How communities are innovating and transforming education in America

people sitting next to each other

It’s back to school time, but for millions of students that does not mean back to traditional school arrangements. The transformation in education that some believe began during COVID is far from a blip on the radar and people ought to be paying attention to it.  

For decades, education in America has stayed roughly the same — a factory-based model that no longer equips all students for a life of purpose and meaning in the 21st century. Fueled by a desire to help each student discover, develop, and apply their unique gifts in their communities, families are open to trying new education pathways — including new, innovative models categorized as “out-of-system.” 

These models don’t often fit neatly into common categories like public, private, or homeschool — but they are meeting the learning needs of thousands of families across America.  

Transcend, a national organization focused on innovation in school design, with funding from Stand Together Trust, studied these models to understand them better, and to share the key-findings with innovators and educators in the current system.  

Transcend’s report “Lessons from Communities Creating Their Own Schools” by Ali Picucci, PhD and David Nitkin, PhD, identified key trends and strategic opportunities for families and educators to lean into as education continues to transform in America. After surveying more than 100 out-of-system education providers and talking with more than 20 experts, Picucci and Nitkin identified “instructive lessons for extraordinary learning.” Particularly, they found that the most promising models shared these qualities. 

Key finding 1: Promising education models were fueled by powerful agreements about what families wanted for their kids and connected learning to the assets, knowledge, needs, and opportunities in their communities. 

“In most cases, these models were designed with parents and members of the community working side by side with educators,” Picucci and Nitkin write. “Sometimes, parents were the initiators and stepped into new roles, serving as leaders, designers, and instructional guides. Sometimes, educators brought families together to imagine something new and better, drawing on community assets to provide learning experiences. Sometimes, community leaders initiated the vision for a learning experience that provided project or place-based learning opportunities while also addressing workforce and neighborhood needs.” 

This sort of community-wide collaboration is the way of the future for education. When education is connected to a child’s daily life experience, learning will be accelerated. This sort of relevance in education is made possible when families, educators, and community members each bring their perspectives to strengthen learning opportunities for their community’s children.  

Take for example the 1881 Institute, featured in Picucci’s and Nitken’s report. Founded by parents, 1881 Institute is a homeschooling co-op that created a local talent pipeline to address racial inequality in science, technology, and engineering. Among their innovative offerings is an Apprenticeship Program, which is an “earn and learn” program that connects students to job opportunities in their community that can also lead to certifications or industry credential attainment.  

Consider also ICL Academy, an innovative, online, private academy for grades 6-12 which shares similarly promising elements. The academy adapts course selections and schedules to meet the needs of young people who excel at sports, the arts, and other activities that make traditional schedules difficult. ICL alumni have gone on to compete in the Olympics, perform on Broadway, and attend Ivy League schools. Additionally, former Olympians, celebrity performers, and top entrepreneurs mentor ICL Academy students, giving them not only a strong education but insight into their current experiences and futures in sports and performance arts. 

Key finding 2: Promising education models prioritized flexible, meaningful, customized, and experiential learning. 

The learning environments designed by community members, parents, and educators all shared five key features. “They were identity-affirming, focused on developing the whole child, embedded with highly relevant content and experiences, allowed students to direct their own learning, and were customized to meet the location, scheduling, pacing, and sequencing needs of individual students and families,” Picucci and Nitken write.  

These five features are interdependent and integral to creating an educational “experience that reflects the complex world around us.”  

Take for example Embark Education, a micro-middle school in Denver, Colorado.  “Embark shapes learning experiences designed to build the student competencies of agency, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and reflection,” Picucci and Nitken write. The learning happens in a bicycle shop and coffee shop, which are student-led and run. Through inventing new drinks, keeping inventory, and other tasks in the shops, students get real-world experience with the core competencies the school is teaching, while also participating in their community in a meaningful way.  

Consider also 8 Million Stories, an educational option for at-risk students in Houston, Texas, who aren’t succeeding in traditional school environments. In addition to providing instruction and educational support, 8 Million Stories provides a forum for kids to talk with trusted adults about struggles at home like upcoming court dates, housing and financial challenges, and other complex personal issues that impact students’ daily lives and subsequently their ability to focus and learn well.  

Key finding 3: Promising education models creatively navigated physical, scheduling, regulatory, financial, and other constraints. 

A core element of the governance of the education models featured in Transcend’s report is that they kept families and students as decision-makers. Additionally, these models often partner with other organizations, families, and funders for community support, input, and funding. This didn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach either. Some models work with other out-of-system groups, others with businesses or other community or education organizations, and some worked with a combination of all of these. When it comes to funding, some have a per-pupil tuition rate, some are supported by the community organizations they partner with, and some engage in private fundraising.  

Embark Education, for example, can cover most operating costs through partner businesses. ICL Academy has a lower tuition fee than the average private school, thanks to the generosity of donors.  

However, these models are funded, an important element is that the models maintain their autonomy so that they can continue to “reimagine what learning could look like.” 

Over the past several years, families, students, and educators have been waking up to the reality that education in America is due for a transformation. For many, dramatic shifts and switching in school enrollments signals that there is an increased interest in individualized education. It shows that more families are looking for learning environments that will truly set their children up for a successful and meaningful life contributing to their communities, today and in the future.  

Transcend is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems. 

Learn more about Stand Together’s K-12 education reform efforts.