Accelerated Learning Laboratory (ALL School)
The practice: Professional development should incorporate evaluation of multiple sources of information on (a) outcomes for students and (b) the instruction and other processes that are involved in implementing the lessons learned.
Visitors to this inner city school invariably respond enthusiastically to the high level of student engagement, the ability of students to explain what they are learning, and why, and the ease with which students of different ages and abilities collaborate on a range of real-world projects. Most observers are also struck by the widespread availability of modern technology, and the technical sophistication on the part of students of all levels who routinely use computers, video equipment, and other electronic tools in the accomplishment of their work, much of which involves some kind of community service or business internship.
Seven years ago the ALL School, an inner-city school in Worcester, Massachusetts (the second largest city in New England after Boston) was known as a "tough" school with a high minority population and very little parental involvement or community engagement. Under a citywide "de-isolation plan" approved by the state in 1990, the ALL School became a magnet school with a focus on technology and global studies. The school's new vision was based on a new philosophy: "a gifted approach to education for all students."
In 1992, the school became the first school in the nation to test and refine the Co-nect design, a model developed by BBN Educational Technologies with funding from the New American Schools Development Corporation. Co-nect initiated the reform process with a series of intensive summer workshops to introduce project-based learning strategies. Teachers also learned how to use the Internet to bring new resources into the classroom and how to use computer-based tools to assist students in research, communications, and preparation of reports. Co-nect also helped the school buy a new video lab, a large number of new computers for classrooms, and network resources.
In keeping with the Co-nect "design," the school was initially organized in two clusters: primary (K-2), and intermediate (3-5). A year later an "advanced" cluster (6-8) was added. As another grade was added each year, "pre-masters" (9-10) and "masters" (11-12) came into existence.
From the beginning, the principal, Carol Shilinsky, was a strong advocate for the Co-nect model and pushed hard to see it fully implemented in the school. For their part, the faculty, while generally supportive of the reform effort, were not afraid to question elements of the design that seemed at odds with their own intuitions about what was best for children. This interplay between theory and practice produced a creative tension that eventually led to changes in faculty beliefs as well as refinements in the model itself. For example, early on in the process, teachers in the primary cluster expressed the belief that it was wrong to group kindergarten students together with first and second graders. The very young students, they felt, needed to learn some basic social skills before they could function effectively in a class with students at a higher developmental level. After several months of discussion, Shilinsky invited the teachers in the primary cluster to form a study group to review the literature on multiage grouping, then prepare a proposal based on their findings. When the teachers presented a research-based proposal recommending the creation of a separate cluster for kindergarten, Shilinsky relented, and the structural change was made the following year.
This experience, along with similar experiences within the growing Co-nect network, underscored the need for a flexible model that could respond to local needs and concerns. It also pointed to the importance of teamwork, participative decision-making, and a research-based approach to key instructional decision.
At the same time, opposition on the part of several faculty members to the whole idea of multiage grouping eventually diminished as the advantages of keeping students and teachers together for more than a single year became apparent. Today, multiage grouping is an established practice within the school that is often credited with contributing to the school's special character.
The faculty also took to heart the Co-nect design's emphasis on community engagement. At the high school level, the school's "Partnership in Education" Internship Program now provides students with an opportunity to experience real life work situations and explore career options. As a part of this program, all high school students are required to volunteer their services for four academic hours each Friday. This time is spent at either a public or private agency within Worcester. Internship sites are chosen by the students from a list of seventy-four selected businesses. Students must complete weekly journal assignments and the host site evaluates the students weekly. Students select a different site every ten weeks. Academic credit is given upon successful completion of five internship rotations.
Today, the ALL School continues to play a special role within the Co-nect network as a major demonstration site and testbed for design-based comprehensive school reform. The story of the ALL School exemplifies the idea that the best kinds of professional development activities are closely intertwined with ongoing efforts to apply research-based practices to complex local situations, fueled by the relentless pursuit of academic excellence for all children.