School Visit Debrief: Elizabeth Forward School District

This week, I had the opportunity to visit an amazing, innovative leader in technology in our region: Elizabeth Forward School District. EFSD has received regional and national recognition for its innovations, including inclusion as a member of the League of Innovative Schools and the designation as an Apple Distinguished School. The district hosts free events like this once every couple of months, and visitors like me get a guided tour of the district’s high school, middle school, and one of its elementary schools. There’s a special focus on technology, but there’s also a larger narrative about what it means to transform the culture of a school. I was so grateful for the insights of Superintendent Bart Rocco and Assistant Superintendent Todd Keruskin, and I was inspired by the students, teachers, and administrators I spoke with throughout the visit. I was one of about eighty people who attended the event, but I felt like I got a detailed, personal look inside what makes these schools special.

This visit reminded me of the day I spent with my Schools of the Sacred Heart colleagues visiting San Domenico School and Marin Country Day School a couple of years ago. (Also see here for the best kindergarten classrooms ever.) Just like that day a couple of years ago, I found myself winding down unfamilar country roads and wondering when I’d ever reach my target. At least in Marin, it was clear to me that I could only go so far west; I’d eventually hit an ocean. On this drive, I knew I’d eventually hit West Virginia, but that’s a lot less obvious than the Pacific. In any case, 45 minutes later, in an unassuming, almost-rural community south of Pittsburgh, I found a community where kids and teachers are doing amazing things. Here are some highlights.

  • Warriors are BRAVE. Like any school, Elizabeth Forward High School has lots of school spirit. The residential streets leading to the schools all have banners proclaiming “This is Warrior Country” and school spirit posters and art cover the walls. Additionally, even more posters urge Warriors to be “BRAVE,” as part of the school’s Positive Behavior Interventional Strategy (PBIS). The video above is part of promoting that program. I was struck by how often the PBIS/BRAVE came up organically in conversation: students we heard from in the music production studio talked about it, little ones at the elementary school talked about it (a little less eloquently, but no less powerfully), and middle school students mentioned how it helped them, too. Administrators and teachers all indicated that the technology innovation has only been possible in the context of these larger cultural initiatives. This was music to my ears as a person who believes in the power of social emotional learning, and it reminded me of my experiences at Convent, where the Goals and Criteria of the Religious of the Sacred Heart are deeply imbued in the school’s culture and daily life. Elizabeth Forward is a district that’s embracing technology as a means to an end, and that end is a safer, richer learning environment for their students. The 3D printers, iPads, and gaming and programming classes are doing great things to support kids’ learning at these schools, but the kids are thriving because their school has a supportive, safe culture where those innovations can happen.
  • Community is key. To add to the same point, I was struck by the sense of inclusion and togetherness in these schools. Student-produced and faculty-produced music plays over the loudspeaker at the high school, giving kids a way to showcase their work and building community and admiration among faculty and students. The library is a warm, flexible space where kids work and play, and there’s a cafe where kids can refuel and hang out throughout the day. The cafe is staffed by students in the school’s special education program as part of the social development component of their coursework. It was thrilling to me to see these students — whose schoolwork is often separate from that of their classmates — so centrally included and involved in the life of the school. This says something powerful about the school’s perspective on inclusive education, and it sends a powerful message to all students about who belongs in their community. Everyone belongs in this community, and everyone contributes.
  • Change one room. In his opening remarks, Bart Rocco paraphrased Gregg Behr, Executive Director of the Grable Foundation. Mr. Behr encouraged EF to think not about changing the whole school, but about changing one space and going from there. There’s something powerful and approachable about this perspective: Elizabeth Forward isn’t a wealthy school district; it’s an almost rural community of modest homes almost an hour from the “big city” here in Pittsburgh. But they’ve taken that advice to “change one room” to heart. I saw this in small changes, like the worn but tidy EFHS school auditorium, where the overhead lights screamed 1970s but oddly complemented the brand-new JBL speaker system. I noticed that contrast when I sat down for the opening remarks, and it seemed important: This is a school that seems to be investing in details that matter. The FabLab was the room that perhaps struck me most. This room full of 3D printers used to be the in-school suspension room. Now, it’s an extension of the wood shop and an extended space for building, creation, and design. This seemed symbolic too: instead of giving kids detention, they were being given power tools. As we admired the canoe one student’s been building (follow his progress on Twitter here), I was fascinated by the trust and autonomy these students have. This is a district that’s investing in its students one by one. It’s using cool tools to do it, but the innovation comes from the creativity of leadership, not from the coolness of the toys.
  • Partnerships make an impact. Again, Elizabeth Forward isn’t a wealthy district, so they’ve relied on their own district funds, corporate partnerships, and foundation and nonprofit investment to transform their school. Administrators and teachers have found creative ways to bring together universities and companies and foundations to give EFSD students great opportunities. It can feel a little corporate — the sponsors of certain technology are definitely recognized in posters on campus where their donations and inputs are displayed, like in the Fab Lab and the room where the game design classes meet — but it also feels pretty exciting, too.

I’m far from the first person to write about Elizabeth Forward School District; to get more info, visit their district page, read this entry from eSpark (one of the vendors they’ve worked with) and this missive from the Remake Learning Network. Learn more and get inspired: this is what transformative education looks like here in western Pennsylvania. It can happen here, and it can happen anywhere.

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