Learning Hacks

The K-12 education space is consumed by reform fever. Decentralization is one of the symptoms.


Aided by new technologies, and abetted by demographic changes, a growing number of schools, and the people who lead them, aim to empower students and communities to generate their own solutions to public-education challenges. We zero in on two new initiatives. (And check out our profile of peer-to-peer skills startup, HelpWith, at the end of this story.)

Almost exactly one year ago Gov. Kate Brown appointed Colt Gill as the Department of Education’s first Education Innovation Officer. The position targets equity and absenteeism, along with career training and business partnerships.7614 colt gill 4x6

Oregon’s truancy rate exceeds 50% in some school districts, and “fines are not working,” says Gill, the former superintendent of the Bethel School District. He says schools need to visit students at home and figure out why they don’t come to class.

Nurturing this approach, the DOE is investing $7.4 million in a program that addresses implicit bias in classrooms and emphasizes relationships between schools, students and the community.

The state will help facilitate these relationships, but communities must decide what shape they will take.

“We need to ensure we’re taking the local context into consideration when we’re developing statewide policies,” says Gill.

RELATED STORY: Q&A with Oregon's Education Innovation Officer

The Oakridge School District, for example, has developed a public-private partnership in which businesses incentivize students to attend class and call out kids they see skipping school. The partnership creates accountability for students while encouraging collaboration between community stakeholders.

Gill is also pursuing more career-training opportunities, such as a nursing program partnership between hospitals and Oregon high schools. Students graduate with a CNA license and a job offer.

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A spinoff of Stanford University’s K12 Lab, the School Retool program is helping 18 Oregon schools address absenteeism among other challenges. Launched this past January with the help of the Oregon-based Construct Foundation, School Retool incorporates “design thinking,” a philosophy that encourages educators to approach a problem and potential solutions from the student perspective.

“It calls for developing empathy for the user and then doing rapid ideation/brainstorming,” says Mairi Scott-Aguirre, principal of Gresham’s Centennial High School, one of the participating schools. “Then whatever ideas rise to the top should be prototyped and tested.”

She cites a few examples. After writing a musical score, one Centennial student wanted to learn how to author an accompanying screenplay. Another started an investment business and is now investigating a teen finance column. Teachers are encouraged to follow through on these projects.

“We’re looking at how we will have more equitable outcomes for students and how they can be more involved in their learning,” Scott-Aguirre says.

“We need to challenge students and ask them to do the things they’re truly capable of.”

Business partnerships will provide students with off-campus sites where they can acquire and practice new skills, she says. Integrating student-led projects improves classroom attendance. A teacher in the Centennial cohort recently conducted a monthlong design project, and a student who usually skips class showed up every day.

“That’s the kind of thing that happens when students are deeply engaged,” Scott-Aguirre says. “They will not miss class.”

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Peer-to-Peer meets DIY

Think of HelpWith, a new edtech startup, as the Airbnb for skills. The Portland-based platform connects people aiming to acquire a skill with teachers ready to impart knowledge to the masses.

Since the company launched in December 2016, more than 2,900 users have signed on — 1,900 offer tutelage in everything from programming and Geographic information software to music theory and meditation. In a sea of peer-to-peer learning platforms, HelpWith stands out among for its in-person — instead of virtual — lessons.

“A lot of things you might be having trouble learning might be solved by someone in your neighborhood,” says founder John Connor.

To that end, Connor aims to partner with Next Door, a popular neighborhood-based social networking site. Forming a partnership with co-working spaces is also on his to-do list.

“Our goal is to lower the barrier to entry,” he says.

Katy Sword

Katy Sword is the digital news editor of Oregon Business.

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