Innovative Schools Tackle Staffing, AI, Mental Health & Pessimism about the Future

Innovative Schools Tackle Staffing, AI, Mental Health & Pessimism about the Future

New data confirm that staffing, AI and mental health are top of mind for school leaders, and education innovators are working to find solutions, according to The 74. The Canopy project, an ongoing national study of schools that focuses on designing student-centered and equitable learning environments — and challenges assumptions about what school must be — just updated its database with survey results from 189 innovative schools. 

School leaders selected teacher workforce issues as the top factor they think will transform the education sector. Some respondents struggle to recruit teachers in general and have trouble finding those with skills geared to working with non-traditional instructional models. Bostonia Global, a charter school part of Cajon Valley Unified School District in California, uses a competency-based instructional model requiring teachers to implement an individualized approach, not just teach the same content at the same pace to a classroom of 30 kids.

Artificial intelligence was the second most-selected driver of change. School leaders’ responses show they want to harness AI’s potential while staying attentive to issues of access, privacy and equity. Only 7% of surveyed school leaders say they have a policy in place governing students’ use of generative AI, and 38% say they’re developing one. Despite the shortage of formal policy, experimentation appeared abundant.

The mental health crisis claimed the third spot on the list of factors that school leaders believe will transform K-12 education. Four in five leaders report their schools are already integrating social and emotional learning into all subject areas and student activities, making it one of the practices most commonly implemented across surveyed schools this year. Two-thirds of schools surveyed provide mental health services to students, either directly or through a partner such as a community-based health organization, and just under half said they support adult wellness, too.

Some responses pointed to an even bigger problem. One leader wrote, “Students are developing an increasing sense of hopelessness about the world beyond school.” Many lower- and middle-income young people, he said, feel that social mobility is “not possible for them.”

Many schools are working toward solutions that combat that sense of hopelessness. As in previous years of Canopy surveys, most schools reported designing solutions to meet marginalized students’ needs. At BuildUp Community School in Alabama, the school’s mostly Black and economically-disadvantaged students split their time between classrooms and work-based learning in construction and real estate, revitalizing their communities and paving a path to homeownership. And 5280 High School, in Colorado, helps students recovering from addiction to reengage in their education and explore their passions in a setting that prioritizes mental health.

Too often, the scale of K-12 sector problems lead education leaders, policymakers and funders to bemoan a lack of bold solutions or flock to attractive but still-theoretical ideas that fail in the implementation stage.

School-level innovation efforts are worth watching because they show unconventional ideas in the process of becoming reality — and some may hint at what success can look like. Canopy schools are prime examples of this, whether it’s a New York City charter school accelerating student learning and well-being through summer programming or a North Carolina district school achieving high growth rates with an innovative staffing approach. 

One answer to what will drive K-12 transformation in the coming years is that it will arise from innovation not just in ed tech companies and think tanks, but in the nation’s schools.

The 74

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