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Venture Academy: coaching kids to navigate college — and the world

Virtually all of the school’s students are impoverished minorities. Most have struggled in other programs, and many face daunting challenges at home.

Coach Jonathan Filzen, right, guiding two Venture Academy students in their individual lessons.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

Here are some interesting questions:

What would school look like if students were in charge?

What would it do to learning if you could harness intrinsic motivation?

And what about that mounting body of evidence that says academic achievement isn’t enough to reliably turn impoverished schoolchildren into college graduates, that it must be coupled with soft skills such as self-agency and tenacity?

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What if we stopped talking about educational technology in terms of Smart boards and broadband access, and started talking — really talking — about disruptive innovation?

And finally: Is anybody worried that there is very little fun in the average American school day?

Welcome to Venture Academy, a year-old Minneapolis school that seeks to provide answers to those questions. The simple explanation for how — by the extensive use of technology and by teaching entrepreneurship — doesn’t do it justice.

A public charter, the school is located on University Avenue, a few blocks west of Highway 280. When visitors first walk through the door — and there have been lots of influential, high-profile visitors in this, its inaugural year — few have a clear idea what it is they are witnessing.

Looks like world’s hippest summer camp

It looks nothing like a middle school, but rather like the world’s hippest summer camp.

Gathered in the school’s central great room for the morning meeting one day in the dead of winter, some 100 tweens kicked the day off by rapping the rules, the “Super Six.”

Rule No. 3: Be gentle with yourself.

Rule No. 4: Be honest.

There are no conventional classrooms, but there is a 20-something Entrepreneur in Residence. The teachers — referred to here as coaches — sprinkled in among the student body are given to spiky hair and chunky piercings.

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There are supplies for quilting, for making paper sculptures and for woodworking. There’s art and cooking and weightlifting and a leadership class. Trailblazers, as the students are called, are given maximum latitude to explore.

You might expect chaos. But you’d be wrong.

The students

Virtually all of the school’s students are impoverished minorities. Most have struggled in other programs, and many face daunting challenges at home. One-fourth receive special-education services, and two-thirds are learning English. Most arrive at the school three to four years behind.

There are a number of Twin Cities schools that get outstanding academic results with similar student bodies. And while the local programs haven’t been in existence long enough for there to be data on graduates’ college completion rates, national research shows that the students too often lack the traits necessary to finish a two- or four-year degree.

This doesn’t surprise Kerry Muse, Venture’s head coach and a founder of the school with Jon Bacal, formerly the head of Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of New Schools, and with the late civic mogul Verne Johnson.

“The typical approach does not make kids competitive,” said Muse. “We set out purposefully to design a system that allows kids to do things like navigate ambiguity.”

Learning, he added, is “stickier” when students have to struggle with it. “Schools want to save kids from failing,” said Muse. “Failing is an essential part of learning.”

Guiding kids to be ready to navigate

When Bacal, who had the idea to open the school, met Muse, the two immediately realized they had an experience in common. Both had seen how affluent students in elite programs were taught both to manage themselves and to assume they had influence over their education. Those kids left high school ready to navigate college — and the world.

Very few of their impoverished, academically accomplished peers had acquired the same traits. “The people leading and funding [high-poverty, high-performing] schools were privately like, ‘OK, we’re succeeding on one level, but our kids aren’t succeeding in college,’” said Muse. “You say every kid can learn. Where is your belief that every kid can discipline themselves?”

Where graduates of beat-the-odds high-poverty schools falter, Muse opined, is when they leave the highly structured, adult-directed schools for colleges and universities where they need to structure their own learning — ideally around things that engage them.

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“The kids all say they’re going to college, but they have no idea who they are, what their passion is,” said Muse, a veteran of a California KIPP school. “How do you translate academic skills into interest?”

How indeed. After the daily morning meeting, students head off into wings of the school designated as communities. There, teams of teachers help guide students to plan their own individual lessons.

Just what, in an era of standards and assessments, does this look like? Supplied by the state, standards are agreed-upon pieces of knowledge that students should be able to demonstrate at different grade levels. Tests measure whether students possess this knowledge.

