Is Coaching for Your School or Program?

May 23, 2019 no comments S

This blog is the final in a four-part series on EdVision’s coaching model in the Midwest School Transformation Project.  Click here to start with part 1.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Is Coaching for Your School or Program?

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

In the first post in this series from EdVisions on coaching, we looked at the research around coaching.  In the second post, we heard about the way in which the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP) seeks to use coaching to harvest lessons about school transformation from charter schools by linking charter school leaders with district schools.  In the third post, we heard from some of the coaches and people in the districts who’ve signed on to the project.  I hope you have enjoyed all three posts.

I also hope you are thinking about how you can begin to incorporate coaching into your own school.  Perhaps you already do and are looking for ways to expand the role. Wherever you find yourself, coaching can help launch an innovation as well as help peel back the layers of change when seeking to transform an existing program.  

The question you might be asking is whether coaching is feasible financially.  The answer is yes. Sure, coaching, like all forms of professional development, costs money.  On the surface, it seems like it would cost a lot more than traditional approaches, especially if you don’t have a grant to assist in start-up costs.  But what if we viewed coaching as an opportunity to think differently about how to support teachers and principals rather than a zero-sum budget proposition?   

No one would argue that schools are cash-strapped.  There are never enough resources to go around. It’s frustrating, to say the least.  But when budgets are tight, there’s only one way to go, and that’s to look inward. If you want to embed coaching into your professional development model, there are several ways this might occur.  

First, are there existing positions you can revamp?  Granted, no one is sitting around doing nothing. People in schools are busy people!  But ask yourself, is what people in various positions currently do more impactful than what a coach might accomplish?  If not, this might be a place to start.

Second, are there ways to redistribute your current expenditures to support a coaching model?  In my last district, before I retired, we shifted roughly one million dollars of state, local, and federal funding in our existing budget to staff one instructional coach in each of our five elementary schools and two coaches in each of our three secondary schools.  This was accomplished through a collaborative planning process that took an entire year. The total shift was nearly one percent of our operating budget; everyone had to have skin in the game. But we were successful, providing evidence that major shifts are possible.

Third, if necessary, start small.  Instead of dedicating an entire full-time equivalent to a coaching role, what if you did so in small increments?  For example, at the elementary level, is there a way for two teachers to job share, enabling one person to serve as a coach on a part-time basis?  At the secondary level, can a teacher be released for one or two periods to serve as a coach? I’ve seen this work well also. This approach can be done at a minimal cost.     

It’s worth noting that coaching need not be the only kind of professional development offered.  According to Kraft, Blazer, and Hogan (in press)¹, the effect size for coaching is larger by .31 on instruction and by .12 on achievement when it follows group training on things like content knowledge.  A second consideration these researchers point out is the added benefit when coaching is offered in conjunction with instructional resources and materials.  And the third bit of good news from these researchers is that they found no evidence that coaching needed to be delivered in high amounts in order to have an impact.  In other words, when coaching is combined with other measures, a little can go a long way.

That all said, coaching for innovation is different than coaching for literacy, math, or technology, areas in which coaching is becoming more common.  This important reminder comes from Julene Oxton, the director at EdVisions for the Midwest School Transformation Project, who states, “Coaching for innovation encourages people to dream of something different for students to the degree that it transforms a system, not merely improves it.  That means redefining the roles of teachers and students and creating new models around the use of resources such as time, technology, personnel, space, assessments, and how students are grouped, to name a few.”

If there is anything we’ve learned from our coaches in the last two blog posts, it’s that solutions will come in many forms.  Your local context, the resources you have at hand, the needs of your students and staff, and the unique opportunities that your situation presents will drive much of what you do.  But beyond the more tangible elements are those that are intangible: vision, passion, determination – these will be of far greater importance.

Gone are the days when we can throw up our hands and say it can’t be done.  Imperfect as things are, educators are proving more can be done. Don’t be shy in stepping out into uncharted territory.  It might take multiple iterations, and things will shift along the way. But that’s the work of transformation. As we’ve heard, it’s messy.  Expect it, plan for it, and embrace it. If you do, good ideas will flourish and innovation will prevail.

For inspiration and ideas for your program, stay tuned as we journey along with the schools in the Midwest School Transformation Project in future blog posts.      


  1. Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (in press). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research.  Retrieved at

The Makings of a Coach: A Passion for Student Learning

May 16, 2019 no comments S

This blog is part 3 in a four-part series on EdVision’s coaching model in the Midwest School Transformation Project. Click here to start with part 1.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

In the first post in this series from EdVisions on coaching, we looked at the research around coaching.  In the second post, we heard about the way in which the Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP) seeks to use coaching to harvest lessons about school transformation from charter schools by linking charter school leaders with district schools.  In this post, we hear from some of the coaches and people in the districts who’ve signed on to the project.

It is not a surprise that many, though not all, of the coaches EdVisions has chosen for the MSTP come from charters.  The rest come from school districts that have demonstrated success in designing and implementing innovative learning programs, proving innovation can occur in and outside of traditional structures.  In total, 15 educators have signed on to share their knowledge and expertise.

But these people don’t just think of coaching in terms of sharing what they know.  They expect to learn too. I spoke with Peter Weiczorek, the Director at Northwest Passage Charter High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota and Liz Seubert, a founding teacher of Wildlands Science Research School in Fall Creek, Wisconsin, also a charter school.  In separate conversations, the two shared similar sentiments about their upcoming role. A set of themes became apparent that describe the kind of coaching we can expect to hear more about over the course of the project.

1.  A sense of mission.

Both Liz and Peter spoke about how the MSTP aligns to their own personal mission as an educator, and it is a mission they pursue with passion.  As Peter stated, “The neat thing about the way that this project is shaping up is that there are so many experienced people in the room with a number of different perspectives who share a common language and a shared mission.”  He sees coaching as creating yet another avenue for those already collaborating around creating learner-centered schools to connect, adding more layers and bringing in more people to what he calls “the ecosystem.”

Liz expressed a similar view.  “For a number of years, I’ve been incredibly passionate about advancing student-centered learning.”  She is involved with the Teacher Powered Schools network and actively engaged in the Innovative Schools Network, which started in Wisconsin before expanding nationwide.  Wildlands was her first job out of college. “Student-centered learning is so ingrained in me. I love helping people discover more about it.”

2.  Coaching is part of their professional DNA.

Coaching others is deeply rooted in the way they think, talk, and interact with their peers in and outside of their school.  The role comes naturally to them because they practice it every day.

For example, Liz’s coaching philosophy permeates her work at Wildlands.  In 2015, she authored a book with her colleague, Paul Tweed (also an MSTP coach) called An Improbable School: Transforming How Teachers Teach & Students Learn.  “That’s when my coaching journey really started,” she said, when she began talking with teachers in Wisconsin about the book.  Using their Seven Essentials, she and Paul helped teachers and principals work together to redesign schools.

Peter also honed his coaching skills at his school, whether working with students, staff, or visitors to Northwest Passage.  “I find my energy and passion supporting other people and helping them reach their goals and seeing them flourish. It’s not about me, it’s about helping them be better at what they do, especially when it is serving the greater good for working with young people.”  

3.  Inquiry:  Creating, not replicating, designs for learning.

For these coaches, conversations are driven by a spirit of inquiry that has been at the center of their practice since day one, and over time, they’ve learned how to help others think outside the proverbial box.  Both Northwest Passage and Wildlands get a lot of visitors who want to see their innovative programming.  But both stress the goal should not be to replicate what visitors see at either school. “You can’t just look at one model and say you’re going to do that,” Peter points out.  “What we do at Northwest Passage has worked for us, but it has taken us a long time to get here.” He tells visitors to figure out who they want to be, really think about who their students are, consider their resources, and be honest about their challenges.  Then, he tells them to explore and define their opportunities. He plans to do this in his coaching role in the MSTP as well.

Liz echoed the wisdom of this approach.  “I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of helping a school discover their dream for their students and helping that come to fruition.  It’s like being a catalyst.” But, she cautions, it is up to those whom she will be coaching to figure out what they want to do.  

4.  The importance of teacher voice.

Inquiry leads to generating ideas, lots of them, but eventually a vision and a mission need to emerge along with a path for moving forward.  A goal of the MSTP is to give educators a primary role in determining what that path entails. Liz and Peter have seen firsthand what happens when teachers are truly freed to chart their own course.

Empowering teachers to lead the way creates a different kind of dynamic.  As Liz sees it, it’s the difference between “here’s what you get to do instead of what you have to do with students.”  That’s a game changer for teachers.  Suddenly, they feel a renewed sense of purpose.  Liz thrives in providing teachers the opportunity to reimagine their day and their school and give them voice and choice in the process.  “I can ask the right questions and help them decide what they want their school to look and be like.” But, she stresses, “I have a lot of questions, not answers.  I want to help them find their own answers. That’s very teacher powered in perspective.”

Peter embraces a similar approach.  The questions he intends to use to guide the project schools to which he is assigned are straightforward:  

  • What do you want your school to look like?
  • What do your kids need?
  • What do you think school should be for them?

