminate in a final video that the class will research, write, and produce. To gain an initial understanding, students have watched a number of videos (including the ones students made the previous year), then discussed their effectiveness. From this growing knowledge base, small teams have made short practice videos, which they are now showing to the class for feedback.
The youngsters intently watch a video of one of their peers demonstrating the use of hand tools. Pencils scribble furiously as students complete rating charts listing 15 essential elements of video production—eye contact, projection, verbal flow, costumes, props, entertainment value, instructional levels, and so on. The range of topics students have proposed for their videos reveals their wide interests—“Celebrating the Iranian New Year,” “Becoming an Orthodontist,” “How to Find a Missing Person.”
“This project is 100 percent generated by the kids,” says teacher Rich Carlson. “The students even came up with the criteria for which their videotapes should be graded.” Powerful learning practices like these have become pervasive at Edison over the past four years.

Unity and Empowerment

  1. Unity of purpose—the whole school community has a unified focus.
  2. Empowerment with responsibility—the entire school community makes important educational decisions and takes responsibility for them.
  3. An effort to build on the strengths of the entire school community.
Underlying every aspect of the Accelerated Schools model is the belief that expertise is within the school community. Regional trainers—or coaches—work with participating schools on a regular basis as a support system. But the school community is responsible for the planning, implementation, and outcome of school decisions.

Vision vs. Reality

The transformation begins with the school community taking stock, that is, taking a hard look at its present situation, then forging a shared vision of what it wants the school to be. Next, the school identifies priority challenge areas to bridge the gap between the vision and the reality, and creates governance structures to systematically address these priorities.
While Accelerated Schools adopt a philosophy and a process for transforming their school communities, there is no specific blueprint for needed changes and innovations, only a framework that allows for the uniqueness of each school. Initially, this may be frustrating for schools that are used to being told what to do, but they come to see that their progress hinges on thinking of new and better ways to do things.

Getting There

  • A school should not only need change, but be ready for and committed to change. In the exploratory stages, a school's willingness to try something different is a powerful first step. Its progress will correlate highly with its readiness to embark on the change process. Schools that decide to join the Accelerated Schools Project simply to obtain restructuring funds or because the central office has directed them to do so tend to encounter greater obstacles.
  • Participation by the entire school community—students, parents, support staff, teachers, administrators, central and district office representatives, and community members—is crucial. After a period of exploration and buy-in, at least 90 percent of the group must agree to adopt the Accelerated Schools model. At Edison Elementary, for example, the school community conducted site visits of other schools, read journal articles and otherwise researched reform efforts, and spent countless hours discussing what they desired for their students.With all of these stakeholders involved from the beginning, the school can build common goals so that participants do not operate at cross-purposes. And because everyone is involved in the initial training and in every subsequent stage, they develop shared practices as well as goals. This broad participation also provides opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas and new ways of thinking. And it gives all members of the school community a personal stake in their school.
  • A systematic transformation process helps create a climate for innovative schoolwide and classroom practices. Project members have tried to create a system that motivates and inspires the entire school community to change while developing the skills and expertise needed to bring about this change.The process may yield spin-offs in the form of individual initiatives and innovations (Brunner and Hopfenberg 1992). For example, at Edison, the decision to make science a schoolwide focus area encouraged the entire school to provide more hands-on, constructivist learning. A working group designed a plan to include both teachers and support staff in the development of schoolwide science thematic units. The resulting collaboration and camaraderie created a more trusting and supportive environment. Teachers and support staff began to regularly observe one another's classes to get ideas and provide feedback. The excitement of the science units spread to other academic areas and fueled individual initiatives. Teachers who had relied primarily on teacher-directed lessons began to give students more opportunities to direct their own learning. As teachers saw their colleagues create more innovative lessons, they, too, began to expand their knowledge and improve their classroom practices (Keller and Soler 1994).Some staff members took on leadership roles in subject areas that had long been the domain of outside experts. For example, five teachers invested three weeks for three consecutive summers participating in science workshops so they could, in turn, train others in the most innovative practices. Individual attitudes and beliefs begin to change as well. Staff members took new risks and evaluated situations based not on how things had always been done, but on whether they met the needs of the school and its students.Gradually, school culture was transformed, as norms, relationships, expectations, and practices changed (Finnan 1993). “Bit by bit, the individual child orientation has really taken over,” said Virginia McDonald, the student counselor and a staff member for the past 14 years. She notes that as the staff have sought the students' perspectives more often, “the kids have amazed us with their insights.” Without such a shift in the culture and environment, isolated curriculum and instruction changes will occur, but not the broad-based teaching and learning innovations that are at the core of Accelerated Schools.
  • The school must have an effective governance structure that involves all members of the school community. In traditional structures, school communities have few opportunities to mutually plan the best way to meet their needs. In Accelerated Schools, by contrast, a governance structure funnels those ideas through a democratic decision-making structure.At Edison, every idea involving schoolwide issues goes to the steering committee and, if appropriate, on to a small working group that looks more closely at the issue. Ultimately, the school as a whole makes all decisions. This governance structure serves as an important means of ongoing communication, a built-in monitor of how well the school has internalized the philosophy and process, and a continuous source for feedback and input. Edison Principal Gene Chasin says he views this approach as a welcome change from the days the entire responsibility was on his shoulders.
  • Ongoing assistance is crucial to overcoming challenges. The basic premise is to build a support system of regional trainers—or coaches—from the district office and/or state department. The trainers work with schools regularly and help develop networks among schools and a base of support in the central office. Trainers themselves are trained in an extensive eight-day workshop at the National Center at Stanford.
The trainers deliver weekly on-site training and follow-up to the entire school community using a constructivist approach—hands-on activities, group work, and individual reflection—that mirrors the learning approach the program fosters in accelerated classrooms (Keller 1994b). Eventually, the need for the trainers becomes less essential; they simply provide expertise as needed, and the Accelerated School becomes self-sustaining.

Future Challenges

Our project members continue to encounter challenges that hinder progress, such as finding time for the many meetings and activities needed, maintaining momentum, and building the district support that schools require to sustain change. Nevertheless, our experiences have shown that it is possible to create an environment and school culture that invite risk-taking, experimentation, and collaboration, which in turn transform teaching and learning.

Brunner, I. and W. Hopfenberg. (1992). “The Interactive Production of Knowledge in Accelerated Schools.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco.

Finnan, C. (1993). “School Culture and Educational Reform: An Examination of the Accelerated Schools Project as Cultural Therapy.” In Cultural Therapy and Culturally Diverse Classrooms, edited by G. and L. Spindler. Newbury Park, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Hopfenberg, W.S., and H. M. Levin. (1993). The Accelerated Schools Resource Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keller, B. (Winter 1994a). “Edison Accelerated School: Creating a Learning Community.” Accelerated Schools 3: 2.

Keller, B. (Spring 1994b). “Powerful Learning in Accelerated Schools.” Accelerated Schools 3: 3.

Keller, B., and P. Soler. (1994). “The Influence of the Accelerated Schools Philosophy and Process on Classroom Practices.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta.

Beth M. Keller has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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