by Hannah McBirney (Senior Project)
On January 9th, 2014, Explore Knowledge Academy went before the Clark County School District Board of Education to request a second extension to its charter. EKA had to prove that it was not only meeting all of the rules and regulations for being a charter school in Nevada, but that it was also serving the educational needs of its students.
Over 50 people attended the board meeting: Superintendent Abbe Mattson, EKA Board President Steven Keener, stakeholders, parents, students, the school board, and foundation members.
At the meeting, CCSD Superintendent Skorkowsky and CCSD board members spoke highly of EKA. They said that they were proud to call EKA one of their sponsored charter schools and that they appreciated the school’s innovative educational methods. One board member expressed her wish that other CCSD schools would learn to incorporate projects into their curricula, as well. Approval to extend EKA’s charter until 2020 was unanimous.
This final result––this high regard for EKA––was not achieved easily. It started from an idea, and from there underwent many adjustments, fixes, revisions, repairs, and trials and errors. Doubts and speculations were cast. Methods were questioned. But EKA is strong. It has proven itself to be a persevering charter school that refuses to quit. It has been a project eleven years in the making, and it’s still not done.
The idea for EKA came from Kathleen Erickson, a mother of eight and a former elementary teacher, who had a concern: most of the young people she knew did not enjoy school or feel that they were learning anything significant––they only went because they had to. They were simply waiting out their time until they could go to college or get a job in the “real world.” For this reason, she wanted to create an innovative school––one where students enjoyed learning and viewed it as the most important job out there.
When Erickson met Dr. Joan P. Sando, founding director of EKA in March 2000, she expressed her concerns about students and her dream of creating an innovative school.
“At the time,” says Dr. Sando, “I was teaching graduate courses at Chapman University and all my research on school reform and, especially on high school students, showed me the exact same message; mainly, that the last two years of high school were a waste of time for many students as they were not engaged in the learning.”
Sando and Erickson’s goal was to provide a learning environment where students could get excited about learning. They wanted students to be the main workers: taking responsibility for their own learning, building their interests and talents, and applying concepts instead of merely memorizing them––and the most natural way to accomplish this would be through project-based instruction.
“Kathleen and I also decided to implement the research on small high schools, brain-based learning, and multiple intelligences,” says Sando. “What we had to change was the traditional model that was often described as the factory model of ‘one size fits all.’ Therefore, each student would have a personal learning plan.”
Erickson and her husband started the process of creating the school and hired Sando to organize it. Each week, they met at the Ericksons’ home and invited many others who were interested in their project to brainstorm with them, including Chris Johnson, Chris Jones, Scott Jones, Jason Sando, Barbara Ronnow Bunker, Michelle Cook, and the Erickson children.
EKA’s name comes from one of Erickson’s daughters, Ananda Kokena Erickson. Turning her initials backward, you get EKA.
“Ananda was a world-class soccer player and, one of the reasons Kathleen wished to start the school, was so Ananda could spend several hours each day on soccer practice and still maintain her academic studies. She could also integrate her knowledge of soccer and her training into her projects,” says Sando.
After many discussions with marketing specialists, the team decided on the name “Explore Knowledge Academy.” EKA’s logo––a viking ship––was chosen because the Ericksons were descendants of Leif Erickson, and Dr. Sando was also of Norwegian heritage. The school colors––blue and gold––also have special meaning: “The color of gold represents ‘doing your best,’ as in Gold Medal, and blue represents the endless blue of oceans and space that are waiting to be explored. The word Academy represents a place where important learning takes place,” says Sando.
With an idea in mind as to how EKA’s curriculum would be shaped, the next step was to plan a building.
“We did not know what the building would look like,” says Sando, “but we knew what we wanted the learning environment to look like. In fact, we did not want to have the students spend the whole day at school, but rather, we wanted them to use the school as a home base or office, and conduct much of their work on their projects ‘in the field’ or ‘in the city’ or ‘at home.’”
While searching the internet, Sando came across a national expert on school reform named Dr. Wayne Jennings. Jennings had helped start many innovative schools, so the team flew out to Minnesota to meet with him. “[O]ne of the first things he told us was that schools should not have classrooms, but ‘learning areas,’” says Sando.
Dr. Jennings then proceeded to show them architectural plans for a school with “learning areas,” and furnishings such as a tech library, a science lab, a design studio for students to develop and organize projects, a garden, a planetarium, an indoor swimming pool, and a museum for students to display and sell projects. He also arranged for them to visit two charter schools: the Minnesota New Country School and the High School for Recording Arts. “Both of these charter schools were using project-based learning and were experiencing success with all kinds of students,” says Sando.
