What real innovation in education looks like

Joe Enge

Many public schools pretend to be innovative while completely avoiding the substantive changes necessary for genuine innovation. Yet they always ask for more money.

Nevertheless, Nevada does have some solid examples of true educational innovation.

The Davidson Academy in Reno and the Academy for Career Education (ACE) in Sparks are models of education that actually serves the learning needs of students. These are different schools for different students, the former targeting the profoundly gifted and the latter serving students interested in the construction trades.

Just this month the Heritage Foundation, citing a report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, noted the most promising strategy for addressing America’s drop-out problem:

[It] is to provide different schools for different students. “Instead of the usual ‘one-size-fits all’ schools,” the report explains, “districts should develop options for students, including a curriculum that connects what they are learning in the classroom with real life experiences and with work, smaller learning communities with more individualized instruction, and alternative schools that offer specialized programs to students at-risk of dropping out.”

The strategies proposed by the Gates Foundation’s March report, The Silent Epidemic, have already been integrated by these two Nevada schools.

Jan and Bob Davidson founded the Davidson Academy this year, concerned that our nation’s most gifted and talented young people are largely neglected and underserved. The school — first of its kind in the nation — operates to provide opportunities not available to gifted students in regular schools. Parents are moving across the country to Reno so their children can attend and better realize their potential.

Opening ceremony for the Davidson Academy reflected its national significance. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings delivered prepared remarks. Also in attendance were U.S. Senator John Ensign and Governor Kenny Guinn. The future of the school looks as bright as its students.

For contractors and educators in Washoe County, the lack of preparation and training of students entering the construction industry was a concern. Another factor in the push for the unique ACE charter high school was the decline of vocational programs in the Washoe County School District. Thus the Academy for Career Education opened its school doors in August 2002.

Changhua Wang, Ph.D., a researcher at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, explained the ACE success story in an evaluation report.

“It is not an at-risk school or ‘dumping ground,’” wrote Wang, “but rather a school that offers opportunities for those students who do not do well in a traditional school setting to excel by means of meaningful learning curricula and hands-on activities.”

“ACE has a close relationship with the local construction industry for its business expertise, financial support, and apprenticeship opportunities,” noted Wang. “A number of local business representatives serve as members on the ACE School Board. The school also has articulation agreements with local community colleges so that students can earn college credits while still enrolled in the high school.”

Students at ACE take their academic classes in the morning. Math, science, and English are directly connected to their chosen vocations — diesel mechanics, construction, CAD, etc. Each year the students build a house from the foundation up including all plumbing and wiring.

When the Washoe County School District tried to do the same, its trade school spent three years on one house and professional contractors finally had to complete the project. In the area of what used to be called “vocational education,” ACE proves that public-private charter schools are a better solution.

How does ACE impact students?

“I came to ACE in the middle of my sophomore year,” recalls one youth. “I barely passed the freshman year and my counselor recommended me to come here. Now I am right on the track with grades…. It is (the) first time that I start to get A’s in school.”

“All our subjects taught at ACE pertain to building the house,” says another. “We talked about the history of house building and how math and science are used in building construction. We have a lot of opportunities for hands-on learning. We understand better when the subjects are taught relevant to what we are doing every day.”

Public schools are loath to give up their monopoly. Yet they avoid serious reforms and just keep asking for more money.

Feeding this broken and rigid system is not the answer. More Nevada children will succeed when the state abandons its one-size-fits-all approach.

That means: when parents get the freedom to choose the school that matches their child’s needs … and not everyone else’s.

Joe Enge is an education policy analyst for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.