THE RESIDENTS OF SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH have been witness to many innovative moments since the city’s establishment in the mid-19th-century. The transcontinental railroad was completed just 80 miles northwest of the city’s center, the city tripled in population in the first quarter of the 20th-century, and now it’s home to one of the highest concentrations of biomedical, high-technology, and software firms in the nation.
So, it is no surprise that education innovation has made its way into the city. In 2012, Innovations Early College High School (IECHS) stepped onto the field as a learner-centered, transformed environment. Sharing real estate with the local community college and district Career and Technical Education Center, learners at IECHS have immediate access to high-level, non-standard academic opportunities, which makes competency-based learning a no-brainer. Learners go at a pace that meets them where they are, while also ensuring they don’t fall behind their expected graduation date. Failing to develop in their competencies is not an option. Asking for more time is.
Back when the learning environment was being designed, founder and principal, Kenneth Grover, made it his goal to get learners involved in the design process. He surveyed learners across the local district—asking them to share and brainstorm what could be done differently in “school.” By reimagining learning with the learners themselves, a brand new model emerged.
This collaboration established a socially-embedded culture before day one—generating an environment where learners work together collaboratively on various open-walled projects, meet one-on-one with mentors to explore the possibilities in their academic path, and, at the highest level, simply get to know themselves in an intimate and dynamic way.
Learner agency is the bedrock of everything that happens at IECHS, which makes even a “typical day” not so typical. From the get go, learners design their own schedules and finalize their plans with a mentor. Outside of two general requirements—being on campus for at least 6.5 hours each day and achieving general academic benchmarks—learners are free to decide when they arrive at and leave from IECHS, when they meet with mentors, who they work with from their groups of peers, and when they tackle particular projects and learning goals.
What might seem like chaos at the highest level is actually a well thought out and cultivated learner plan. In fact, this freedom fosters in-depth acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, which demonstrates what kids are capable of when they are trusted to own their learning journey. In this setting, educators get to do what they do best and guide learners down their unique paths to incredibly bright futures in academia or the working world. In Salt Lake City, innovation is more than just a buzzword. It’s real action creating real transformation for the city’s burgeoning youth.