The Minnesota New Country School had recently moved into a new building that was designed by students and funded by local investors. In the advisories were workstations for each student, each equipped with a desk, a file drawer, and a shared computer. In addition, there was a science lab, a green house, an art room, a garage for rebuilding vehicles, and outdoor patios used for assemblies and other activities. There was also a “common area” for events such as lunch, and graduation. Seeing that the Minnesota New Country School was implementing the research that the team had agreed upon, they decided to use it as a model for EKA.
Starting EKA was an arduous, multi-step process and, in all reality, a project in and of itself.
As a first order of business, Sando had to familiarize herself with the Nevada laws on education and charter schools, and obtain a Nevada teaching license with an administrative endorsement. She also conducted research on charter schools throughout the country and visited many of them.
Sando summarized the philosophies that would guide the team’s decision-making as they got the school organized. Multiple intelligences, brain-based learning, Habits of Mind, multi-age classes, and, of course, project based learning were among these.
Sando contacted the Nevada Department of Education requesting an application binder. She met with Dr. Kadlub from CCSD, who provided her with a number of resources, including the CCSD policies and regulations, the personnel directory, the business planning guide, and the list of people to contact for curriculum documents, technology, testing, and other things. She also met with founding director Vee Wilson of Odyssey, the first charter school in Southern Nevada. Wilson served as Sando’s mentor throughout the process.
Sando completed the comprehensive, 100-page long application, which included a description of the curriculum and courses, the instructional model, the staff, the special education plan, the business plan, a three-year budget, a set of by-laws for the board of directors, a health and safety plan, and more. Getting approval from the State Department of Education took over a year, as Sando was asked to revise the application multiple times. EKA’s grant for charter school start-ups was approved for $100,000. It then took a few additional months until CCSD agreed to sponsor EKA. Finally, on the condition that EKA’s building would pass all inspections for fire, health, safety, and zoning, the CCSD Board of Trustees gave it approval to operate.
Finding a building, however, seemed to be an insurmountable task. The owner of one office building that they found backed out of the agreement for fear that the high schoolers would destroy her building. The next building they found had two stories, and the owner agreed to build it out to meet the school’s needs. However, it was located in Las Vegas and the City Council denied a special use permit. They finally found the Sandhill building, owned by the Community Lutheran Church, who agreed to put $150,000 of improvements in for the school. EKA was scheduled to open on September 3, 2002.
However, as EKA was getting ready to open, the Clark County Fire Department notified them that the water pipes were too small to operate the fire sprinklers at full force for ten minutes. This meant that the county would have to upgrade the pipes, but only after an application for a permit was approved. This would take at least six months, obstructing the school’s plans to open that Fall. Sando and staff member Danette Green had to call the families of 240 enrolled students to inform them that EKA was not opening that year.
The team scheduled a board meeting, wherein the members directed them to completely disband their organization. Sando called the State Department of Education to inform them of the board’s decision. Charter School Consultant Tom McCormack called Sando back and informed her that EKA’s conditional charter was good for eighteen months, and that they may want to reconsider. Another board meeting was scheduled, and they decided to continue their efforts to start EKA.
Sando applied for the second phase of EKA’s federal grant and received $50,000. EdVisions received several million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to sponsor small high schools that were based on the MN New Country School model. Sando was invited to submit an application, and over the next five years, EKA received ongoing grant funds and mentoring from EdVisions.
The charter approval from the state required EKA to serve students by June 30, 2003 or forfeit its charter. EKA was not eligible for state funds until September 2003, however, so the team decided to open in June with a two-week summer session and charge tuition. The school was only required to hire a licensed teacher and submit a budget to the state. The two-week session was conducted by staff members from the High School of Recording Arts in Minnesota. The students worked on a recording arts project and, after two weeks, they had learned the project procedures and created a CD with five original songs, which they had sung and recorded themselves. The presentation served as an orientation for EKA, and several more students enrolled.
The first school year started with 309 students in grades first through twelfth, all of which were in the Sandhill building. The middle and high school students were in the biggest room, on the left side of the building, and the elementary school students were in the smaller room, on the right side of the building. All of the students shared one set of restrooms, one lunchroom, and one computer lab.
