R&D Lab Culture Takes Off in Urban California School

Leadership Public Schools pairs education with research and development to deal with some of secondary education's academic difficulties.

by / August 31, 2015 0
An Oakland, Calif., school has turned into an innovative R&D lab designed to rethink urban secondary education. Robert Campbell CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia
Picture this: A school turns into a research and development lab where innovation is normal. Teachers and students work together with technology companies to create tech tools that help them tackle real education problems in urban secondary education. 
That's exactly what Leadership Public Schools in California has been doing at its Oakland R&D campus over the past few years. With a 2012 Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, the charter system set out to help students improve academically and successfully transition to college. 
With online, offline and blended classes, the Oakland R&D campus is preparing its students for college and beyond. 
"Our take has always been that technology is a tool to support teaching and learning," said Louise Waters, superintendent and CEO of Leadership Public Schools. "So we aren't kids on the computer all the time. We're about how you really leverage technology."  
This shift to supporting instruction with technology means that the campus has had to go through some growing pains. It took time and a few upgrades to provide enough bandwidth for students to work with. Leadership Public Schools also had to add more wireless access points and think through the effect of more screen time on students' eyes. In addition, traditional school desks with wrap-around arms didn't work so well with computers. 
But once they got the underlying infrastructure working well, students and teachers could really work on the tools that sit on top of that infrastructure. Teachers helped build learning applications - many of which are open source - through partnerships with ed tech entrepreneurs and foundations. They built applications for peer-grading, tracking learning comprehension and progress, and personalized support. 
And as more students take classes including computer science, they're starting to help develop these applications too, which gives them an opportunity to apply what they're learning. In fact, every Wednesday is experiential learning day where students do internships or community service that allows them to use their Spanish and other skills they've been working on in school. 
One of the major problems for urban schools like this one is having to fill in holes and get students up to speed in each subject. Many students come in reading or doing math at an elementary school level, which makes it difficult to complete high school work. 
In a blended class on numeracy where students are below grade level on ninth grade math, they set their own pace and goals through a progress tracking application. A number of the classes also use a personalized support tool to access learning content customized for their needs. If they have some skill gaps to fill in commas, capitalization or subject-verb agreement, then the tool shows them learning material that will help them. 
After working in this lab environment for a few years, Leadership Public Schools has seen most students become computer proficient. Students are also better writers and they understand where they are in the learning process. 
But this hasn't been a quick transition from old to new, at least for teachers in this environment.  
Leadership Public Schools intentionally asked which teachers wanted to try developing new learning tools and using them in the classroom. Then they surrounded those teachers with support. 
As other teachers saw that the tools were working well, they asked to use them. Pretty soon, 100 percent of the teachers were on board.  

"It was much more demand-pull and incremental," Waters said. "And while that took longer initially, it brought us to a really good place."  

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.