He also plans to ask, “What are the parts you really like about what others are doing?  Let’s frame that in your context,” he says. He is realistic about the constraints schools face.  After he finds out what they want to do, he plans to ask, “How you can do that within your boundaries?”  

5.  Trust and collaboration.

Teacher buy-in is a key factor in determining whether coaching will be successful.¹  If teachers aren’t invested, the road ahead will be difficult.  It is critical to establish a trusting relationship early in the process so teachers realize nothing will be done to them that they themselves don’t elect to do on their own.  Liz intends to address this by creating authentic relationships with her mentees. “I see my [coaching] role much like I see my role in the classroom – a guide on the side. I am there as a mentor and a resource.  But I don’t see myself implementing things for them; that will be their responsibility.”

Peter also knows he will need to foster trust.  “Trust doesn’t happen overnight,” he admits. He, too, plans to take time to get to know his colleagues and establish open lines of communication.  “Trust also comes from this place where both sides can recognize the value that each brings to the conversation. I don’t think of myself as the expert that has the definitive answer,” he said.  “I like to spend time asking questions.”

6.  Coaching enriches everyone’s practice.

Coaches will gain too.  Peter made it clear that while he has things he is eager to share, he hopes to learn from others as well, signaling that coaching is a two-way street.   “I’m a junkie on seeing what other schools are doing,” he said.  “The best thing is to get out of your environment. You always see how you can do better.”  

Both referenced that fact that for the past 10-15 years, the work of many of the other coaches and people in the project schools has overlapped in various ways.  Both he and Liz have been collaborating with others formally and informally through projects, picking each other’s brains at conferences, and talking shop at meetings.  The fact that both know a lot of the people in the project makes them very excited. As Peter pointed out, “There is such a high-quality set of people who share the same mission, the same drive for helping students.”  

7.  Creating a sustainable path forward.

Educators like Liz and Peter have been innovating for some time, and both shared their enthusiasm over how the MSTP will pave the way for school transformation across the country. Liz stated she looks forward to helping schools be different.  “In this project, it will be amazing to see the different levels of collaboration that will take place. Not just with the schools that are participating, but with all of the coaches that are involved.” She points to a huge store of resources just waiting for more people to leverage towards creating more learner-center schools.

Peter is equally optimistic and hopes the project is the sign of a new era to come.  “It’s the way we start to move the arrow back to where students and learning are at the center,” he said.  “We are looking at schools through a newer lens, one that some of us have been using; now it’s broadening.”

So what do those who will be on the receiving end of the coaching think?  They’re excited too. Just ask Heather Fitzloff, interim Program Director at Bridges Prior-Lake Savage Area School Alternative Learning Center in Prior Lake, Minnesota.  Though still learning about what the coaching model will entail, of her staff, she said, “They are super excited about working with their partner school through a transformation, doing more things that give students voice and choice, and understanding project-based learning.  It’s going to be a game changer.” She is enthusiastic about the collaboration that is promised and believes the structure is set up to provide just the right kind of support they need. “The coaches,” she said, “have been through it.”

Project-based learning is a growing trend, and without coaches and exposure to other models, she fears any attempt at transformation would take a lot longer, be more difficult, and much more challenging to secure staff support.  With expert help, she believes she and her team will be better situated to take on the barriers and challenges that lie ahead.

When asked if her staff was on board, Heather admits there was some hesitation at first.  “But now that they know more about the project, they are really excited.” She notes her district is also on board.  Visiting some of the other schools in the project has added to her own excitement, and she is ready to get started. One of the things she hopes to take away from the experience is becoming part of the network of people and schools that will continue the work after the grant is over.   “It is going to be a really tough shift; we went to and taught in a traditional system. To change from that – the paradigm shift to a different role – will be hard. It’s a big step. That’s why this partnership and the coaching is going to be so important.”

Joe Rice, Executive Director at The Center School in Minneapolis, Minnesota is hopeful as well.  When asked what he is looking for in the coaching model, he said, “I hope they are willing to really personalize it.  That will be the best way to succeed. Staff need to have someone available in real time.” They, too, have questions about project-based learning.  “Some teachers are a little hesitant as to how it will translate into what they teach and how they teach,” he pointed out. The Center School is unique in that it operates as a contract school that serves Native American students using indigenous pedagogy.  “Their pedagogy,” he said, “is very old. Experiential learning, problem-based learning, and place-based learning are all approaches that have elements of indigenous practice in them.” But it remains to be seen, he said, how non-Native teachers will work with the Center School’s practices.  

Looking ahead, Joe said, “I expect at the start, the coaching will be more intensive,” then went on to say he wants the coaches to develop his and his staff’s confidence then step back a bit.  “Let us make mistakes.” He wants his staff to own their work, and coaching, he believes, should be used to help them figure it out their own solutions.  

According to Oxton, the whole coaching team will meet with each other once a month to discuss needs at their schools and draw from all the coaches’ experience to find solutions, tools, and practices to support the various needs of school they serve.

To meet all the coaches in the project, click here.  For a list of partner schools, click here.

After talking with these educators, it’s hard not to imagine the MSTP isn’t poised to make a significant impact on schooling in America.  By empowering teachers and applying lessons learned in programs that have grown over time and continue to iterate, our hopes for success can and should be high.  In the fourth and final post in this series on coaching, I will talk about the road ahead.

For more information, you may contact any of the following people involved in the MSTP:

Julene Oxton is at EdVisions and can be reached at or by calling 612-601-1043

Liz Seubert is at Wildlands Science Research School and can be reached at or by calling 715-286-2291, ext. 4401

Peter Weiczorek is at Northwest Passage High School and can be reached at or by calling 763-862-9223

Joe Rice is at Nawayee Center School and can be reached at or by calling 612-721-1655

Heather Fitzloff is at Bridges Prior-Lake Savage Area Learning Center and can be reached at or by calling 952-226-0846


1.  Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (in press). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence.  Review of Educational Research.  Retrieved at

Lessons for Learning: A Foundation for Coaching

May 8, 2019 no comments S

This is Part 2 of a four-part series on coaching that will be published over the next several months.  Click here to read Part 1.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

LESSONS FOR LEARNING:  A Foundation for Coaching

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

Transforming an entire school is no easy task.  Experience tells us it is an arduous process that few can claim to have accomplished.  When asked to change all or most of what we know about teaching and learning, we find ourselves on unstable ground.  And it’s not like we have an abundance of time to process new learning. Students show up every day whether we are ready or not.  When we aren’t sure of our next step, or when the transformation process requires a substantial effort that feels beyond our capacity, it is tempting to fall back on what we know.

Fortunately, there are people who can help show the way.  EdVisions has created a unique coaching model on which to position its Midwest School Transformation Project (MSTP), an ambitious undertaking that seeks to embed the following learner-centered practices and pedagogy in existing schools versus launching new ones:

  • Student agency and empowerment
  • Relevant connected learning
  • Authentic assessment
  • Teacher empowerment and leadership

Choosing a coaching model to usher in new and sustainable ways to reshape schools makes sense.  In the first post in this series on coaching, I shared some of the research around coaching that allows us to posit that supporting teachers and administrators with personalized support can make a dramatic difference in developing new skills and attitudes toward what works for students and incorporating them into practice.    

For the MSTP, EdVisions selected a cadre of coaches to provide in-depth support to their project schools.  According to Julene Oxton, the project’s director at EdVisions, “A larger coaching team allows for a broad base of experience to support the variety of schools within this project.”  But it takes matching people with the right expertise to create new designs for learning that are truly transformative. Where better to find them than in schools that are already incorporating the desired skills and strategies with success?

EdVisions reached out to leaders in the field who are embedding EdVision’s Ed°Essentials in their practice and found many in charter schools.  Charter schools, by design, embrace the opportunity to create a different school experience for students.  In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school legislation in the country, and many states soon followed suit.  Freed from the stranglehold of restrictions and bureaucratic barriers that plague reform efforts in traditional school districts, charter schools broke new ground.  

Most will tell you it was messy at first, and resentments on a variety of fronts were not uncommon.  The playing field, it seemed, had shifted for some, but not for everyone. Despite opposition, mostly from within educator ranks, charter schools forged on ahead, launching a class of entirely new schools.  Now, a generation later, we have reached a point in time where traditional school districts can learn from charter schools. A proof of concept exists that we can harvest to gain insight and apply important lessons learned.  By the same token, charter schools can learn from districts.

I spoke with Julene Oxton, EdVision’s project director for the MSTP and Carrie Bakken, Program Coordinator and teacher at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota.  I wanted to find out more about how the project will accomplish the goal to bridge communication between charters and districts and advance the goal to create learner-centered schools.   

When charter schools first opened, many viewed them as being in direct competition with traditional school districts.  Now, decades later, has that sentiment changed?

Carrie Bakken:  I feel like it has gotten more positive in Minnesota.  We host a lot of district school visitors at Avalon; visitors also come from charters.  Nationally, though, the conversation around charters is more contentious. Minnesota charter schools are smaller, and organizations don’t take them over like they do in other states.  

