Introduction

Boston Collaboratory School (BoCoLab) is a unique case--a fully fleshed out school model caught in limbo, partly due to district politics, partly because of a need for stronger networking. BoCoLab is an excellent example of successful teamwork and school design done right, but the reality is the school’s model may never be put into practice. The BoCoLab design team is working hard to find a home, whether that’s in an existing school or in its very own building. In this case study, learn how Boston Collaboratory School came to be, explore its design process, and see what the future might hold for this innovative school.  

The idea

The idea for BoCoLab started off as a small spark, as a group of Boston Public Schools teachers and teacher leaders sought to develop the district’s computer science education in order to address greater unemployment rates for black males. Driven by findings in the Boston Globe regarding unemployment disparities between white and black males, the BoCoLab team started delving deeper and deeper into the problem. The core team began to draw collaborators from outside of education, and the concept of BoCoLab began to take shape.

Performance data around student achievement, academic progress, and attendance rates that were collected annually from the team’s individual schools also informed the group’s idea to create BoCoLab. The team saw a very specific need for English Language Learners, students of color, and students with learning challenges.

The BoCoLab team also relied on anecdotal data. Centered in Boston Public Schools, both due to their families and their work as educators in the district, the team has a deep understanding of what students and the communities want to see in their schools. The team has been listening very closely to the families in the communities they aim to serve.

This anecdotal data, the performance data, and the studies on black male unemployment in Boston all inspired the need to create a school that could address these gaps. From there, the BoCoLab team brought together people within their networks who would be best equipped to solve this problem.

Creating a plan

To begin building the framework for BoCoLab, the team focused on what they wanted their students to be able to do. This became the guiding principle for the entire school design. The BoCoLab team then began to look inward and at their individual areas of expertise before sitting down and writing their plan. The team would gather outside of work hours, often for eight hours at a time, to write and read each other’s work, eventually creating a full school plan that could be put into operation at a moment’s notice. This plan centered itself around five Systems of Support: 

  • Leadership
  • Professional Learning
  • Autonomies
  • Technology
  • Family and Community Engagement

The team envisioned an entire school where students are encouraged to embrace their creativity, engage with their community, and wrap themselves in their learning. According to the school’s official website, BoCoLab is, “a center without walls, growing a more inclusive 'creative class' of global citizens who will bring about new ideas, new technology, and meaningful content.”

BoCoLab will embrace a personalized learning model that allows students to pursue projects that are relevant and exciting to them both within and outside the classroom. Students can participate in externships and community service projects with businesses and organizations throughout Boston to develop true-to-life skills and build relationships with their communities.

In class, the learning is interdisciplinary. Students will develop literacy skills in classes that also hone in on Ethnic, Gender, and Racial studies. In Math and Science, students solve authentic problems with real-world contexts, and sometimes ELA and other subject areas come into play as well. Students are also free to flex their creativity with collaborative projects, larger-scale efforts that bring students together to work on activities around building a website or exploring technology.

From this vision, the school’s areas of interaction were established: mindfulness, the entrepreneurial mindset, computational agency, and social and cultural awareness. The areas of interaction will form the foundation for students’ math and literacy education, and will be bolstered by BoCoLab’s competency areas—self-knowledge, social awareness, functional knowledge, and thought leadership. These competency areas, in turn, will provide a framework for relevant, authentic learning for each and every student.

These areas of interaction and competency were developed with a focus on what the teachers wanted their students to be able to do. The team pulled from their diverse expertise to devise a curriculum and a schedule based on these core principles, sitting together at length in their free time and pooling ideas in a Google document. Sharing out ideas, the team drew from each others’ skills, becoming a tightly-knit unit in the process.

The school’s schedule has since been finalized. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays look more like traditional school schedules, with blocks for ELA, Math, Science, and Arts and Technology, with times for advisory and reflection sprinkled throughout. Wednesdays are an early release day dedicated to self-driven learning. Students are free to pursue their own personalized learning projects during this time.

BoCoLab was able to develop a well-thought out plan. They credit their success with teamwork and building solid working relationships in designing what is essentially a functioning school on paper. The team was very deliberate in hashing out their priorities, a difficult task that was well-aided by their shared mission and strong team relationship. The question now, for BoCoLab, is how to get the authority to put this plan into action.

Finding a pathway to existence

BoCoLab had a relatively smooth design process and was well-prepared to pitch their model, but it has been considerably more difficult to find a pathway to bring the school to life. BoCoLab is currently trying to find a home, whether it’s as part of an existing school or an independent building.

Originally, BoCoLab was intended to go through the PLN process—which it did complete successfully—before presenting the school model to Boston Public Schools in December 2016 as part of an innovation school initiative. However, when it came time to present, BoCoLab’s presentation was left on the backburner due to controversy over a school closing amidst community pushback. Petitioning the district for a standalone school is not an option for BoCoLab right now. BoCoLab was left without a home or a pathway.

As BoCoLab searches for a place in Boston Public Schools, the team has engaged in smaller pilots of the BoCoLab model within their individual schools. At Boston Green Academy, the school had interdisciplinary learning for an entire quarter, as well as implementing restorative justice practices and social-emotional learning. Andrea So, one of the BoCoLab founders, is also working with a few other teacher teams on their own interdisciplinary projects piecemeal.

