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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Projects and Partnerships Build a Stronger Future

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
An ACE student works on his project design.

On a visit to the Architecture, Construction, and Engineering Leadership High School in the old town area of Albuquerque, New Mexico, you might be struck at first by what this unique public charter school lacks. There are no classes in the traditional sense. No bell schedule. No cafeteria. No hallways -- just a big, open space in an industrial building that once housed a call center. On the perimeter are eight classrooms that are assigned to projects, not teachers.

What you do find at ACE are 290 students, predominately Latino teens and young men who would otherwise be adding to Albuquerque's soaring dropout numbers. Through immersive projects, ACE is re-engaging students in learning and preparing them for careers in the construction industry. With its break-the-mold approach to education, the school is attempting to build a stronger future for both its students and the larger community.

It's also a good place to pick up pointers about how to manage ambitious project-based learning.

Partnering to Meet Community Goals

When I visited ACE Leadership recently with colleagues from the Buck Institute for Education, we were greeted by school founder and Principal Tony Monfiletto. He explained how the school, now in its third year, grew out of conversations with the Associated General Contractors of New Mexico. "They told me that they're dying for qualified people in their industry. They know they have an image issue. Going into construction is seen as a last-resort job -- for people with a strong back and low ambition," he acknowledged. As he learned more, Monfiletto realized that's an unfair depiction of a field that involves "sophisticated jobs that require problem-solving every day."

An Albuquerque native, veteran educator, and school reform advocate, Monfiletto started to imagine what it might mean to build a different kind of high school in partnership with the contractors' association. "We could have a school that functions like a job site, appealing to kids who are tactile learners." Professionals could provide mentoring and open doors to future careers. His target population? "Any kid with any credit. Kids who have not been successful in school." He envisioned students learning entirely through projects, designing and building real things for real clients in the community. Wraparound services and an emphasis on positive youth development would assist students with everything from health care to immigration issues.

It was a vision the contractors' association was willing to invest in through a public-private partnership. Monfiletto insisted on one more condition. Instead of offering students vocational training, he wanted to prepare them for college and careers. "Education should be a leadership opportunity. We hope our students go on to become architects, project managers, engineers, and leaders in the trades. We want kids who can think."

When association leaders asked if he was ready to turn this bold vision into a reality, Monfiletto said simply, "I can't not do this." ACE Leadership was chartered by the state and enrolled its first students in 2010.

Managing Complex Learning

What does "school" look like at ACE Leadership? Students and staff start the day with a morning meeting that sets an upbeat, inspirational tone for the day. Then instead of reporting to subject-area classes like English or math, students select a morning project and an afternoon project. (There's also an evening program to re-engage 16- to 24-year-olds who have left the K-12 system with no diploma.)

Projects are interdisciplinary and address state standards. They're also authentic, often with a paying client on the receiving end of what students design and build. In recent projects, students have redesigned a local bank branch to be LEED certified, designed and constructed a kiosk and bridge at a wildlife center, developed architectural plans and a business model for a tattoo parlor, and presented their multimedia visions for the future of Albuquerque to the mayor and other local officials.

Keeping these complex projects on track while attending to students' individual learning needs requires artful teaching, as well as industrial-strength project management. Tori Stephens-Shauger, ACE co-founder and director of curriculum and assessment, has honed her own project management skills by learning from expert mentors in the construction industry.

"I visited job sites, shadowed people, and went to workshops to understand how they do their work," she says. Her deep dive into the construction industry opened this former science teacher's eyes to the collaboration, communication, and problem-solving that happens on a daily basis on job sites. "All of that makes project management even more essential," she says.

Stephens-Shauger challenged herself to think about, "What would this look like in school, based on the developmental level of our kids?" She offers a few insights that have helped with project management at ACE Leadership -- and which can be applied in any context where learning is anchored in projects:

  • Understand roles: On complex projects, think of the teacher as the job superintendent. "Superintendents don't know everything, but they do see the big picture and understand how the pieces fit together." The students' role also changes. "The people working on the project need to be the experts." Thinking of students as experts can be challenging, she admits, but that's the role they need to take on to succeed in projects. For a design project at a wildlife sanctuary, for example, students became knowledgeable experts in biomimicry. For teachers, the challenge is figuring out, "How do we support students in becoming experts?"
  • Be action-oriented: On multi-million-dollar construction projects, it's impossible to get everyone together for a meeting. But face time remains important. "They gather the right people at the right time," she says, and meetings are action-oriented. Translating that to the classroom, the message is: "You have to know how to call and hold a meeting that gets stuff done. What are the problems? Who has solutions? How can you be responsive about problem-solving?" That's a different dynamic, she adds, than penalizing a student for being late with an assignment.
  • Build in accountability: On successful construction projects, quality control comes from the inside. "Team members hold each other accountable." At ACE Leadership, the school culture encourages students to give their best effort and support one another. Signs in the common area remind students of their shared ethics: "Build your reputation. We're a family. Protect our own. Do the right thing."
  • Make mega-projects manageable: Ambitious projects that last for weeks may seem unwieldy, but Stephens-Shauger looks to industry to figure out how to make them manageable. "How do the professionals do it? They divide the work into smaller parts and use expert sub-contractors." When teachers are planning a long-term, interdisciplinary project, she encourages them to ask, "What sub-contractors are needed to get this project done?" The key is to make sure "sub" projects are still inquiry projects and not just activities. "In the full, rich sense, each component needs to be a real project that requires a team of experts working together to accomplish." In a project about a new vision for Albuquerque, for instance, the "sub" projects involved making videos, writing and publishing poetry, mapping the topography of the city, and designing solutions for civic enhancement. These components came together in a student presentation to the mayor and others in a final public exhibition.

Growing a Network

Monfiletto is looking to scale the good ideas that have taken hold at ACE Leadership. Rather than replicating this school exactly, he wants to build a network of like-minded schools that focus on different professions. Already on the drawing board is another high school for Albuquerque focused on public health and a professional development center to nurture a new kind of school leader. What else is possible? Stay tuned. "We have to be open to new ideas," Monfiletto says, "and connect with thought leaders from other sectors if we're going to solve the dropout issue."

To hear more of Monfiletto's ideas about the need for innovation in education, watch his TEDxFrontRange talk, "We Need All Hands."

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