Julene Oxton:  I come primarily from a district background.  The original intent of the charter law in Minnesota is starting to be realized in and around Minnesota.  We are finally getting to the point where collaboration between districts and charters is real. People in innovative schools are starting to talk to district schools and are willing to support them in a real way.  Instead of working alongside each other, this project creates the potential for charters and districts to work together through the coaching model we’ve developed. We’re excited about that.

What have we learned from the charter movement?  How have they contributed to the dialogue around school reform?

Julene Oxton:  No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was authorized shortly after Minnesota and Iowa passed their charter school laws.  NCLB’s emphasis on math and literacy accountability from the top down really hindered what the laws intended the charter sector to do.  Now the pendulum is shifting back to the whole child and issues around equity, broadening the space for innovation to occur. We think the timing is excellent for collaboration between districts and charters to occur – school to school, teacher to teacher.

Carrie Bakken:  I agree. What I’ve learned being part of the charter movement is that if you create an innovative program, and if you have a broad enough base, you have more freedom in a charter school to create a sustainable program.   Some charters have been open over 20 years. Charters within districts don’t seem to fare as well. In a district school, you might have things in place with a core of enthusiastic people, but a new administrator or a new direction can wipe that out.   

Julene Oxton:  Right. When I look at successful charter schools in Minnesota that have stood the test of time, I see they have had full autonomy.  To me, that’s the biggest difference. Those schools have had the ability to make decisions at the school level. Sometimes they are totally teacher-led; sometimes there’s a principal.  But the teachers drive the programming. This has been especially true in Minnesota, where charters tend to be small. Fewer people are trying to make decisions, thus there are fewer people to answer to, making teacher autonomy more possible.  The funny thing is, as much as NCLB and now ESSA seeks to make schools accountable, true teacher autonomy leads to the highest level of accountability possible, versus accountability being mandated by the state or federal government. This is an important lesson charters have taught us.  Autonomy matters greatly. When we think of school reform, it’s not a problem with people; it’s the system. Districts still adhere to a top-down managerial structure. A second important lesson is that most charters are small, especially those in Minnesota. This adds to their ability to create new systems and different environments for learning.

What specific lessons would you like to see districts learn from charter schools?

Carrie Bakken:  More autonomy for teachers, for one.  And the importance of sustaining support for an innovative program is also important.  It has to go beyond a pilot for a year. New programs need time for sustained practice.  Second, make something new. There are really good charters and district programs to visit that can provide you with foundational ideas.  But don’t just replicate them; use them as a springboard for ideas. From there, be clear about what innovation you are seeking. It’s not easy.  Even charters struggle with being new. It takes time. The key is to harness teachers’ power. Make sure there is teacher buy-in and leadership, whatever leadership structure you decide, then support the journey.  There can still be a principal, but you need to capitalize on the energy of the teachers.

Julene Oxton:  Following that same thought, when I think about student-centeredness and what it means to most people in this movement is that decisions are made based on students’ needs, and students are part of the decision making.  That’s a very different structure than you find in most schools. Teachers are making most of the decisions about the learning environment and what kids are doing. My hope is we can help districts learn how to transfer the decision-making filter to the student, even allowing the students to make some decisions by giving them authentic voice and choice so they own their own learning.  Charters can help districts flip the decision-making model and flop the administrative hierarchy – and also flip the classroom hierarchy. We have proof that students can and will make great decisions about their own learning if you create a structure in which to help them do that. Through our coaching model, the schools in our project will walk away with a sense of how that’s done and the enthusiasm and capacity to make it happen.

How will you build capacity to help launch new practices and build capacity for those new practices to flourish after the coaching relationship is over?

Carrie Bakken:  As coaches, we need to help our partner schools stay with it when there are bumps in the road.  Bumps are inevitable. When they occur, there is a natural tendency to go back to what they know.  I want us to help them stay the course and be patient. Everyone wants that quick fix, but this is not a quick fix.  Quick fixes don’t exist. If we can help our project schools know and manage through the normal ups and downs, I think that will be helpful.   

Julene Oxton:  Our project schools have just started action planning.  What we are discovering is what a breath of fresh air it is for schools to be able to step back and think about where they are and where they want to go.  They’re realizing their current vision isn’t very clear or inclusive. We want to help them create a set of commitments – common beliefs about learning, their values, and the behaviors that adults in a learner-centered environment would display and students would portray.  And they need to be specific. This is what they will use to hold each other accountable. Then we talk about how to keep track of students and learning once the new vision is in place. We anticipate they will keep revising their vision; that’s normal. Over time, the vision will come alive with short-term goals measured by their own indicators.  This is how they will know they are moving forward. We’ve created a set of continuums of progress that will help them do that.

When all is said and done, what will most define the success of the coaching model you’ve developed?  

Julene Oxton:  A trusting relationship will have been created between the coaches, the schools, and the practitioners.  Trust, we know, is the foundation of any effective collaboration. We want our coaches to be authentic, transparent, and real with our project schools.  Our coaches are on a journey too. They will provide less “how to” and more “how can you?” We want to establish an environment where schools try something new.  If it doesn’t work, we want them to know that it’s okay. The key is to move forward and figure out the next step.

Carrie Bakken:  Another thing is that in the end, through our coaching model, we hope we will have created a wider network of schools and practitioners who are focusing on creating student-centered schools.  Right now, all the coaches in the project are connected to each other and other schools and organizations supporting innovation. We want to see those connections grow.

Julene Oxton:  Right. We won’t necessarily go away at the end of the project.  We’re aware that a network of schools is critical to sustainability.  We intend for a broader network of schools and practitioners to be in place to support innovation, we hope, for years to come.

It’s exciting to consider the possibilities that Julene and Carrie talk about.  In our next post, you will meet several of the coaches and hear what practitioners in the project schools hope to gain from the coaching experience EdVisions has planned.  

Coaching for Transformation: A Model for Professional Development in Today’s Schools

April 25, 2019 no comments S

This is Part 1 of a four-part series on coaching that will be published over the next several months.

The Midwest School Transformation Project is a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models. For more on the project visit and stay tuned for further articles on the project by our insightful writer, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Coaching for Transformation: A Model for Professional Development in Today’s Schools

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

If you ask teachers what they love most about their job, rarely do they say professional development.  They are likely to say they enjoy learning new ways to teach and like being exposed to different methods, but you won’t often hear them attributing their best learning to workshops and other traditional ways school seek to help teachers expand their repertoire of instructional strategies.  

The exception, however, might be coaching.  In recent decades, coaching has evolved as a preferred model for professional development, and for good reason.  According to Elena Aguilar, author of The Art of Coaching:  Effective Strategies for School Transformation, “The traditional notion of teachers as passive recipients has been largely rejected for a more active conception of teachers as co-constructors and contributors to the pedagogical knowledge base.”¹  As adult learners, teachers possess knowledge, skill, and insight that, when valued and respected, can make the difference between a teacher being open to trying new approaches or counting the hours until a workshop they are required to attend is over.    

In February 2019, EdVisions announced a grant award from the Bush Foundation to help schools redesign themselves.  The Midwest School Transformation Project will work with its partner schools to embed EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials framework into their program.  Key features of the framework will include student agency and ownership, relevant project-based learning, authentic assessment, and teacher empowerment.  The primary vehicle for collaborating around this shared endeavor is a coaching team model.

EdVisions is onto something good.  Just as we want to personalize learning for students, coaching personalizes learning for teachers.  To further quote Elena Aguilar, “Coaching can build will, skill, knowledge, and capacity because it can go where no other professional development has gone before: into the intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings of an educator.”²  That’s saying a lot.  At a time when new demands on teachers outstrip most schools’ capacity to keep pace with the rate of change we find in today’s classrooms, high-impact approaches that leverage meaningful results are critical.       

Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers were the first to recognize coaching as a viable model for professional development as far back as 1988. In their research, they found that when coached by peers or experts, teachers were more likely to be open to and adopt new strategies (as cited in Galey, 2016).³ Scant information was available at the time regarding the efficacy of coaching.  But that didn’t keep educators from trying it on for size, and coaching began to surface as a potential means to a better end for students.

Three decades later we know more about what kind of professional development works best.  In 2017, Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner identified seven characteristics of effective professional development.⁴  In their meta-analysis of 35 different studies that showed a positive link between professional development and teaching and learning, professional development is deemed effective when it:

  1. Is content focused
  2. Incorporates active learning utilizing adult learning theory
  3. Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
  4. Uses models and modeling of effective practice
  5. Provides coaching and expert support
  6. Offers opportunities for feedback and reflection
  7. Is of sustained duration

It’s easy to see why EdVisions elected to utilize a coaching model for the Midwest School Transformation Project  Coaching arguably hits all seven points identified by Darling-Hammond, Hyler, and Gardner. The coaching model EdVisions has devised is straightforward.  Through coaching, they intend to:

  • Provide real time, on-going support;
  • Adapt to individual school and teacher needs;
  • Personalize professional development; and
  • Create space for practitioners to reflect on their own practice and drive their own learning

EdVisions plans to go a step further by leveraging the experience and expertise of practitioners that currently serve students in the kind of learner-centered environments the project is seeking to create as their coaches.  The coaching team includes K-12 teachers and administrators who have charter and/or district experience. They represent a broad geographical area and work in schools that serve different student demographics, all of which bring a level of credibility to the conversation between a coach and his or her mentees.  When EdVisions’ coaches work with teachers in the project, teachers will know the coaches have been in their shoes and understand the unique challenges and opportunities they face.