“The environment was extremely chaotic and noisy,” says Sando. Therefore, room dividers were installed in the secondary to create six different areas, five of which were used as advisory areas, and the other for lunch and assemblies. The situation did improve, but students were not taking responsibility and the messiness and chaos in the secondary continued.
Therefore, things were rearranged in the second year. The secondary and elementary traded sides of the building, secondary enrollment was limited to 110, and sixth graders were moved to their own classes, which were located in the elementary side of the building. In addition, gender specific advisories were put in place for seventh through twelfth graders.
“In my previous school, we had also done separation,” says Mattson.“There’s research that says that, especially in the middle school level, that if you separate boys and girls in math and science that girls will do better. The boys stay relatively the same but girls, when they don’t have boys to compete [with] or the hormones that go on that it brings the girls up a lot. So it was an experiment. What I found in the classroom was the boys and girls spent more time trying to get out of class to be together than they did focusing on their class work. I always had boys’ faces underneath the walls. They were trying to get into the girl’s pod. . . . It was crazy.”
“This worked better,” says Sando, “but noise was still a big problem, plus many parents did not like having their young children around high school students.” Therefore, the team found a separate building for the secondary students, received a special use permit, and started building it out. But as the tradition of EKA buildings would have it, the plans were obstructed. “Two weeks prior to school opening, our Special Use Permit was revoked because of neighbor’s complaints, so we called our families together and told them we would not be able to serve secondary students this year. They responded with, ‘find a place as we are not going anywhere else.’”
“We’re supposed to be going into a new facility,” reflects Mr. Webster, who has been teaching at EKA since 2005, “because they were in Sandhill and it was just crammed, so, we have this place picked out, and they’re having to do a little bit of construction to get it ready, so we find out two weeks before school starts that because there was so many complaints and such with neighbors in the area of our new school, that . . . city government . . . shut us down; in other words, we weren’t going to be able to open for about another week or two, so now we’re already a week or two behind schedule, as far as when school’s going to start.”
Fortunately, Mattson was working for a realtor that summer and found a strip mall on Whitney Ranch Drive. It was not ideal, but it would work in a pinch. The plan was to stay in the strip mall for three months before moving into the Whitney Mesa building, but they ended up staying there for ten months.
“And even worse,” continues Webster, “we then did not ever have the opportunity to go into this new place, so we had to then hurriedly find a place and guess where it was? Strip mall! But that’s how we ended up in the strip mall. Because of that chaos and craziness. . . . It was a nightmarish train wreck.”
“After I interviewed,” says Mr. Quinn, who has been teaching at EKA since 2005, “I had to show up to sign some paper work, try to look at the area, and they were at the Sandhill campus. And I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool. It has a nice little school area, it’s got a fence, it’s got this map drawn on the ground. . . ’ and then we moved into the strip mall. And that was just like, (laughs)––‘I’m in a dance hall. I have mirrors surrounding my classroom. I’m on a hard wood floor’––talk about a shock.”
“That year was also chaotic,” says Sando, “but some good things were starting to happen. James Lewicki became our EdVisions coach and spent 3-4 days each month helping the staff to reorganize and make the students and advisors more accountable. That summer, most of our secondary staff went to the EdVisions Summer Institute and came back excited to improve our school by using Project Foundry, NWEA, Circle time, and other aspects of the model.”
But as a new school, passing the annual reviews for the first few years was a big challenge. “CCSD would send ten different teams of people to check up on us, to make sure we were in compliance with the laws and with our charter agreement,” says Sando. “Quite often, it seemed like they would write us up just because we were doing things differently from them, so we would have to justify our methods. However, once our school started doing well, the teams started working as a partner to us and have become a great resource when we need help with reports, legal issues, or parent complaints.”
The EKA secondary finally moved into the Whitney Mesa building in the 2006 school year, which was unarguably a major improvement from the strip mall. In the same year, EKA negotiated a lease for yet another building near Sandhill, located on Community Lane. In August of 2007, the grade levels were separated as follows: kindergarten through second grade in Community Lane, third through sixth grade in Sandhill, and seventh through twelfth grade in Whitney Mesa.
At this point, EKA was finally settled in and more stable than it had been for the first couple of years. But the setup still wasn’t ideal. Having the school separated into three different campuses presented many inconveniences.
Since EKA had been leasing its way from one building to the next, there was no place for it to call home, nor was there any real sense of security, as the school staying open was contingent upon the owners of the buildings allowing it. The pick-up/drop-off situation was also a problem, as many parents had to drive to two or three separate campuses to drop off and pick up their kids from school.