How they get there, however, is up to individual schools or districts. In a conventional school, every student in the class digests the same reading, sits through the same lecture or pens an essay with the same theme. Everyone hopes that most of them retain the knowledge.

Project-based learning

A small number of schools take another approach, long known as project-based learning. With the help of a teacher, a student designs a project that showcases his or her individual research.

To these options, Venture adds a couple of ingredients: teacher-coaches who help students think through their options for completing each particular lesson; and a ton of technology, so students may have access to self-guided digital curriculum such as Kahn Academy and Achieve 2000.

Handed the keys to the Internet, students’ first response is typically to spend their time gaming. Allowed to reach the end of the school week without completing the work expected of them, however, most quickly learn to manage their time. Many speed ahead.

“In math, our kids are all over the map,” said Muse. “Some kids have gone through the entire digital content and we’re having to look for more. Some are still working on the third-grade level.”

The entire student body this year read “Chew on This,” a book profiling the fast-food industry, for example. Student responses included staging a debate about whether soda should be banned at the school, a showing of the movie “Food Inc.,” and the drafting of a formal proposal for Venture to install a salad bar.

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“The coach’s role is creating a menu of options and managing the process,” said Muse. “There is a rubric of expectations.”

‘Gradual release’

As the students progress from grade to grade, they will need less support from their coaches, said Muse. This “gradual release” will hand the student more autonomy at each stage, with high schoolers eventually designing their own programs to include coursework at state colleges and universities, internships and jobs and other community-based projects.

“In most schools it’s all about the gradual and not so much the release,” said Muse. “If we are selling kids on the dream of college, we at least owe it to them to make informed decisions. Where is the thoughtfulness around what are you going to study?”

Is it working? Results of the MAP test, which measures spring over fall growth, have not yet been tabulated. But Bacal and Muse say that information gleaned from other tests is impressive. An assessment administered in early spring suggests Venture students had advanced at least 1.6 years in literacy and slightly less in math.

The experiment is being closely watched. Venture was one of 20 schools nationwide to be awarded a $450,000 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Next Generation Learning Challenges start-up grant. The program has also received $250,000 from the Walton Family Foundation.

Is Venture’s model replicable? Possibly. Project-based learning requires more planning, particularly on the front end, said Bacal. And while the heavy emphasis on technology allows for staffing flexibility, he added, it also requires at least some teachers with higher-level expertise.

Among the VIPs to visit Venture this spring was Eric Nadelstern, the director of Columbia University’s renowned Summer Principals’ Academy and the chief academic officer of new and charter schools in New York City during Joel Klein’s chancellorship.

‘Very few with this much potential’

“I’ve helped jumpstart several hundred schools,” Nadelstern said at the end of the day spent observing and coaching at the school. “I see very few schools this successful and very few with this much potential. The sense I get everywhere I look is if I came back in the future I would see an even better school.”

The chief telltale, in his eyes: Even with 110 tweens in essentially one open space, the school was calm and students absorbed by their tasks.

“If you took a random group of sixth- and seventh-graders you would not find them as focused and attentive as they are in the school,” said Nadelstern. “In my mind it’s about the personalization. When you talk to dropouts, often there’s not a single adult in the building who knows who they are. That’s not possible at a school like Venture.”

When Nadelstern entered the work force in 1972, he knew he would be in education for the entirety of his career. To him, the real key to Venture’s potential success might be its focus on entrepreneurship: “The really crazy thing about this premise is it’s teaching these kids for a future that is not known.”

Refining for next year

The school’s founders aren’t satisfied, though. As the year drew to a close, the two were already refining the schedule and the process for next year. As well as making arrangements to welcome a new cohort of middle-school students, and thinking ahead to high school.

And Muse is thinking about the much, much bigger picture. “There’s been so much talk in the last 10 years about teachers,” he said. “But what about students? I need to be working to put myself out of a job.

“I want to get kids empowered to teach each other. I want to get to the point where the teacher can come greet the class and then the class runs itself.”