Will coaching make a difference in transforming schools?

If done well, we have reason to be hopeful.  In a recent meta-analysis by Kraft, Blazar, and Hogan that included 60 studies on coaching, researchers were able to identify an effect size of 0.49 for instruction and .18 for student achievement.⁵  Those effect sizes grew by .31 and .12 respectively when coaching was combined with group training.  In short, what the researchers found was when coaching followed learning a new skill in a group setting, the new skill was more likely to be applied and more likely to have an effect on instruction and achievement.  The other good news in this study is that it didn’t take a lot of coaching to have an impact. In their analysis, however, the authors found that the effect size went down the larger the group being coached. In other words, working in small contexts appeared to be advantageous.  

Which is exactly EdVision’s plan.

So what can traditional schools learn from charters?  Conversely, what can charters learn from traditional schools?  And how will EdVision’s cadre of coaches build the capacity in their partner schools to sustain the work that will extend beyond the life of the project?  I’ll talk more about this in the second post in this series.


1. Galey, S. (2016). “The Evolving Role of Instructional Coaches in U.S.Policy Contexts. The William & Mary Review: Vol.4 : Iss. 2, Article 11.  Retrieved at

2. Edutopia. (2013, March 25). How coaching can impact teachers, principals, and students [Blog post]. Retrieved from

3. Galey, S. (2016).

4. Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M.E., Gardner, M. (2017). Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from

5. Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (in press). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research. Retrieved from

EdVisions is Supporting the Transformation of Public Education

April 11, 2019 no comments S

A new blog post from EdVisions’ own Dr. Ron Newell! Dr. Newell describes the way EdVisions is approaching school transformation, what changes schools can make, and these changes will benefit students and bring the outside world in to prepare them better for life after graduation.

Dr. Ron Newell

Dr. Newell is presently the Director of Assessment for EdVisions, and has served as the Director of Learning Programs for the Gates/EdVisions replication efforts. Dr. Newell was a founder of the Minnesota New Country School and EdVisions Cooperative. He has published four books that explain the rationale and practices behind the learning program and governance of the EdVisions Schools. His work with development of coaches training, staff development and evaluation has lead to creation of processes and materials that enhance the development and sustainability of newly created charter schools. His work with Mark Van Ryzin in development of the Hope Study has lead to an assessment of school culture that is becoming nationally recognized.

Dr. Newell was a high school history teacher and coach, a mentor teacher, a college professor, a Director of Clinical Experiences at two universities, and is a founding member of the EdVisions Leaders Center. His interests are learning theory, adolescent development, alternative assessment, decentralized distributive education, use of technology in education, and development of new curriculum for the development of Life-long Learning Skills.

Dr. Newell graduated with a B.A. from St. Olaf College, an M.S. from Minnesota State University – Mankato, and an Ed.D. from the University of South Dakota.

EdVisions is Supporting the Transformation of Public Education

Merriam-Webster defines transformation as a “thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.” Although many of the illustrations of transformation are scientific, biological or related to physics, it is still possible to apply the word to organizations and to people. To transform is defined as “a) to change in composition or structure; b) to change the outward form or appearance of; and c) to change in character or condition.”

One of the missions of EdVisions is to transform existing schools, primarily by adding two major characteristics: teacher-powered schools, meaning teachers have the most say in how a school is run; and to personalize education, so that students have an equal say in what and how they learn necessary skills. Both of these transformative outcomes require changes in composition or structure of a school, so that it’s appearance (at least from within) will change, but mostly to change the character and condition of the school.

Why is this mission important? Why not leave schools as they are? For years the educational system has proclaimed their goal as transforming society. But does the system provide the necessary skills and dispositions for the young to transform society? It appears the primary purpose of schools is to equip students for the status quo. Curriculum and tests are designed to learn about what was and what is – not to utilize the outside world nor the inquisitive nature of the student to discover and create a new world.

This idea of involving the young in creating new worlds can be very scary for adults. Yet young people are doing so all the time, without our control or despite our censure. The world changes, transforms itself, goes through metamorphosis – we can be part of it, or be overwhelmed by it. But most young people have to skirt around school to become part of the world’s changes. One transformation needed is to involve more of the world into schools via problem-based or project-based learning. If it is to be done well, this involves restructuring the school day, possibly changes in the interior structure, the concept of “seat time”, and the relationship between student and teacher. Very scary, indeed!

So, why transform schools? What is it that present-day schools are not doing for students? The first answer would be that the seat-time, curriculum-based, teacher-directed school does not engage nor motivate, and that passing courses and tests does not necessarily prepare young people for thinking and creating. What does a transformed school deliver? There is enough evidence available (although ignored) that project-based schools, ones that are teacher-powered, do deliver problem solving, communication skills, creativity, responsibility, self-direction, time management, collaboration, presentation skills, and a work ethic.

This transformation in development of life skills is the outer layer of an inner transformation – one of dispositional hope, the development of agency and persistence, of developing pathways around obstacles, that develops an expectation of success. It is this transformational learning that delivers the skills to transform people and society. When learners can see themselves actually making a difference, by making a commitment to transform their own attitudes and beliefs, and aspire to higher expectations for themselves and society, then they can change the world.

Examples of a innovative schools within traditional districts – Impact Academy in Lakeville MN and Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen MN

Why transform schools? To transform students into discoverers and creators – to motivate the young to transform themselves and their world. As EdVisions works with schools, or school creators, we envision this primary outcome – to help transform students from passive recipients of knowledge to knowledge creators and world changers. When you see it happen, the re-structured school is not so scary. It is instead inspiring!

EdVisions is taking the lead in school transformation regionally through the Midwest School Transformation Project, thanks to the generous support of the Bush Foundation. Schools in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota in the project will design by rethinking how to use the resources of space, time, personnel, technology and standards to better meet the needs of their students. Unique plans from all eleven schools will lead to student centered environments of relevant connected learning for all children. A strong EdVisions coaching team of fifteen are ready to support the teachers in shifting practices, skills, dispositions and mindsets as the school implements their plan to transform. The coaching focus is to build capacity and ownership within the staff and students, so when the three year project is complete the changes made are irreversible and sustainable, as schools continue on the journey toward more student centered learning.

To stay up to date on the project, follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see all the news as it unfolds!

Announcing the EdVisions Midwest School Transformation Project with support from the Bush Foundation

February 25, 2019 no comments S

Bloomington, Minnesota – EdVisions, a premier non-profit education development organization, announces the Midwest School Transformation Project, a three-year project that will provide up to 15 schools across Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota with individualized support to transform education to more student-centered learning models.  To date there are 11 schools partnering with EdVisions; nine are from Minnesota: Bridges, Prior Lake-Savage; Caledonia Area Elementary, Caledonia; Career Pathways, St. Paul; Chatfield Elementary, Chatfield; Nawayee Center School, Minneapolis; Riverview Elementary, Farmington; Rochester Alternative Learning Center, Rochester; Sage Academy, Brooklyn Park; and Watertown-Mayer High School, Watertown.  One school from North Dakota is participating:  Wichakini Owayawa – Lakota Language Immersion Nest, Fort Yates and one school in South Dakota:  Porcupine School, Porcupine.    

With support from the Bush Foundation, EdVisions will assist partner schools with strategic planning and provide coaching and networking along with other forms of professional development to embed EdVisions’ Ed°Essentials framework into their redesign.  Key features of the framework include student agency and ownership, relevant project-based learning, authentic assessment, and teacher empowerment.  

What excites me about this project,” says Julene Oxton, the project’s director at EdVisions, “ is the opportunity it gives teachers who are ready to design and launch completely different learning environments for their students.  The information age is upon us and the teachers of the Partnership schools are connecting with EdVisions to design schools that will prepare students for this new world we live in.”

Schools that take part will create their own action plans based on the needs of their students and their communities. EdVisions is committed to providing staff with a collaborative environment for planning and implementation and to connecting the partnership schools to the regional student-centered network of educators.  Data on each school’s progress will be collected and reported throughout the project, adding to the body of evidence surrounding best practices for creating learner-centered schools.  

For more information, contact Julene Oxton at or call 612-601-1043.

EdVisions is a non-profit education development organization located in Bloomington, Minnesota that provides support to schools across the United States seeking to transform learning.

Making Experiential Learning a Central Part of Your School Program

February 13, 2019 no comments S

Experiential learning… it isn’t new. It’s taught to all educators at some point in their training. But it is probably one of the best ways traditional schools can help prepare students for the non-traditional workplace and economy of today.

As Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro describes it, “learners able to apply the cycle to a wide range of experiences become masters of their own destiny.”

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

How do you teach a five-year-old to ride a bike? Would you show her pictures of a bike, make sure she learned how to spell the word “bike,” then have her color a bike, cut it out, and paste it to a piece of brightly colored construction paper and call it done? Probably not. At some point, she needs to get on the bike.  I can’t think of a single parent who would teach a child this way.  Instead, they would use a set of guided supports, such as training wheels or holding the bike up and running alongside until the child finds her balance.  When the child is ready, they step back and let go.  

Most learning requires doing of some sort. Didactic instruction – the act of telling as a method of teaching, provides students with baseline knowledge. And if all we want to do is expose students to an idea or concept, it may suffice.

However, if we want students to become creators and producers, now considered essential skills, the practice of telling falls short. We want doers, not observers of life. At some point, students need experiences that engage them with content and helps them develop mastery in a variety of topics, all the way from the simple to complex.      

Letting go is hard for teachers. They feel compelled to cover the material.  And with limited prep time, setting up active learning experiences can feel overwhelming. Let’s not forget the confines of a traditional classroom with four imposing walls; sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be space. And the schedule. Oh, that crucible.

But there is a framework for instructional practice that can take any classroom and transform it from a teacher-centered place to a student-centered space. All educators learn about it in one if not more of their education foundations course. They may have forgotten the specifics of the theory, but they’ve not forgotten their aspiration to create vibrant lessons – the kind they wish they could have had as students.  I’m talking about experiential learning.

Experiential learning has been around for a while – millennia, in fact. Even cavemen and cavewomen learned by doing. But in modern times, we credit David A. Kolb with turning it into an educational theory that helped us get our arms around something that people like John Dewey spoke of in 1938 in Experience in Education and in later decades Paulo Freire in his advocacy of critical pedagogy.  

In his Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), Kolb showed how learners create knowledge through experience. He put forward a cycle in which learning begins with a concrete experience: students take part in a learning activity.  In the second phase, they reflect on their observation. They ask themselves, what just happened, and what does this mean?  In the third stage, the learner attempts to construct their own theory or create their own model regarding what they observed. In the fourth stage, they prepare to test their theory in a new experience.¹

So goes a learning process one could say applies to anything in life, not just the classroom. Learners able to apply the cycle to a wide range of experiences become masters of their own destiny. When motivated and inspired to learn something new, they intuitively know what steps to take. The tech-infused environment we now live in puts a supply of endless knowledge at our fingertips anytime, anywhere. Today, knowing how to apply the cycle is a powerful skill indeed.

Still, people are wired differently; they don’t all learn the same way. We have to pay attention to natural tendencies. Kolb helped us in this regard as well and identified four types of learners:

  1. Assimilators:  Learners who respond best to logical theories
  2. Convergers:  Learners who prefer practical applications
  3. Accommodators:  Hands-on learners, and
  4. Divergers: Those who learn best by processing a broad range of information²

It would be wrong, however, to assume students can or should rely on solely one learning style. The fact is, students need to use multiple styles, especially as a task becomes more complex. A student may enter the task using their preferred style but eventually must use all four types of learning to advance their understanding. Flexibility is learned over time, and their confidence grows with successive use.

Teachers also show a preference for a particular style of teaching. David A. Kolb and Alice Kolb identified four roles teachers are likely to fulfill: coach, facilitator, subject matter expert, and standard-setter/evaluator.³ Naming these roles provides clarity around a teacher’s preference based on their educational philosophy regarding teaching and their personal style. But like students, teachers need to develop flexibility and apply all four roles based on the need at hand. Having said that, when a teacher’s preferred role is matched to a student’s preferred learning style, learning outcomes can be enhanced.    

In recent decades there has been a rise in the number of schools seeking to embed experiential learning in their curriculum. Frequent examples cited include competency-based education, action learning, problem-based learning, adventure education, service learning, and simulation and game learning.  According to Kolb and Kolb (2017), these types of experiences connect students to the real world.

When we think about the kinds of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and abilities needed in the 21st century, they all center on active participation in a world in a constant state of change. Students are graduating into a knowledge-based economy that expects them to learn and relearn, frequently. They must be adept at managing change. This means being curious, being adaptable, and being prepared to navigate uncertainty.  It’s not just in the economic sphere; as our society becomes more diverse and social norms shift and evolve, a student’s healthy social and emotional development depends on the same skill set.   

Experiential learning is not just important for schools. Rajiv Jayaraman, CEO and founder of KNOLSCAPE, a human resources firm uses experiential learning as the basis for talent assessment, development, and engagement. He believes experiential learning is the future of learning because it:

  1. Accelerates learning
  2. Provides a safe learning environment
  3. Bridges the gap between theory and practice
  4. Produces demonstrable mindset changes
  5. Increases engagement levels
  6. Delivers an exceptional return on investment
  7. Provides accurate assessment results, and
  8. Enables personalized learning⁵

It’s important to note that experiential learning differs from hands-on learning. While hands-on learning does, in fact, engage students, it falls short of helping students connect a typical classroom activity to a specific learning goal and create new knowledge because of their participation. This is where using a well-researched, defined approach such as the ELT can make a world of difference. Teachers don’t have to invent the proverbial wheel; they only need reinvent themselves.

Facilitating the ELT cycle as a teacher or advisor takes skill and a good bit of expertise acquired over time as the teacher participates in his or her own cycle of learning. If teachers add metacognition to their instructional repertoire and instruct students in how to think about their own thinking, they further equip their students with self-knowledge in how to learn while in school – and more importantly, for the rest of their life. This is how self-directed, lifelong learners are born and nurtured.

Considering the increased attention to experiential learning, it’s a good time to revisit Kolb’s theory. If you’d like your school to recommit to or fine-tune its use of experiential learning, or if you’re starting your journey as an individual, team, or an entire program, there are some excellent resources available to assist you.  

First, consider reaching out to EdVisions for support in making experiential learning a potent part of your educational program.  For years EdVisions has promoted experiential learning, and many of the schools in their EdNetwork feature it in their curriculum.  The most common examples which you can find here are project-based learning, personalized learning, outdoor and adventure learning, career and technical education, and cooperative learning.  Edvisions’ long-standing involvement in experiential learning that dates back decades makes them one of the country’s leading authorities. They are equipped to help you with planning as well as provide a range of professional development services.  For more information you can contact Dr. Steven Rippe at   

Second, Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc, founded by David A. Kolb in 1981 and its president Alice Kolb offer educators with a vast set of resources online.  You can learn more about teacher role preferences by examining the Kolb Educator Role Profile (KERP).  What I like about the profile is its simplicity.  In it, we see the different strategies teachers incorporate into their instructional repertoire.  As previously stated, though teachers may prefer one role over another, their work requires they use all four.  It is important they be intentional about which to use and when. According to Kolb and Kolb, “The KERP assessment instrument is designed to help educators sharpen their awareness of these preferences and make deliberate choices about what works best in a specific situation.”⁶ 

Kolb and Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory is also worth reviewing.  They do a superb job explaining the nine learning styles included in the inventory in a  2017 article published in the Journal for Engaged Educators.⁷  Further, you might want to explore the Institute for Experiential Learning, with which Kolb and Kolb are affiliated.  They assert the Experiential Learning Theory applies to all aspects of learning throughout life.  Beyond contracting with educators, they support development in human resources, professional services, health care, law, finance, manufacturing, management, engineering, IT and non-profit settings.

The more you can make learning relevant, and the more you can teach students to self-direct their own learning, the better prepared they will be for their future.  Where are you at in your journey in making experiential learning a central part of your classroom?


1. David L.  (2007, February 13).  Experiential learning (Kolb).  Learning Theories.  Retreived from  

2.  Ibid.

3.  Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential educators in higher education.  A Journal for Engaged Educators, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 7-44.  Southern Utah University Press.  Retrieved from

4. Ibid.

5. Jayaraman, R. (2014, October 24).  8 reasons why experiential learning is the learning of the future.  Retreived from  

6. Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential educators in higher education.  A Journal for Engaged Educators, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 19.  Southern Utah University Press.  Retrieved from

7. Ibid, pp. 7-44

An Educated and Engaged Citizenry:  The Foundation of A Democracy

December 14, 2018 no comments S

Just as important as helping students find their voice is helping them learn how to use it. Today, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro takes a look at what schools can do to promote civil discourse and encourage students to become engaged citizens in our democratic society. 

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


An Educated and Engaged Citizenry:  The Foundation of A Democracy

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


In the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, it’s hard not to wonder what students took away from the barrage of political ads that flooded the streets and airwaves. In today’s political climate, facts seem to be less clear. What is truth, and what is rhetoric?

Without an understanding of the issues and being well-informed, it is easy to be fooled by messaging that seeks to manipulate voters. How do we equip students with the skills to be critical consumers of political ads? More importantly, how do we ensure they are ready to fulfill their civic roles and responsibilities as members of a democratic society?      

