Pike Road Schools: A Conversation with the Leadership Team
Q&A 16 February 2017
By Dr. Suzanne Freeman and Ryan Kendall and Angela Lang and Bryan Cutter and Natalie Tucker
When I first heard Dr. Freeman’s vision for a creative teaching environment where children are challenged to own their own learning, I was enthusiastic. I’ve seen firsthand in the workplace the impact when someone has just checked all the boxes to get their degree but never truly learned. I knew I wanted something better than that for my children, and I feel PRS is giving us that and more.
Pike Road Schools Parent
Q. What drew you to Pike Road Schools (PRS)? What does it mean to be part of this new way of learning?
A. As a leadership team, we were all drawn to PRS by the opportunity to “do school” in a different way. We saw the possibilities of what could be and wanted to be a part of this exciting process.
Clearly defined beliefs, a compelling mission, and a strong vision provide a lens through which we vet all decisions. A sincere desire to further the mission, commonly called The Pike Road Way, is the strength of PRS. Prior to the opening of PRS, the school system and town hosted over a dozen neighborhood/parent meetings to build capacity for The Pike Road Way.
Our leadership team continuously discusses what is going well, who needs more support, where we need to adjust, and where we need to build more capacity. We do this by collaborating with learners, lead learners, parents, and community partners. A result of our flat hierarchy is our constant theme for the leadership team: not about any one of us being right but about getting it right for our learners. In addition, PRS board members are community leaders who focus on building capacity to accomplish our mission.
We also believe that selecting the right people is essential to maintaining The Pike Road Way. As a new school system, we recruited and selected team members whose beliefs philosophically aligned with the system’s beliefs. This shows up in our language. As part of the PRS culture, teachers are lead learners, students are learners, a grade level is a community, and a class is a family. These words, and the meaning behind them, communicate the PRS vision for these roles, the passion for the mission, and the total commitment to achieving the mission. Our lead learners embrace this and have continuous conversations about how to further our work.
Q. How did PRS get initial backing to do school in a different way?
A. The Town of Pike Road was incorporated in 1997. And, a “neighborhood school” had been a dream of residents for more than a decade. Town leaders wanted to build a stronger sense of community among families. Children across the town attended 20 different schools, including private ones, and there was still another segment of those who chose homeschooling. To bring the community together, town leaders created Pike Road School System.
The mayor and town council members worked with citizens and learning-centered experts in the field to make this dream a reality. However, they didn’t want to “do school” the way it had always been done. They knew the people of Pike Road expected and longed for more. Pike Road School System couldn’t just be another “mediocre school system,” so they set out to think about “what could be” for their children.
Town leaders formed a group of involved citizens and educators to facilitate conversations about a new vision for public education. This group traveled to P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida to get a firsthand glimpse into this innovative approach to learning. The group also partnered with Auburn University Truman Pierce Institute to explore Professional Development Schools. In addition, they spent several months talking about a learning-centered school system. For them, it just made sense to make learning more meaningful and to engage learners.
Prior to the inception of Pike Road Schools, Superintendent, Dr. Suzanne Freeman hosted more than a dozen neighborhood meetings to help educate the community on The Pike Road Way. Parents, future parents, and community members from near and far turned out in droves to hear more about the opportunity for excellence in education in their own backyard. These meetings were designed to build capacity and create confidence in this “new way of learning.”
Thanks to the town’s initial work and the conversations that took place at the superintendent’s neighborhood meetings, parents were ripe for thinking about school in a different way. Many embraced The Pike Road Way with open arms. They realized blazing a trail might involve some bumps along the way but that the change would be worth it.
Q. What embodies The Pike Road Way?
A. The Pike Road Way is grounded in clearly defined beliefs, a compelling mission, and a strong vision which enables Pike Road Schools to approach learning in a different way. Our mission is to “create a culture of intellectual curiosity where all students have ownership over their learning and are inspired to think, innovate, and create.”
The world is our classroom, which is why project-based learning (PBL) is a core component of The Pike Road Way. Our learners are solving real problems that have an impact on their school, community, and the world. Learners co-design projects with lead learners and, in many cases, design their own projects. Learners are researchers, curators, content creators, and publishers. This gives them a sense of purpose.
