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Venture Academy: toward a whole new level of learning

The education innovators behind this charter school are hoping to create a 21st-century fusion of classroom and digital space.

Kerry Muse, chief learning officer and head of school at Venture Academy, at the school's planned site.
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Line

These days, kids are living in two different worlds, says Jon Bacal. At home, they use devices like smartphones and iPads to communicate with friends, play games, and research homework answers. But at school, they often revert to paper-based learning, with decades-old textbooks and waves of quizzes and tests.

There’s a better way, Bacal believes. As founder and chief entrepreneurship officer of new charter school Venture Academy, he’s helping to bring blended learning to the Twin Cities in full force. The school is scheduled to open in August 2013.

“Technology has had such an impact in every area of life, and there’s more information available online now than was available to the president only 30 years ago,” he says. “But we haven’t changed how schools work to take advantage of that.”

Although many schools utilize technology and some have Apple One-to-One programs (in which every student gets a laptop or tablet), Venture wants to take education to a whole different level, remaking the foundation of instruction so that it aligns with 21st-century life, including more focus on entrepreneurship.

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“When you combine personalized, student-directed learning with high-quality digital content and tools, you get a very powerful education model,” Bacal says. “When you bring this to economically disadvantaged students, it gets even better.”

Birth of a school

Many school districts across the state and across the country have been attempting to tweak instruction to accommodate new learning styles.

For some districts, that means more team-based projects, or more use of tools like iPads for video presentations. Often, these pilot projects take time to roll out, particularly since they can run into funding issues.

That type of gradual (sometimes glacial) change wasn’t good enough for Bacal. As a longtime educational leader in the state — he founded Hiawatha Leadership Academy in south Minneapolis and co-founded Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul — he wanted innovation, particularly for children coming from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Of the 50,000 school-aged children in Minneapolis, over half are from households that struggle financially, Bacal notes.

That can torpedo their chances of getting to college. “There is tremendous need,” he says. “We’re very excited about changing those numbers.”

A student-centric model

Bacal worked to put together a charter school that would establish a strong blended learning model, which not only brings more technology to students, but also changes the system to a more student-centric approach. Bacal notes that ownership for learning is in the hands of the kids, not the teacher.

Jon Bacal, founder and Chief Entrepreneurship Officer at Venture Academy
Photo by Bill Kelley
Jon Bacal, founder and Chief Entrepreneurship Officer at Venture Academy

It’s a system that worked well in Oakland, Calif., where innovative math and special education teacher Kerry Muse proved that his school, KIPP Bridge, could turn high-poverty urban youth into top achievers.

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The school won awards — and expanded into other cities in the Bay Area — but it was Bacal who nabbed a prize: Muse himself, who will be chief learning officer and head of school at Venture Academy.

“The model for Venture was so aligned with where I knew we could take education,” Muse says. “It’s a very specific vision, and the results are pretty incredible.”

Blended learning

The term “blended learning” can take numerous forms, but as a definition, it means a combination of classroom education, online learning, and mobile technology.

For example, a student might watch a teacher’s lecture online from home, and then participate in group activities in school, using mobile devices. This model is gaining traction at universities and colleges, under the term “flipped classrooms.”

According to Ethan Gray, director of the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust, Venture is an example of an emerging trend in the education world toward blended learning.

“You can accelerate the pace of student learning with this strategy,” he says. “Basically, you change the structure of a classroom so that kids move at their own pace.”

Gone are the rows of desks facing the teacher, who talks at length about a particular topic. Instead, the teacher becomes a guide, assisting students who are working their way through material in groups or individually.

Gray adds that Venture is a novel approach to blended learning, and a significant innovation for the Twin Cities. “These classes will look pretty different from other options,” he says. “But I think they represent what schools of the future will look like.”

Entrepreneurial spirit

With blended learning, the line between school and home becomes blurred, creating an environment where students are constantly learning, especially about topics that drive their interests.

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That level of engagement will allow Venture to create personalized dashboards for each student to track progress and to create goals. Students can plan their own outcomes that way, says Eric Herron, a Venture Academy board member.

“Just because a kid is 12 years old doesn’t necessarily mean he’s at a 6th-grade level,” he notes. “He might be at a 4th-grade level, or an 8th-grade level. Instead of always teaching to the middle, teachers can now involve kids in learning at their own pace, and help them develop an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Minnesota, so rife with entrepreneurs and startups, is fertile ground for a school that starts innovation early. Bacal and Muse, as well as the board of directors, are hoping to prove how well the model works here and then take it national.

They already have an important advocate in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which named Venture one of 20 winners of the Next Generation Learning Challenges award, which identifies breakthrough school models.

Bacal notes that developing a model that turns entrepreneurial, innovative youth into college-ready students can not only help kids to reach their potential, but can also supply much-needed business professionals to the state.

“There’s tremendous opportunity here,” he says. “Minnesota had the first charter school law in the country, we’re used to being innovators. This is the next step.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.