Over 47 percent of America’s voting population turned out for the November 2018 elections.  That’s the highest percentage since 1966 when 49 percent voted.¹ This is good.  However, this surge in voters comes at a time when civic knowledge is at an all-time low. For example, in a 2015 survey published by The Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 31 percent of Americans could name the three branches of government.² Americans’ belief in democracy is also in decline.  In a 2016 Washington Post survey, 40 percent of Americans said they have lost faith in American democracy.³ The same survey showed a declining trust in America’s institutions (e.g., the media, organized religion, public schools, banks, unions, and big business), and only nine percent of those surveyed expressed solid confidence in Congress.

We pretend to hate politics, but politics are us. Thomas Jefferson is oft quoted as having said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” While there is no evidence he actually said or wrote this exactly as stated, there is widespread agreement it captures the spirit and intent of many of his writings. He was right. The fight for American independence was hard fought and won, but that was only the beginning. What followed has been much more difficult to achieve. Democracy is demanding. It’s messy, and it requires endless care and attention, precisely because of what it is – a representative form of government.  

In the age of social media, satellite radio, and 24-hour cable channels that increasingly promote narrow party agendas, voters can tune in to what they want to hear. Facts seem to be of little significance. As much as we’d like to think people make rational decisions when choosing who to vote for, they are far more likely to vote based on ideology, which is driven by emotion.⁴  

So what’s a voter to do?

No matter what ideology they may choose as they mature, we need to help students understand the complexities of government and how public policy impacts their daily lives. We need to teach them the importance of seeking empirical data to support their conclusions, and we need to show them how to distinguish fact from rhetoric. Doing so will prepare them for real civic engagement, the kind that goes below the surface and beyond party lines.

The educational journey begins with a solid foundation in what we think of as the social studies – civics, history, economics, geography, sociology, and psychology…the list doesn’t end there. The study of people and how they interact are timeless subjects, and they belong in the school curriculum. In fact, as topics, they transcend categorization and are multi-disciplinary in scope. When brought to life by an excellent teacher in any subject, students learn much about human nature and the world around them, past and present. In this way, we prepare them to construct their future.

A second and equally important way to prepare students to become members of the kind of enlightened citizenry America’s founders imagined is to enable them to experience democracy in action, even at a young age. After all, lessons lived become the finest lessons learned.

It is not uncommon for students to take part in different democratic governance structures, which are a vital part of the overall school experience. Student councils, student advisories, and participation in various clubs and activities (including officer positions) offer ways for students to experience real-world roles and responsibilities that are personally meaningful to them. It involves a stake. They invest themselves because the outcomes matter. As a result, they develop insight into themselves and others, as well as important leadership skills they will carry with them for a lifetime. In fact, students will tell you these were their most formative experiences in school, especially when they were given real decision-making authority.  

As a school administrator, the maturity and wisdom students demonstrated when performing their duties in these and other types of democratic structures awed me. Often they acted with more grace and dignity than adults, and certainly more than headlines would lead us to believe Congress and other legislative bodies act, where bickering and partisanship seem to have become the norm. Students’ sensibilities regarding fairness, justice, and inclusivity serve as models for us all.

Simulations are also effective, whether students take part in classroom, regional, or national and international formats. To prepare for citizenship, few examples compare to Model United Nations (MUN), a program of the United Nations Foundation. Though conducted under the format of a global community, the skills and abilities students attain through their involvement translate well into civic engagement at the local, state, and national/international levels, both political and non-political.   

Model United Nations is an authentic simulation of the UN General Assembly, UN Security Council, or other multilateral body, which introduces students to the world of diplomacy, negotiation, and decision making.”⁵ In this simulation-based educational program, students from all races, ethnicities, religions, political affiliations, and economic backgrounds come together to learn how governments work.  

Students fulfill the role of ambassador for the country they represent. As ambassadors, they tackle the same tough issues world leaders face. The simulation format provides them with a safe, structured way to delve into difficult, and potentially highly charged, matters.  

After conducting research, students prepare and present their positions in a mock assembly. By design, participation connects people who hold alternate, even opposing, views and interests. But as they pursue a meaningful resolution, ambassadors build shared understanding and mutual respect. By gaining new knowledge and exposure to different perspectives and the reasons behind them, students’ perceptions of others, the issues of our time, and the world evolve.

I spoke with Rhonda Fox, a long-time advocate for Model UN and Youth in Government, sponsored in the Twin Cities by the YMCA.  She has served as a coach for middle and high school students from the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District for 18 years.  When I asked her why Model UN, she said she believes in connecting people to the world.  Her goal is to promote understanding among cultures and build bridges between different people.  “I love seeing how kids learn about each other and other countries. Model UN makes it real for them.  They see their commonalities and their differences.”

Model UN was a natural for Fox, who also runs her own travel business and formerly worked as a director for a sister city organization in Portland, Oregon before moving to the Twin Cities. She saw an article about Model UN in the newspaper. She and her daughter were interested and took part in an assembly tour to find out more. From there Fox volunteered as a parent and started a club in the district. The program was soon underway.

During her tenure coaching Model UN, Fox has seen a few changes in students.  “At first, students joined because they were mostly interested in other cultures,” she said. There is a cost to participate, so the program tended to draw students from families who traveled or were likely to have the means to travel. “Today it appeals to a broader range of students, not just privileged students.” In the middle and high schools in her district, scholarships are available, which has significantly opened access to all students regardless of income.       

Fox also observes that today’s students are more curious about global issues. “They are more aware of their world and more aware of diversity.” The Internet has brought the world closer to them, and the United States itself is becoming more diverse. She sees both impacting students.

The benefit to students cannot be understated, Fox insisted. “They become leaders.  The program cultivates skills like research, problem-solving, collaboration, and negotiation.” Their communication skills also flourish. Writing, public speaking, and debate are key features of the experience. Through their involvement, students become more self-directed and their self-confidence grows.

When I asked what difference a program like Model UN can make in preparing students to be citizens in a democracy, Fox was unequivocal. “Students see themselves being civically engaged.  They see the process [of government] and learn how they can fit in, how they can make changes.  Institutions and political processes don’t scare them. In fact, they feel empowered to make a personal impact on big issues.” The Model UN experience need not stop at high school. The program extends into college for students who want to continue their involvement, and many do.

Last spring, high school students organized a 17-minute nationwide walkout protesting gun violence; a student-led rally at the Capitol in Washington, DC followed a week later. What a terrific display of the freedoms they enjoy as citizens of a democracy. These were students who knew how they system works and how to make their voice heard.

In light of evolving attitudes towards democracy and the institutions that make a democracy work, and at a time when Americans are more divided than they are united, it is imperative schools foster a wide range of opportunities for students to take part in democratic forms of governance. Whether in the classroom or through a co-curricular activity, we can be sure students are building their personal foundation for future civic engagement in their state and community, as well as the country at large.  

What is your school doing to ensure students experience democracy in action? Can you do more?



¹ Domonoske, C.  (2018, November 8).  A boatload of ballots: midterm voter turnout hit 50-year high.  Retrieved from

² Kahlenburg, R.D. & Janey, C. (2016). Putting democracy back into public education.  Washington, DC:  The Century Foundation.  Retrieved from

³ Persily, N. & Cohen, J. (2016, October 14).  Americans are losing faith in democracy – and each other.  The Washington Post.  Retrieved from–and-in-each-other/2016/10/14/b35234ea-90c6-11e6-9c52-0b10449e33c4_story.html?utm_term=.187606ec82f7

⁴ Winter, E.  (2015, May). Voting is Irrational.  Emotions Always Win.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from

⁵ Bridging the Education Gap and Creating Global Citizens.

Empowering Students in a Digitally-Enhanced Learning Environment

November 7, 2018 no comments S

Technology in schools is not new but how schools utilize technology with their students can make a big difference in how they learn. Today, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro takes a look at the successes Valley New School in Appleton Wisconsin has had by empowering their students to help embed technology in their learning environment.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Empowering Students in a Digitally-Enhanced Learning Environment

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro


It is hard to imagine personalizing learning without the use of digital tools and resources.  Technology is the one tool we have that changes everything. But there are challenges.  Amidst the rapid rate of innovation, it’s not easy to keep inventory stocked with new devices loaded with the latest in apps and software.  It is also difficult to keep expanding staff and student expertise at a pace commensurate with how quickly things evolve.  

But Valley New School in Appleton, Wisconsin has found a way to stay at the leading edge.  In this digitally-enhanced school environment, they’ve turned to students to help them embed technology into the learning program, all the way from procurement to support for the end user.

Today’s students have never lived in a world without handheld devices, computers, and all the other digital gadgetry that permeates our times. For them, the use of these tools is almost second nature; they are curious and will explore their use without fear.  And they are eager to share what they know with others. Valley New School decided to enlist their students’ natural curiosities to achieve an academic outcome.