PRS lead learners develop trusting relationships with learners and get to know their interests, enabling lead learners and learners to co-design work that is meaningful. Lead learners guide, instruct, and support learners in their learning, as well as help them navigate content and resources. As needed, lead learners scaffold the learning to meet learners’ needs and celebrate their progress.
Learners also have a major voice in the day-to-day organizational structure of school. Learners initiate and lead school clubs, research and write grants, design and execute school-wide programs, and teach younger learners (Big Patriot/Little Patriot).
Another major component of The Pike Road Way is partnering with our parents and community. We encourage parents to talk with their child each day about his/her learning. We want the learning from school to carry over into family life so that homes are places of intellectual curiosity—where families are talking about how things work, good books, current events, and more.
Most importantly, there is no limit on learning. Our goal is to support each learner to become the best version of him/herself. Because of our approach, learners find their sense of wonder and experience learning as a natural and joyous part of life—in other words, #LearningNeverEnds.
Our culture is not about titles but about contributing to the learning, no matter what your role.
Pike Road Schools Leader
Q. How have you recruited and supported teachers in this new role?
A. We recruit people who have the same philosophical beliefs and passion for our mission. Our leadership team maintains a laser focus on recruiting, vetting, and inducting lead learners. We recruit lead learners who are lifelong learners, trailblazers, innovators, and collaborators and who have the capacity to be relationship-builders, designers, facilitators, role models, and leaders.
We have a culture of continuous learning and growth mindset. Hence, once selected, lead learners are inducted into The Pike Road Way. This is not a one-time event. Each summer and throughout the school year, staff continuously learn together through discussions, article/book studies, and observing one another. As needed, support comes from outside experts, professional learning conferences, and/or learning from business and industry partners who support environments of continuous learning.
We encourage lead learners to take risks and embrace failure as a valuable part of the learning process. As a leadership team, we model this. We talk about our failures, share our learning, and ask questions to show our curiosity. We now see that lead learners do the same with their learners and have powerful conversations about pushing the boundaries of what could be.
We empower lead learners. Each community determines the allocation of their time (no bells), the pace of their learning, and projects (many of which are co-designed with their learners). They share their learning with one another, and we learn from them. Our culture is not about titles but about contributing to the learning, no matter what your role.
The daily schedule includes a block of uninterrupted time for lead learners to design together, reflect on teaching and learning, and discuss student work/progress. We use the word “design” rather than “plan” because designers are responsive to the needs and interests of their learners.
We utilize a non-traditional evaluation system called The Continuum to The Pike Road Way. The system is fluid and provides lead learners with continuous feedback through Coaching Conversations. The foundation of the coaching conversations is our mission and beliefs—fostering continuous learning and improvement. We also emphasize that this is a journey, and we celebrate approximations along the way. It is truly a team effort.
Our ultimate goal is to have so much buy-in and ownership by learners, lead learners, parents, and the community that The Pike Road Way emerges as the new tradition.
Pike Road Schools Leader
Q. Pike Road is in its second year, what lessons have you taken from year one? How have the learners adjusted to the changes?
A. As a new and innovative school system, we experienced some hurdles. In response to our Innovation Waiver submitted to the Alabama Department of Education, the state questioned us three separate times regarding instructional or organizational practices. When questioned, however, we toured the person(s) through the school, encouraged them to observe classrooms, and asked them to talk with our learners. Each time, the officials were not only persuaded but even became advocates for The Pike Road Way and asked PRS to serve as a model for other school systems.
The first few weeks of school, parents were concerned that their children were not learning and were just “playing.” Parents were accustomed to a traditional letter grading system, so several asked for traditional grades, textbooks, and worksheets. We knew that using a standards-based approach for reporting learning would be a game changer in terms of getting the focus on learning and away from “playing the game of school.” So, we held numerous parent conferences to explain the system and then worked strategically with our lead learners and learners to better communicate about and utilize this new system.
Once learners started talking about their learning (what they have mastered and have yet to master), parents started noticing that their children were focused on improvement and could enjoy the learning process.
We have improved our leadership skills by reframing obstacles into opportunities. We have learned to tell our story through social media, newsletters, movies, interviews, exhibitions showcasing student work, and encouraging learners to talk about their learning with their parents and the community. This has had a positive impact and allowed us to continue our journey. We are true to our mission and consistently use our beliefs as the filter for decisions of what to do or what not to do at PRS.