Being on separate campuses also instigated negative rumors to arise about the secondary students.
“It was . . . because they were at a different building,” says Quinn. “You weren’t a good kid, you were this thug who was gonna beat up their poor little fifth-grader coming to sixth grade. Because they didn’t see you. They didn’t know anything about you. So you were this terrible role-model. And that’s the fight we were constantly having, because all of a sudden, for some reason, a lot of parents had the belief that once their kids went from elementary to secondary, the school just went straight down the gutter.”
And perhaps the most apparent problem was the lack of space. Physical education was done in the parking lot, graduation was held in the building nearest to the school, and advisors had to vie for presentation rooms. They made it work, of course––EKA has had to learn to make a lot of things work over the years––but it was by no means the ideal setup. That’s why moving to one campus with sufficient space was a major priority.
If you’re getting the impression that EKA was very unorganized and all over the place in the beginning years, you’re absolutely right. When you start a large project––any large project––there are always twists and turns, revisions and uncertainties, trials and errors. Seldom––if ever––do you plan a project to a T and follow through exactly as you had planned.
This especially applies to the inner workings of EKA in the first years. Back then, almost every topic was taught via projects. In theory, it made sense. After all, EKA is a project based school. But the advisors soon realized that a purely project-based curriculum wasn’t going to work, as not every subject can be sufficiently covered through projects alone.
“You need to make sure you cover the bases,” says Quinn, “and I always laughed and I said, I don’t want any of my kids to be on Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? and them say ‘Point out Saudi Arabia on a map’ and you point to Canada. But technically that is 100% possible in pure project-based mentality. So, that’s what we started off as, and that’s why, when a number of us were going through, we got kind of concerned and said, ‘You know what, we really need to make sure that we hit these standards, that this education’s everything it needs to be.’ And we can still have the students do projects, but it has to be within the framework of the curriculum.”
Therefore, adjustments were made. Classes like math, English, and science were switched to a more traditional classroom setting, with projects used to supplement traditional class work. Topics like social studies––which can be sufficiently covered through projects––remained entirely project based. Project time––a time when students can spend time on their projects and present to the class––also stayed.
But it hasn’t been easy. Recent programs like No Child Left Behind, Common Core, Race to the Top, and Standardized Testing have demanded schools across the United States––including EKA––to increase their rigor.
Keeping up with the standards while maintaining its roots in project based learning has been a great balancing act for EKA, but it’s one that it has been willing to keep up because of the numerous benefits that project-based learning provides for students.
Project-based learning presents students with an opportunity to choose what they want to learn about within a certain subject or category, while still hitting the required standards. And the opportunity to choose is a big deal for students.
“I like that I can choose what I want to learn about,” says one student. “There are standards you have to hit, but it’s easy to frame your projects around the standards.”
“Instead of somebody telling you what to do,” says Mattson, “you are in charge of your own learning. You can research and learn about things that interest you. And when you have interest, there’s more buy-in and more desire to actually learn about something.”
Projects don’t only cater to students’ natural desire to learn about what interests them; they also teach valuable skills that are needed in everyday life.
“Because you have to write for every project,” says Mattson, “it makes you better writers, better able to organize your thoughts, it makes you critical thinkers, researchers––and you need that in every job. I was part of a group . . . of politicians, educational leaders, and we all got together to look at education in the United States, and one of the things they did was poll from Monster.com and said, ‘Okay, what are the traits that employers want?’ And when you poll, every job said the same thing: they want people who can communicate well; who can collaborate with their peers; who can think outside the box; who can give value to the tasks and jobs––that’s everything that project-based learning does. And so through projects we give our kids those skills that they need so that they can be good employees and hirable.”
“Projects give you the opportunity to learn skills you’ll use for the rest of your life,” says one student.
When students put projects together, they call the shots. They decide what information to highlight. They decide how they’re going to present their information to the class. The other day, a student in my advisory used ribbon to demonstrate the length of various kinds of sharks in her presentation. Another invited a plastic surgeon to speak to the class. I dressed as a pharmaceutical technician for one of my presentations. Students can create skits, advertisements, charts, collages, comic strips, illustrations, films, games, diagrams, newspapers, plays, displays, and more. All kinds of creative visuals work, and are extremely effective in teaching the class.