The school opened its doors as a charter in the Appleton School District 15 years ago.  Unlike a traditional school setting, it looks like a modern-day office environment filled with individual workstations.  There are no walls. Instead, the school atmosphere is casual and inviting.  Throughout the day, students meet in large and small groups, but they spend most of their time working independently on projects of their own design.  Teachers serve as advisors who’ve shifted the balance of power from the teacher to the student.  Deep relationships are formed as students and staff spend their entire school day together.  

Functioning as a true lab school, they have had strong support from the Appleton District.  By design, they exist to try new things, so the school district has given them wide latitude and the freedom to experiment.  Between them they work to find a bridge between what is done in the lab school and what the district might take to scale in the larger system.  

According to Nicole Luedtke, a co-founder, advisor, and co-administrator at Valley New School, personalizing learning in a student-centered environment has been a priority since inception.  But personalization, she says, has evolved over time. The adults have had to change to keep up with students.  “But it’s been worth it. The culture has transformed itself.  We cut out the ‘middleman’ that we used to know of as the teacher.  Now, I synergize people.”

Valley New School infused technology into the program from the start.  They wanted students to be creators rather than consumers of technology, with the primary focus on learning, not the technology itself.  They began by defining technology broadly.  According to Luedtke, “It’s all the evolving tools students use to learn and the school uses to support learning.”  Students are free to use whatever is available to help them accomplish their learning goals.  

Even more exciting, learning goals are driven by student interest.  As a result, what they produce varies widely. Luedtke states they do all the things adults do in the real world.  They code, they write, they research, they design; they even publish material from their personalized projects, all while pursuing what is important to them as an individual.  

The level of student voice and choice at Valley New School is a key reason students are so highly motivated.  This is a point worth noting.  It is one thing for students to use technology as a tool to complete an assignment from a teacher, as you would typically see in a traditional school setting.  It’s quite another when students use technology to explore their passions.  This radical reversal between what students “have” to do for an assignment versus tapping into what students “want” to do to explore and discover an area of keen interest is where the magic happens.  At a time in students’ lives when they are seeking autonomy and independence, this not-so-subtle shift can make a difference between students viewing school as meaningful rather than boring and without purpose.

Over time, Valley New School has seen an increase in rigor and adventure in student projects.  You might find students working on wind technology with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or you might find Luedtke and her colleagues arranging an international call so a student can connect with a project resource in London.  The possibilities have proved to be without limit.

Another part of their success in keeping students engaged in meaningful work is the access to new technology provided by the Appleton District.  But Valley New School went a step further than supplying students with a select set of tools and gave them a seat at the table where lasting decisions regarding technology are made.  According to Luedtke, the involvement of students is not symbolic; students have a real say.  

Staff learned students are often well ahead of them in seeing what’s on the tech horizon. They saw their kids were always testing new waters, so they decided to capture what students were learning and put it to use in short and long-term planning decisions.  The result has been a boon for innovation. The school’s organic use of what students bring naturally to school every day has opened up new territory that stretches them all.

Even when it comes to dealing with some of the more thorny questions that present themselves in a digitally-enhanced environment, students have risen to the challenge.  For example, Valley New School does not restrict resources. As learners, students don’t always make the best choices, so the school has had to grapple with issues surrounding acceptable use.  But because students have had an active voice in the entire process, they’ve been willing to join staff in solving the problem around what students should and should not do with the technology issued and the freedoms afforded them.  Without students at the table, it would leave the dilemma to staff to solve, with the likely outcome being a solution geared towards compliance enforced by the adults. Instead, students help drive a solution. In the process, they learn to think critically, collaborate, and communicate on multiple levels.      

In addition, empowering students has deepened the pool of onsite expertise.  They have shown they can acquire in-depth proficiency in various tools and programs that can also benefit others.  While staff advise and support students, students advise and support staff and each other.  In fact, students helping other students is a pillar of Valley New School’s personalized learning model.  Their mantra to students, Luedtke says, is, “Find an expert to show you what you want to know.”

Recently the school hired their newest advisor, one with advanced tech expertise, to further augment their in-house capacity.  Luedtke states the investment has accelerated everyone’s capabilities and eased some of the obstacles they were facing around keeping up with the latest trends.  Still, even with an in-house expert, it can be hard to synchronize tools and ensure everyone has immediate availability to personalized support.  For example, if a student wants to use a 3D printer, he or she may need access to someone to show how to use the printer or troubleshoot on the spot.  

What makes Valley New School’s approach work? One reason may be that the school has kept their program small.  Only about 70 students enroll annually.  Instead of expanding in size, the school has made it a priority to reinvest time, energy, and resources in quality and innovation.  A second reason may be low staff turnover. In 15 years, only six different advisors have been on staff.  With a total staff of five advisors at any given time, three of the four original founders are still at the school.  Longevity seems to have enabled the school to stay true to its original mission. Third, Valley New School is a teacher-powered school.  Staff govern themselves and make critical decisions surrounding the daily operation of the school, plan strategically, and manage their resources.  Students assist via a student governance structure called the ASA, which stands for Active input in School Affairs.  Here again, students have a real say in how their school functions. This highly localized governance structure that blends staff and student voice allows decisions to be made closest to the students.  The outcome has been a high degree of ownership and commitment across the board.        

In the evolution of the culture, and in the student body itself, you can see the original DNA of the program,” Luedtke notes with pride as she reflects on the 15 years Valley New School has been operating.  “We have a strong alumni following.  Many siblings of previous students attend, and we expect to see children of our first graduates soon.”  When asked what advice she’d give to others who want to inspire learning using a digitally-enhanced approach, Luedtke offers this advice:  “We use technology to help us and our school to be ever-growing and changing in order to be the best – no more, no less.  We have to be careful about when and what we prioritize.  It’s not about the next gadget or the next piece of software. These should not be the focus.  It should instead be on teaching students to express themselves thoughtfully through technology.”

Looking ahead, Valley New School recently established an endowment to help sustain operational costs and make investments in the facility so they can continue to support the school’s vision.  This tells me Valley New School intends to be around for generations. Without a doubt, students will play a big part in what that future looks like.

If you’d like to learn more about Valley New School, go to  

¹For more information on autonomous school governance, see EdVision’s July 2018 blog post.

Making the Case for Restorative Practices

October 19, 2018 no comments S

Another great blog post from friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro! This time she’s taking a look at the powerful results that can come from incorporating restorative practices into schools and how it’s being done at Paladin Career and Technical High School.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Making the Case for Restorative Practices

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

“If you do things to kids, that’s punishment.  If you do things for them, that’s permissive.  Do nothing at all, and that’s neglect.  But if you do things with them, that’s restorative.”  -Brandon Wait, Paladin Career & Technical High School

School discipline is something few people really like to discuss.  Let’s be honest – the topic is rife with negative connotations.  The conversation usually focuses on negative behaviors, and an inordinate amount of time is usually spent on determining the appropriate punishment.  “We need to hold kids accountable,” we say. “They must suffer the consequence of their choices.”    

Traditional discipline models were designed for one purpose:  to keep kids in line. This was usually done by threat of what would happen if students didn’t behave.  In the second half of the 20th century, we started to include incentives and a progressive plan of attack in hopes of modifying behavior before it went too far.  But even such good intentions as these were still dependent on denying privileges.  Missing recess, being sent out of class, suspension, and the big daddy of them all – expulsion – prevailed and continue to this day.

But has a system of threats really worked?  Perhaps it has acted as a deterrent for some students.  After all, if you go through a red traffic light, you know you’ll get a ticket.  We all get that. However, as teachers and administrators it’s as much our duty to teach students about appropriate behavior and how to make good choices as it is to teach them how to read and write.  Unfortunately, we are quick to judge and dish out consequences. For some students that just doesn’t work. In fact, we may be doing them more harm than good.

We are also perpetuating inequity in the system.  Take for example the disproportionate suspension and exclusion rates for students of color and students with disabilities, as well as the prevalence for boys to be punished at much higher rates than girls.  This is a topic of grave concern throughout the nation. Moreover, at a time when school staff report alarming increases in mental health issues in students, our standard practice of crime and punishment is simply unacceptable.  

Gradual changes in practice show that better options exist.  Some immediate examples that come to mind are Responsive Classroom, Conscious Discipline, and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, in which each seeks to promote pro-social behavior in an intentional, proactive way.  

Preceding them all, however, was restorative justice. Restorative justice began in the early 1970s as an alternative to the court system.  At its core was restitution, used as a way to compensate for a victim’s loss. Gradually, victim-offender mediation and victim-offender dialogue were added.  The idea migrated to schools and since the early 1990s has gained in popularity as a model for discipline.  Today, a broader set of strategies known as restorative practices are dotting the landscape.

Restorative practices begin with a different end in mind.  Rather than seeking to control student behavior through external reward and consequence, practitioners seek to teach students to manage their own behavior.  Trust, relationship, and community-building are key elements in developing social-emotional skill and awareness. These can be cultivated in a variety of ways, which means how restorative practices look in one school to the next varies widely.     

