Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

A Search for Exemplar Schools

By Helen Soule, Executive Director, Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21)

Dana Elementary School is surrounded by apple orchards in the rural community of Hendersonville, North Carolina. Many of the families work in agriculture, and eighty percent of the students attending Dana qualify for free or reduced lunch.  “Having those demographics has never stopped us from wanting to have high expectations for our students,” says Principal Kelly Schofield. “And we really just have always felt…that if any students in the state can do it, then so can ours, and we can achieve.  Our goal has always been to find the framework, find the curriculum, find the instructional strategies that work for our population of students.”

For Schofield and her colleagues, the skills, content and teaching strategies outlined in the Framework for 21st Century Learning are essential to their shared success. “It’s the way we live in school everyday,” she says. “It is our culture; it’s how we talk, it’s how we act.” For students like Tom Walter, this framework translates into collaborative, project-based learning enhanced by technology—like a recent social studies class in which he built a documentary film project on immigration with a team of his fellow fifth graders. For teachers like Annie Jones, who works with second graders at Dana, 21st century learning means building students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills through engineering challenges. For example, she recently tasked her students with ensuring that plastic astronauts dropped from a ten-foot ladder in a Styrofoam cup would land safely. “It teaches them what engineers do…but it’s really teaching them a model and a framework for…continuous problem solving and improvement,” says Jones.

To better understand how schools like Dana Elementary have developed successful environments for 21st century learning so that others seeking to better prepare students for college, careers and beyond could benefit from their expertise, P21 has launched the 21st Century Learning Exemplar Program.

Over the course of the next six months, P21 will share stories from twenty-five schools that are successfully using 21st century learning practices to improve student learning. In partnership with the Pearson Foundation, P21 is striving to answer such questions as:

  • What type of professional development do teachers need to effectively implement 21st century learning practices?
  • What measurements are teachers and school leaders using to assess student growth and proficiency?
  • What 21st century leadership practices have school leaders instituted and how do they define success?

This project has taken P21 leaders across the country, from the apple orchards of Hendersonville, North Carolina; to the urban environment of Dayton, Ohio; to the career academy of Carl Wunsche Sr. High School outside of Houston, Texas. P21 evaluated the schools on a multi-dimensional rubric, considering elements including partnerships with local businesses and institutions of higher education; alignment of curriculum to the acquisition of content knowledge and 21st century skills; the use of project-based learning; the effective incorporation of media and technology to support individualized learning; and the extent to which educators and school leaders offer equitable student access to 21st century learning.

“We are frequently asked what 21st century learning looks like and where it can be seen,” said Frank Gallagher, P21 Chair and Executive Director of Cable in the Classroom. “The Exemplar Program will answer those questions by illustrating, documenting and celebrating the work of innovative 21st century schools.”                                                                   

To bring these stories to life, P21 will use mediums as varied as the schools that they represent. You’ll find print profiles; audio interviews with principals, teachers and students; video visits to the schools; and additional perspective here on the P21 blog. P21 invites you to join us on this tour of exemplary learning practices and to share your thoughts on what YOU know works through #PatternsofInnovation.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

Image via P21 Case Study of Dana Elementary School