Since the World Economic Forum put out its Future of Jobs Report predicting major disruptions to traditional labor markets, it has become clear that today’s schools need to more actively help students gain the skills and competencies to tackle new and unknown professions. My independent co-educational day school, Escola Americana de Vitoria, was designed to equip learners with the skills and dispositions needed for their lifetime.
Towards the end of 2016, Andrew Sherman, then Head of School of the American School of Rio de Janeiro, shared an idea with me for creating a new school in Brazil. He had been approached by local “Capixabas” who wanted to found an International School in Vitoria Espirito Santo, a growing port city in Brazil. I was intrigued because starting with a blank slate, or tabula rasa, can be faster and more efficient for effecting change than trying to fix things in older, well-established institutions. He showed me a presentation with all the elements of a design brief: background, objectives and goals, pedagogical model, timeline, preliminary budget, scope of project. After seeing the presentation, I was ready to dive in, energized by the idea of starting a school from scratch and creating something that reflected my beliefs and practices. Many Skype sessions later, this is what we came up with.
Attending to Children’s Well-Being
In a report from the Center for American Progress, “Workin’ 9-5: How School Schedules Make Life Hard for Working Parents,” researchers note that a large part of the modern world, including the United States and Brazil, is no longer agrarian. School schedules and work schedules are now misaligned in such places and therefore 9-5 school reform is a viable solution. In response, at EAV we extended the school day and added after-school daycare to reflect the changing needs of working families in the Vitoria community. Also, we designed a program that embraces the whole child: cognitively, emotionally, physically. We brush teeth, feed kids healthy meals, provide quiet spaces for rest and relaxation, and offer nap time for those who need it. Even 2-year-olds get a bath before going home.
Students at EAV engage in active learning. Teachers invite me into their classrooms all the time, excitedly showing me the “latest thing” going on. In one classroom, a first grade teacher used Augmented Reality to teach Geometry. After working in a two-dimensional environment, students were guided to pass their tablets over QR codes, and three-dimensional spheres and cones sprang up before their eyes. Giggles attracted me to another room a few days later. When I looked into this kindergarten classroom, at first I didn’t see anyone. Then I noticed a huge banner, and everyone — teachers and students alike — was behind the banner, putting on a play and having fun. I heard the booming narration of a teacher’s voice and kids chiming in on cue.
A New Kind of Food Fight
The hardest battle I’ve fought so far has been around food. While all constituents (school, parents, food provider) had a similar vision, it was hard work to get to a final product that met everyone’s needs. During the process, communication channels were always open, and parents were free to express their views. What finally allowed us to reach a consensus was a meeting held in my office where 14 parents shared a list of requests to be debated. The food provider, parents, and I spoke for two hours. This initiated some reforms that ended in a new and revised menu. Here’s what we came up with:
- No juice served during lunch, or any beverage of any kind. Juice is high in sugar, and sometimes children will fill up on water rather than eat at lunch time. Water is offered before eating or after eating.
- We are a milk-free campus. We have many children who are highly allergic to milk proteins.
- We do not serve food with added sugars. We only serve fruits as desserts.
- Lunch is composed of a variety of vegetables, both cooked and raw; tubers and cereals; and a protein (fish, meat, poultry, or egg).
- We stick to one carbohydrate at a time. We do not mix rice, pasta, and potatoes, for example). We choose one.
- We offer beans every day.
A nutritionist designs the menus and oversees the proper execution, and teachers monitor students during lunch to make sure they are creating balanced plates and are offered foods they might not normally choose. We also offer opportunities for students to learn about food in the classroom. For example, during Halloween, our nutritionist brought a pumpkin to class and let students open it, scoop out the insides, use their hands in a sensory way to touch the inside, and taste it.
Maintaining a Rolling Agenda
My business partner and I belong to Generation X. Born in the 1960s, we came of age in the 1980s. Today, we approach education from an entrepreneurial mindset. As we see it, education is the powerhouse that drives all other industries, and we understand that if we want our children to be able to navigate the complexities of a changing world, we need to change the way education is perceived, defined, and delivered.
Our school and business model reflect our drive, risk-taking, and understanding that business can be done in a different way to reflect the changing times. We live in different countries (USA and Brazil) and created a brick-and-mortar school in a city we don’t live in. We operate the school from a considerable distance, and without technology, we would not have been able to get our enterprise off the ground; however, technology did not replace the need for our collective intellect and real-life networks.
Our routine is now set. We have an agenda that is now rolling into year 3. This agenda organizes our priorities and links to all our important Google docs. From this agenda, the school’s mission and vision emerged. We wrote all curricular documents and handbooks as well as the school’s pedagogical action plan and created the content for the school’s website. Other remote operations included setting weekly strategy meetings and hiring via Skype. Slowly, the virtual became reality, and a tangible, real school emerged with real teachers, real students, and a local board.
Has the world changed? Yes, it has, and our school is living proof that school can be retooled and built in different ways.