One school that has embraced restorative practices with sustained dedication is Paladin Career & Technical High School, a public charter high school in Blaine, Minnesota.  Their curriculum specializes in experiential learning, project-based learning, work-based learning, and service learning.  But what makes them special is their trauma-informed lens for working with students.

In existence since 2002, Paladin became keenly aware that many of their students were coming to school having experienced significant trauma, which was affecting every aspect of their lives, including learning.  Five years ago, they decided to develop a trauma-informed approach to managing behavior.  They wanted to take into consideration whether a student had experienced trauma and how it may be affecting how they responded to a situation, why they were withdrawing, or why they were acting out.  Today, they are proud to consider themselves a trauma-responsive school.  

The cumulative effect of childhood trauma has been examined, and the data are heartbreaking.  An oft-cited study on the topic is the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, more commonly referred to as ACEs.  ACEs was conducted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente in the mid to late 1990s.  According to the CDC, ACEs “is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being.”  

The CDC continues to collect data on the original participants.  What has become clear over time is that childhood trauma is likely to have an adverse effect on a child’s growth and development, as well as their overall health condition.  The more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the greater the risk for a list of potential negative health, social, psychological, physical, and academic outcomes.

According to the study, adverse childhood experiences disrupt neurodevelopment, which in turn affects social, emotional, and cognitive development.  When their development is negatively impacted, students are likely to take on behaviors that present risk to their health and safety, which can lead to disease, disability, and social problems.  Ultimately, this can mean early death.  

I spoke recently with Brandon Wait, the Executive Director at Paladin.  He began his tenure at Paladin as the school counselor in 2008 when he was asked to create the student support program.  It was a “dream job for him, he said, because he could really counsel students.  He took over as director five years ago.  

Staff and students will say Paladin used to be a violent place.  Wait himself recalls the school environment five years ago. “We were suspending students at an unfair, high rate.  We were only treating the behaviors, not addressing the causes.  In fact, we were inflicting more harm and re-traumatizing students [with suspensions].  We had to change our approach.”  

The ACES study spawned the work around becoming a trauma-informed school.  When they read the study, he noted, “there was this aha moment when we knew our students had adverse childhood experiences and traumatic events.  Our students had been used and abused and beat up.  As a counselor, I knew that stuff comes out different ways.  Some students act out, others turn inward.” The ACES study showed that without addressing their previous trauma, students can’t thrive.  They decided to take action and become informed about the effects of trauma.

The first stage in becoming trauma-informed, Wait says, is trauma awareness.  Saff learned what trauma was and how it manifests itself. “For us, it was the awareness that childhood trauma events exist.  Then it was realizing, ‘now that you know they exist, what are you going to do about it?’”  Only then did they begin to change policy. Their search for solutions eventually brought them to restorative practices.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP)  defines restorative practices as “a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making.”  They further state,

“The use of restorative practices helps to:

  • reduce crime, violence and bullying
  • improve human behavior
  • strengthen civil society
  • provide effective leadership
  • restore relationships
  • repair harm”

The IIRP considers restorative justice one of many restorative practices, noting that restorative justice is in response to a harm done.  Restorative practices, on the other hand, are proactive and seek to build culture and community so as to avoid harm altogether.

Now, five years later, suspensions are extremely rare at Paladin.  Students still come to school with a host of issues they must deal with, but they are finding success.  “It’s not just because we aren’t suspending kids,” said Wait. “It’s because we get to the root cause. As a result, kids are growing.  We are helping them get to where they want to be.”

What is most compelling about Paladin is that students who’ve experienced trauma are finding a way to restore themselves.  They find their voice, they gain self-control, and they begin to feel empowered to make better choices.  At the same time, they learn how to contribute to a restorative community.  

Just how does a turnaround like this happen in a school with roughly 200 students ages 14-21?   

Wait explained.  “Instead of asking why did you do that or what’s wrong with you, we started asking, what happened – what’s going on with you?  What do I need to know that I don’t that maybe I should?” In short, they probed the behavior to get at the root cause.  Usually, he says, it can be traced to a prior event.  “There is always more story to the outburst. Finding out more, you will likely be surprised.”

At first, they started with restorative justice.  Staff also embraced a belief supported by research that a trusted adult in a student’s life can mitigate the impact of the trauma.  They wanted to be those trusted adults and help students find other trusted adults in their lives.  But they realized they were still doing things to students, not with students.  “That’s when the flip happened,” he notes.  “Now it [responsive practices] is a way of being.  It’s how we run our school; restorative practices happen everywhere.”  

The school recently reaffirmed their commitment to the work underway.  “Paladin Career & Technical High School seeks to inspire education systems to cultivate resilience in all students by engaging their strengths through innovative, individualized learning with a restorative and trauma-responsive approach.”  So says their newly minted vision statement where the reference to trauma is explicit.  

Their mission statement is equally clear:  “Paladin Career & Technical High School nurtures a learning community that empowers students in their pursuit of social, emotional, and academic growth, thereby creating a foundation for a successful future.”  To them, it’s all about equipping students with the skills to overcome the effects of trauma in order to live successfully in whatever future awaits.

A central component of Paladin’s restorative approach is circles.  “We are in circles all the time,” said Wait.  “Every staff meeting starts in a circle. Every school day starts in a circle.”  There are guidelines for circles even though some staff use a modified approach. But in all circles, participants are given a voice and choice.  This allows all voices to be heard, and people can participate in a way that feels comfortable for them. Participants practice listening skills when everyone has a chance to speak their truth.  Circles also create a space where students can feel safe and build confidence.

Paladin learned a lot about their progress in implementing restorative practices when a University of Minnesota graduate student, Jennifer Blevins, completed a case study of Paladin during the 2017-18 school year.  The study affirmed Paladin’s work in this area and contributed greatly to the growing body of research on restorative practices.  In her dissertation, Disrupting the Status Quo: Case Study of Paladin Career and Technical High School’s Use of Restorative Practices, Blevin stated in her findings that, “Paladin disrupts the status quo for students and staff by making the system fit the individual, not the individual fit the system, restoring self, strengthening interpersonal relationships, being a safer school, and focusing on solutions not suspensions (p. iii).  

Paladin’s success is good news for those seeking a different way to support students.  But by all accounts, restorative practices embedded in the system on a school-wide level is time and staff intensive.  Even Wait, as passionate as he is about restorative approaches, is honest about the challenge in taking on a whole-school approach.  “You can’t put restorative practices in a box,” he cautions.  “You can’t have a policy manual for it.  You have to treat each situation on a case-by-case basis.”  He went on to say it must be embedded into a larger strategy.  They talk about student strengths. They talk about and teach resiliency.  They help students see they have resiliency within them, all in an effort to help students confront and overcome the trauma they have experienced, rather than letting the trauma defining them.  

One has to ask, could a traditional school do what Paladin is doing to individualize support for students in a restorative as well as educational context?  Or is it reserved for smaller learning environments such as Paladin?  

“It would look different,” said Wait, who teaches restorative practices at the post-secondary level and is frequently asked to speak to schools on the topic. He is convinced that if more people were aware of trauma and how trauma comes out in behavior, teachers and administrators would start treating behavior differently.  They would come to understand how punishment re-traumatizes students.  “Suspension is easy.  It’s what we’re used to.  I’d like to see schools begin with learning about trauma-informed care, which everyone can do in their own classroom.  Being aware and understanding gives you the tools and the ability to dig beneath and understand the behavior and will bring you to a better solution than suspension.  Nine times out of 10, the story behind the behavior won’t make you angry; it will break your heart.”

Not surprisingly, restorative practice has its critics, too.  Some argue it is a soft and permissive approach to discipline that doesn’t hold students accountable.  Wait offers a different view. “If you do things to kids, that’s punishment.  If you do things for them, that’s permissive.  Do nothing at all, and that’s neglect.  But if you do things with them, that’s restorative.”  

Wait also challenges the traditional meaning of how to hold kids accountable.  “Being accountable literally means to hold one’s self responsible for one’s action.  There’s no accountability in suspension,” he insists. “Using restorative practices, we say to a student, ‘You caused this harm; what are you going to do to repair it?’  Kids hold themselves way more accountable than adults do.  If you did this, it would change your traditional school.”

What’s his advice to schools that want to embed restorative practices in their school culture?  Wait urges schools to be realistic about the commitment they are taking on.  “It’s not a one-day training. Too many times schools grab on to the next buzzword and move on to something else.  You have to stick with it. This is a journey, and it will take time.”

But if schools are willing to go on that journey, Wait’s advice is simple:

  • Understand that it’s a way of being, not a program
  • Highlight the importance of trauma and start there, and
  • Look at your current approach and determine what needs to change

Most of all, Wait says, be open, not judgmental.  “If we’re curious about why a student acts out and not jump to judgment, we get more information.  With more information, we have more understanding.  With more understanding comes better resolutions and better outcomes.”

Maybe, just maybe, student discipline is less about what students do, and more about what the adults in your school do.  What do you think?


You can reach Brandon Wait at or by calling 763.786.4799.  

Click here for an American Public Media podcast on Paladin’s trauma-informed approach.