BoCoLab’s model is flexible and can be tailored to meet the needs of any environment, which has been crucial in keeping the dream for the school alive. The team is now looking into joining up with a partner school with similar goals and values. BoCoLab is meeting with schools to see how the BoCoLab model can meet the needs of individual schools. There is also hope that this path could lead to BoCoLab becoming a fully fledged school.

Support and professional development

Although BoCoLab has not been realized as an actual school, it is a success story in school design. As participants in the PLN process, BoCoLab was very open to the network’s help, and came to professional development sessions with an incredibly well thought out plan.

The team’s dedication to the project shines through in the model—they spent many a late night after work to build the school. BoCoLab stepped back to allow Center for Collaborative Education to point out the projects needs and were given coaching goals by their coach. The team notes that the PLN framework was particularly helpful in refining the model, ensuring that students stayed at the center throughout every iteration of the design. The BoCoLab crew also found the school visits particularly helpful in fleshing out the model.

BoCoLab’s professional development through PLN also helped them build lasting relationships with other design teams and schools. They are still actively in touch with other cohort members and continue to share ideas and support with schools like Powder House Studios in Somerville and TechBoston Academy, all while continuing to refine the BoCoLab model.

Navigating the pathway to achieve autonomy

BoCoLab is currently at a crossroads. The current district landscape in Boston, in which schools are closing and merging, deems it unlikely that BoCoLab will receive its own space at the blessing of district administrators. Their only feasible path at the moment is to implement the model in an already established school.

It has been a challenge for BoCoLab to maintain some of the connections the team made in the initial design process. They have been participating in the Center for Artistry and Scholarship Incubator Program, and maintaining connections with other design times. However, without a physical school, it’s hard to maintain community support for the project. They are hoping that this will pick up speed once the model finds a home within an existing school. The team has also been working with Center for Collaborative Education to build connections within Boston Public Schools.

BoCoLab has seen a lot of success in their design work and professional development, but face an uphill struggle in bringing that design to life. The team is in talks with schools to try to implement the model in an existing school, but for now it is a matter of waiting.

Phase 3 In Action: Boston Collaboratory School’s Student-Centered Toolkit

BoCoLab was designed from the ground up around EPL’s Five Principles: 

Competency-Based Learning
Students move at their optimal pace and receive credit when they demonstrate mastery of competencies—or learning targets—at each new level.

BoCoLab students have the freedom to demonstrate their mastery in ways that fit their individual ways of learning. Through interdisciplinary assessments, self-reflection, peer feedback, state assessments, and project portfolios, students receive feedback and credit upon demonstrating what they know at each level in their education.

Flexible Learning
Time, space, and teacher roles adapt to the needs of students through the use of technology and flexible structures, rather than being a fixed, "one size fits all" experience.

BoCoLab accounts for this principle with a flexible approach to content design that will readily evolve over time to meet the demands of a changing world. BoCoLab’s professional learning is centered on ensuring that staff are attuned to “the fluid nature of knowledge” so that they might readily adapt the BoCoLab model.

Student-Driven Learning
Students exercise voice and choice in their learning and co-create personal academic profiles and learning plans focused on student interests, aspirations, and learning challenges.

BoCoLab students engage in self-directed learning, drafting a personalized learning plan and, with the help of teachers, establishing a rubric based on 21st Century Skills. Students have access to mentorship from community partners and have many opportunities to drive their own learning through projects and assessments.

Dispositions for Learning
With a focus on equity, identity, and concern for others, students develop the attitudes and habits necessary for academic growth and preparation for life in a global society.

BoCoLab does not see technology as a means to an end, rather as one way to develop student agency as a supplement to the many other facets of a student’s education. This aligns with Essential Personalized Learning’s philosophy that technology is not a cure-all, but a welcome support for students and educators.

Authentic Learning
Students engage in a standards-aligned workplace, project- and community-based learning, with multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they know and are able to do.

Students at BoCoLab will have opportunities to pursue projects of their own design both in school and through externships with their communities. BoCoLab is partnering with a number of community partners in the greater-Boston area to provide opportunities for students to explore potential career paths and contribute to their communities in impactful ways.

With that said, however, BoCoLab itself has struggled with engaging with the community throughout its design process. In order to garner support from district leadership, the BoCoLab team would need vocal support from parents in the area, but there was little-organized outreach to build a loud demand for BoCoLab’s model. BoCoLab today, as it tries to find a place in an existing school, could still benefit from strong supports within the community. CCE and Dan French have been helping the school build a network, but it is difficult to maintain momentum without a physical school.

An approach to teaching and learning that is flexible and adaptable, adjusting the system to the individual students and what they need to be successful in today's diverse, global world.
Students exercise voice and choice in their learning, embracing their individual strengths, needs, interests, and cultural backgrounds.
The ability to use the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of culturally and linguistically diverse learners as conduits for teaching them more effectively. (Geneva Gay, 2002)
Developed in a way that ensures a barrier-free environment for all students, ensuring that every student, particularly those within historically underserved groups, has what they need to be successful. To be truly equitable, schools must not only have equity of opportunity but of outcomes.
The process of envisioning, designing, and implementing a school model, either from scratch as a way of redesigning and disrupting the existing educational system, or as part of the transformation of an existing school.