Many in Denver view the public education system as fundamentally broken: Massive achievement gaps persist among races and income levels. Moreover, young people are still being educated as in 1985: Although there are occasionally smart boards or computers, essentially a teacher still stands in front of a classroom and lectures, students still sit in rows listening passively, and achievement is still measured by standardized tests. You wouldn’t know America has experienced a technology revolution in which young people are major participants—at home, for example, they know that knowledge is a Google click away. For educational strategists, the question has become: How can teachers and learning be brought into the modern age?
With support from philanthropic partners, DPS created an innovation lab called the Imaginarium. Pete and his colleagues have sought to flip the paradigm for improving public education from top-down reforms (administrators pushing out new curriculum, assessments, and teacher development programs) to empowering students and educators themselves to design and launch new approaches. For example, high school girls of color dramatically underperform in math and science, so to excite their interest in STEAM subjects (ie, STEM plus art), the Imaginarium encouraged students to create a “Curls on the Block” program in which they study the math and science behind beauty products. Similarly, a group of young black men came forward and said they’d like to launch a non-profit organization, the League of Leadership, and host a citywide summit to “change the narrative.” The Imaginarium gave them support and helped them start a 501(c)(3). A teacher wondered why, instead of having his students listen to lectures during valuable school time and then struggle alone with homework, he couldn’t reverse things—so he now records lectures for home listening, then devotes classroom time to exercises where he can answer questions and coach. And in a “Teach to One” approach in another classroom, instead of using a single textbook at a single level, an algorithm now analyzes each kid’s prior day work and recommends what they should do the next day. So in the same room, different kids can work on a dozen things: one may be live video chatting with a tutor, another playing educational games, others working together at a table, another talking with the teacher, another taking a test.
Lesson for other cities
All these examples are still in pilot mode, but Denver hopes to start scaling some of them to its 200 schools and 93,000 students. The more experiments are tried, the more constituencies can see the impact and possibilities of innovation and accept the vision that change is good.
Pete’s Personal Background
Grew up in Buffalo, undergrad at Fredonia in NY, MBA at SMU in Dallas, worked in early Internet banking, did a non-profit to create outdoor adventures for inner city kids, started and sold a call center company. Seven years ago made a career change and became COO at a startup charter school, then joined Denver public schools as a part the Broad Centers residency in urban education.
Pete opened the Imaginarium in 2015, now has a staff of 20, some of whom are educators and others who were private sector entrepreneurs recruited to apply their skills to public educational reform.
Additional Random Factoid
Plays ukulele with 9 year old daughter, together they are currently learning chords for Riptide by Vance Joy.