On October 3rd, I had the opportunity to visit the iSchool in New York City, a high school “dedicated to equipping students with the skills necessary for success and leadership in the 21st century.” After navigating the complex maze of streets that is SoHo — my iPhone had mysteriously lost its sense of direction after I got off the subway — I arrived at the historic building that houses both the iSchool and the Chelsea Vocational School.
Rebuilt in the early 20th century after it was destroyed by a fire, the building now stands as a testament to the mission of the iSchool. For the past four years, students have been engaged in the design of a “green” roof as an educational and recreational space for its students. “The green roof will benefit not only our school but our city and the world,” their website reads. “We can start a generation that will help restore the Earth’s ecosystems and make our environment a better place to live for the generations ahead of us.” As I got closer, I was struck by the fact that even the building serves an educational purpose; a real world “problem” for students to solve.
It was still early, so I found a bench across the street and took a seat, waiting for the other team members to arrive. Businessmen rushed to their first meeting. Cab drivers honked angrily at one another, looking for their next fare. Construction work added a steady hum to the mix, New York’s own version of quiet. As I watched students gather at the front entrance, I realized just how embedded their experience of school was in the rhythm of the city. This simple fact is the driving philosophy behind much of what the iSchool does, which includes giving students the opportunity to play an authentic role beyond the confines of a classroom.
The idea for the iSchool began in 2006 when the New York City Board of Education sought to create a school that would serve as a model for 21st century learning. The iSchool team was charged with the task of dreaming big while at the same time designing a school that was “sustainable and scalable.” After a couple of years of planning, the school opened in 2008 with a cohort of 100 ninth graders.
After the rest of the team arrived, we made our way into the building. The front lobby was small, equipped with a security desk and two computers for students to swipe their ID cards. A sign advertising a fallout shelter hung above the doors to the gymnasium, a reminder of NYC’s tendency to build onto the past rather than erase it.
We signed in and climbed the five flights of stairs that led to the iSchool. A teacher greeted us at the top, wearing a shirt that proudly advertised the school. Seeing the confused look on our faces, she pointed us towards a set of double doors at the other end of the hallway.
When we walked through, I was surprised to see a scene that looked a lot like the Greenwich High School Student Center in microcosm. With only 450 students, the iSchool is much smaller than GHS, but the energy in the room was the same. The bell rang, releasing students into the hallway, the frenetic energy dispersed throughout the school and into the classrooms.
We met with Assistant Principal Michelle Leimsider and talked for an hour and a half about the school’s philosophy, its early days, and how they stay true to their mission while navigating the complex world of educational standards.
At the core of the iSchool’s mission are three values: innovation, individualization, and metacognitive skill development. To support its core values, the iSchool uses a four pronged approach consisting of Modules, Online Learning, Advisory, and Core Experiences.
Modules run for nine weeks and tackle real world issues and tasks, both in the community and the world at large. As the website says, “Modules are developed with real work and real world challenges in mind; whenever possible, this work actually derives from the needs of real clients, who might come to the iSchool with a real challenge or task for students to complete.” I spoke to one student who was enrolled in a module called “Food Revolution,” where students “work with the NYC Department of Health and the National Let’s Move Campaign to come up with healthy menus for school lunches and nutrition workshops for younger children.” He spoke passionately about his experience and commented on how cool it was to have a choice in what he studied. Every student we spoke to shared his excitement and pride about their work.
One of the most interesting things about the culture of the iSchool is the freedom teachers and students have in designing their schedules. In the spring, teachers propose ideas for modules they’d like to run and students vote on the ones they find most interesting. The following school year, students have a chance to enroll in a new one each quarter. Much like a college student, students eagerly await for registration to open so they can get every class on their wishlist.
It’s easy to see why students are so excited by this process when you look at the modules offered. For example, in TV Show Creation, students “propose, plan, and execute a public access TV show.” In We Are Sixteen, students communicate with teens all around the world in order to document “the role of culture, geography and politics in their coming of age experiences.” Another module, The Clean Water Crisis, asks students to research issues relating to clean water and natural disasters before designing a low-cost water filtration device. Forget building a bridge between school and the real world. At the iSchool, the two are blended so as to make it impossible to know where one ends and the other begins.
We asked how they’re able to meet all of their standards with such a flexible curriculum. A common theme in our discussion revolved around how schools sometimes create their own obstacles to change. Some walls are self-imposed and don’t have to be broken through with a hammer; you just have to find the right door.
Their online learning platform goes a long way in keeping their curriculum flexible. Built into the philosophy of the iSchool is the idea that diversity is good, both in subject matter and pace. In preparing for standardized tests like the Regents Exams, online learning allows students to move at their own pace and master all required content. As we continue to reimagine how education can be personalized in a world of standards, it’s important to realize that schools like the iSchool have figured out ways to tailor education to the needs and passions of their students and still get quantifiable results.
Although the iSchool prides itself on creating a high school experience built around the needs of the individual, there are also core experiences that all students must have. For example, in iLearn, a required course for all ninth graders, students learn about metacognition, the importance of having a growth mindset, and essential reading and writing skills. In the iLearn class we visited, students were reading The One World School House by Salman Kahn. Students were asked to think about how they like to learn and to picture their own ideal learning environment. It was yet another reminder that education can be both individualized and standardized.
On the way out, I stopped by a plaque commemorating the opening of the school. On the bottom, a Chinese proverb read, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember.” It was a fitting reminder of the mission of the iSchool, as well as how innovation sometimes means embracing wisdom from the past.
We left feeling energized and decided to have lunch at a macrobiotic organic Asian fusion restaurant across the street. “Nothing in New York can be just one thing,” one of the team members said. Maybe that’s a good thing, I thought, remembering the flexibility and variety offered at the iSchool: the schedule, the building, the teachers who dreamed up compelling modules for their students to explore. We flipped through our menus, trying to make sense of all the different options. The waiter greeted us and took out his notepad. No one ordered the same thing.