And since students have to gather their own information, put it together, write about it, and present it to the class, they learn much more than they would than if they were sitting in class listening to a teacher speak––and they certainly remember the information better.
“For our students to be the experts and to teach the other students,” says Quinn, “their knowledge has to be so much greater than that of a basic person taking a survey class and answering a question on a multiple-choice test.”
While interviewing Mr. Keyer, who has been teaching at EKA since 2007, we took a quick break to do circle with his students.
“If you didn’t know, this is Hannah McBirney.”
After which I greet the kids with a “yo” because I’m still hip.
“She is a senior here. She’s actually working on her senior project, which isn’t just 30 hours––it’s 120.”
Sounds of shock and astonishment ensue, as well as an isolated, “Oh my god.”
“She’s actually interviewing me for it. So she’s trying to get some info. So if you’re wondering why she’s here, that’s why. Okay, continue.”
And I, at first stiff and self-conscious, suddenly felt calm, included, and in a way, right at home. I had not sat in that class one time during the whole year, nor did I know any of the kids, but I felt welcome.
That’s when you realize that project time is more than just a time to work on projects––it’s a time to build community. It’s a time to create the family atmosphere.
Some circle topics are silly, some are serious.
How do you deal with stress?
Have you ever broken a bone? If so, how?
If you could live in any time period, what would it be and why?
Share a funny childhood story.
It’s all a matter of sharing ideas and expressing opinions with each other. In circle, students get to know one another, and they become more comfortable speaking to a group.
“I use it to build character,” says secondary teacher Ms. Kinoshita. “So, teaching them how to be positive members of society; productive members of society; to have self-esteem; to have self-worth; to foster compassion. That’s what I use circle for.”
“It builds community,” says Mattson. “Once you’re part of something, you have more respect for it and each other. We find that advisories stand up for each other, it reduces bullying, and all that horrible, hateful stuff that sometimes happens. And you find out that people have the same thoughts and ideas that you do, or that they have different ones, and it’s OK.”
The result is a more comfortable environment––one where kids can be open with one another and develop friendships. “There’s people in here who would not be friends with one another in any other circumstances,” says secondary teacher Ms. Litterer.
iSchools in Nevada: Is technology the answer to better grades?
Nevada Charter Schools Among Top in the Nation
The news can’t resist an interesting story––and EKA’s transformation into an iSchool, as well as its status as a charter school, has made for an interesting story indeed.
“The fact that EKA has been in the news was an unexpected side effect of our success and uniqueness,” says Mattson. “The press is always looking for interesting stories about children and their education, especially in a state where education is often reported to be less than adequate. Our innovative method of instructional delivery through technology-infused project based learning and the use of the iPad 2 throughout the school makes our school interesting on many levels.”
Since EKA is an ever-changing and progressive school, it’s no surprise that it became the first iSchool in Nevada in the 2011 school year. Since that year, all students––kindergarten through twelfth––receive iPads for their own use during the school day.
The iPads are learning tools used to facilitate the learning process. Advisors use them for their lessons. Students use them to research, create word documents, make Keynote presentations, make iMovies, and much more. In this way, the iPads have proven to be extremely useful in EKA’s project based learning environment––especially since not all students have access to their own computers at home.
And in 2012, just a couple of steps behind the iPads, came EKA’s new facility, which united the three campuses into one. And this campus is final.
“This is it,” says Mattson. “When I was hired, I was tasked to unify the campus. . . . To bring us all together as a K-12. And this site did that.”
Now EKA has sufficient space. There’s plenty of room for P.E. Graduation is held in the multi-purpose room. And advisors have more areas for presentations, as the new facility has multiple presentation rooms. It’s the ideal setup for EKA. Moreover, it’s a place to call home.
Indeed, EKA has undergone a lot of change and progress over the past eleven years. It has been a tumultuous journey, but a successful one. EKA has consistently picked itself back up after many blows. It has passed many tests successfully. Moreover, it has passed the greatest test: the test of time. And it’s not just standing on its last leg; it’s standing firm. “We’re stronger than ever,” says Mattson.
But there’s still work to be done.
“What I would like to see for EKA’s future,” says Mattson, “is for it to be known as a school with high standards for educational rigor and to consistently produce graduates that are prepared for whatever future they choose. . . . I would like to see us as a school recognized for educational excellence, that is known to provide individualized learning paths for students, in a family-like atmosphere, where students can build a base so that they can achieve their adult aspirations.”
We’re getting there.
In fact, I would say we’re darn close.