The rate of student enrollment with our limited physical space has resulted in large lead learner/learner ratios. However, we resolved to use all spaces to accommodate a focus on collaboration, engagement, and learning. Lead learners creatively use conventional spaces in unconventional ways. For example, the cafeteria and a library/media center serve as collaborative learning environments; the stairwells function as film studios; and hallways accommodate learners collaborating in small groups. With movable furniture, all rooms are easy to reconfigure based on each learner’s needs, whether setting up for collaboration or independent work.
Most importantly, we are not limited by walls because the world is also our classroom. As learners experience real-world learning, the learning spaces include the community and beyond.
We have honest conversations about why we do what we do—where we are strong and where we need improvement. We are very candid that this work is messy and complex; we continue to evolve each day of our journey. Our ultimate goal is to have so much buy-in and ownership by learners, lead learners, parents, and the community that The Pike Road Way emerges as the new tradition.
Q. Since you opened your doors in 2015, do you have a favorite story about your Pike Road learners?
A. Problem solving, collaborating, and serving the community; these are just three take-aways that PRS “Community Six” learners (traditionally called “sixth graders”) gained with their Bags of Love project. When a group of Community Six learners heard that a local homeless shelter was in need of bags of toiletries and other necessities, they took action and formed the “Passionate Patriots.” This group had recently learned to sew in Makerspace (using donated sewing machines) and wanted to use their skills for a good cause.
The learners sewed more than 100 drawstring bags and developed a campaign to collect items to fill these bags. Through trial and error and creating several prototypes, the learners created the most efficient way to sew and fill the bags; they even willingly sacrificed recess and snack time to accomplish their goal.
They worked with the graphic design learners to create a movie to advertise this project and solicit donated items, such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, travel-size shampoo, soap, and deodorant. The learners also learned about the perils of homelessness and wrote individual notes of encouragement for each bag. This didn’t stop with C6 learners; it became a school-wide effort and was connected with a kindergarten project.
“Why are there bees on our playground?” asked kindergarteners in Mrs. Allen’s class. This question resulted in our kindergarten learners hearing from several local bee experts. They learned that bees weren’t so bad a er all and their wax and honey can be very beneficial. Thanks to an expert from within our community, these kindergarteners learned to create their own product: “Honey Express Lip Balm,” which they then donated to the Bags of Love project.
Once the Bags of Love were prepared, the C6 learners went to the homeless shelter and personally delivered and served a meal to the homeless. This change had a major impact on the residents at the homeless shelter and on our learners.
Remember, the world is our classroom.
Park Road Schools Leader
Q. What’s next for PRS?
A. We will continue to provide meaningful professional learning and hold constant conversations to refine our practices. This includes refining how we assess learning, empowering learners to take ownership of their learning, and collaborating with parents about their child’s learning. Part of this will also help us to provide more depth to and further challenge all learners.
We are encouraging our lead learners to journal their experiences and share their learning through presentations and publications. Our superintendent is working on a book that tells our story. We want all of our lead learners and learners to lend their voice and tell our story.
Community members remain a very visible and integral part of the school’s daily operation, as well as helping to expand learning opportunities beyond the walls of school. We continue to increase the opportunities for them to share their expertise and collaborate with lead learners and learners to design learning experiences, provide research opportunities, co-design and co-facilitate projects—both inside and outside of school. Remember, the world is our classroom.
We are expanding The Pike Road Way through high school. This includes service projects and authentic learning experiences with community leaders as well as furthering partnerships with higher education. This will allow for mentoring by adults who share learners’ passions and interests. These business and industry partners will co-design and co-facilitate with lead learners. Additionally, representatives from these businesses and professions are serving on Academy Advisory Boards. We are developing additional partnerships with colleges and universities to provide dual enrollment, career technical courses, college courses, and online learning for high school learners.
We want to go deeper in using technology to transform teaching and learning. We use the SAMR model, making the focus on modification and redefinition to transform learning. Our purpose for using technology is to connect learners to information and people throughout the world, enable learners to collaborate, create content, and publish to a worldwide audience. This will allow learners to publish in a variety of ways (movies, animation, blogs, iBooks, etc.) and to receive feedback from professionals and a global audience. Our goal is to use technology as a tool to redefine how learners learn.
The Town of Pike Road is collaborating with PRS to renovate a historic school for use as Pike Road High School. This facility will be completed this summer for our middle and high school learners. This is much needed space for our rapidly growing school system.
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