School-within-a-School: Fail, Grow, Succeed

By April 30, 2019 No Comments
Mount Vernon School

MTC Member school Mount Vernon is planning a pilot of the Mastery Transcript; for their community, a school-within-a-school model is ideal for testing innovative approaches

Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

In 2014, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, an MTC member school, and the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI) launched Innovation Diploma (iD), a high-impact, four-year program where students can fail, grow, and succeed while developing their creative purpose by doing work that intrinsically matters. Innovation Diploma was designed as an elective course that met in a small office. It has grown into a program in which students take Humanities 9 and 10; Biology; Transformational Leadership; Technology, Engineering and Design; and Studio Design. We built a school-within-a-school one step at a time to meet the changing needs of our students. It’s given us a space where we could test different educational strategies and approaches at scale, like the Mastery Transcript and mastery-based learning. This allowed our entire community to interact with and witness change first-hand, instead of having to visit schools, attend conferences, or read all of the research. We made our ideas visible and, over time, people became more comfortable with the changes we made. Within two years, iD will serve 25 percent, 100 students, of our Upper School. We now have an alternative school model that resonates with our community in ways we could only imagine during year one.

Meaningful partnerships, what we call design briefs, with outside organizations play a central role to our iD students’ Upper School experience. During the last five years, we have worked with Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to:

When students are tasked with solving a complex problem for an authentic audience, the stakes fundamentally change. The bar is set higher because the work the students do matters not just to a teacher, peer or parent, but to an external partner who is relying on them. Put simply, when you give students real-world work it demands real-world assessment.

Real-World Assessment

Daniel Coyle, author ofThe Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups,” writes, “All creative projects are cognitive puzzles involving thousands of choices and thousands of potential ideas, and you almost never get the right answer right away.” Innovation Diploma is built around cognitive puzzles, or quality performance assessments, designed to nurture a student’s depth of knowledge and to develop the necessary skills and dispositions needed for future success. We consistently ask students to transfer what they learned across the Mount Vernon curriculum to novel, outside-of-school problems.

It is difficult to assign a letter or a number grade to this type of work.  We have assessed with narrative feedback, student reflection, peer-to-peer and client critique sessions, and micro-credentialing. We changed the grading scale from 100 points to six points so we could more accurately distinguish different levels of student work. This allows us to more closely align student work to measurable standards. We tested a learning management system designed specifically for tracking competencies. Over time, we created a culture of feedback through face-to-face 1:1 or team meetings. As iD students graduated, we “hacked” their transcript to better display the full scope of their learning. These students have a different story, and the traditional transcript does not communicate it well. We now include their Gallup strengths and micro-credentials with accompanying paragraphs that highlight their iD work. We worked with college admission officers and readers to co-design a transcript that put the most relevant information in the most readable positions. All of this work led us directly to Mastery Transcript. By reimagining school through iD, we were able to make the case for new forms of assessment and reporting because we made the need visible to our community.

How Can You Do It?

Innovation Diploma is only where we are now because we started small. We grew organically and intentionally to meet our community where they were. John Kotter’s Eight Steps for Successful Change Management gave us the scaffold we needed to build iD in a way that created impact for both the students in and outside of the program.

  • Create a sense of urgency: Help all your stakeholders, students, parents, faculty and administration, see the importance of challenging norms. In 2014, we hosted Council on Innovation, an event to highlight the gap between the real world and school. We wanted our graduates to be prepared to live and thrive in a world rife with ambiguity, where they’d more likely be inventing jobs than fulfilling jobs. It became clear we needed a program and curriculum to support them.
  • Pull together a guiding team: It takes a village to thoughtfully implement educational change at scale, so be sure you have the right team of people, including those who are in decision making positions to carry out the vision. In the beginning, it was imperative that our Senior Administration visibly supported the work that was happening in iD. What started as a two person facilitation team, has grown into a dynamic group of educators with backgrounds in Humanities, STEM, Maker, and Art who is able to effectively communicate and coordinate this shift in pedagogy.
  • Form the change vision and strategy: Talk about the future of learning often and give your community a blueprint for how to achieve it. The Mount Vernon Continuum guides every decision we make as a school. It clearly highlights a clear and compelling mission, cultural norms inviting people to step outside of their comfort zone, design principles and practices guiding teaching and learning, and six different significant mindsets resulting in an impactful experience. The iD team uses this as our entry point and guides where we plant the next stake in the ground.
  • Communicate for understanding and buy-in: Establish a community of supporters who will cascade your mission and vision from the bottom-up and top-down. You will need to have a communication strategy in place that allows for your entire community to become more educated about the shifts you are making. You will want to have in-person and online touch points so that you can continually meet your families where they are. In iD, we host parent coffees where we discuss topics like assessment philosophy. We are currently developing a bi-weekly newsletter that will give updates on student work, while also providing resources for parents who want to learn more about our educational philosophy.
  • Empower others to act: Remove the barriers that might slow down your progress. Allow people to look for opportunities that are outside the norm of your school. Earlier this spring, a small group of iD students traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to work alongside a group of Native American High School students on a design brief. If the iD team was not empowered to act in the best interest of their students’ learning, we would have missed this opportunity.
  • Produce short-term wins: Build momentum by starting small. We do this time and time again in iD. Our first design brief came from a parent on our Board. The success of that project led to the next one. We also took this approach with rethinking assessment. iD was established as a non-graded elective. It was heavily assessed through narrative comments and 1:1 meetings. At the time, this was transformative for our community. We could not have implemented competency-based learning at the moment, but we needed to start moving the needle in that direction. Time and time again, seemingly small wins produced lasting change.
  • Don’t let up: Do not rest on your past successes or falter in the face of resistance. iD was a robust elective when it launched and it became even stronger when we introduced design briefs. We might have stopped there, but we knew these concepts could transform our school. This school year is the first time we have awarded core credit for Humanities through iD. Based on the success of this year, we are adding Biology to the Freshman iD experience in Fall 2019. These changes and new initiatives are going to allow us to experiment more regularly with transdisciplinary learning and competency-based assessment.
  • Create a new culture: Allow for emerging ideas and trends to disrupt the accepted ways of doing things. The culture of radical student agency in iD is the magic of the program. It has set the condition for each of our students to uncover their purpose by seeing how what they are learning in school directly connects outside of the walls of the classroom. They expect more from their education now, and we have to do the work of continuing to create an environment that supports their needs.

School change does not happen with the introduction of new initiatives or programs. Find a way to prototype what your school believes to be the next model of education for your community. Identify what your school wants to prioritize and begin experimenting now. Lean into communities like MTC so we can collectively make bigger waves of change in educational systems around the country. Start this work today. Make small changes now to create lasting impact in the future.

Interested in connecting with Brad for more information? Email him at


About Brad Droke

Brad Droke is director of Innovation Diploma at MTC member school Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, GA.