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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

A Center Without Walls: Finding a Home for the Boston Collaboratory School

What if school was a place where our students could find joy in a nurturing, flexible environment? The Boston Collaboratory School (BoCoLab) is working to build such a space for students. BoCoLab will empower Boston students to become leaders in their communities and grant them the tools they need to succeed in life after graduation.

The idea for BoCoLab started off as a small spark, as a group of Boston Public Schools teachers and teacher leaders sought to address greater unemployment rates for black males vs white males. Delving deeper into the problem the concept of BoCoLab began to take shape.

“We started to think about the problem in a more holistic way around racial gender ethnic studies and entrepreneurial mindsets,” explains Kellyanne Mahoney, youth program specialist for tech company Autodesk and a member of the BoCoLab team, “So our process began with a problem and then from there pulled together people.”

Designing an entire school is no small undertaking, and the BoCoLab team often consulted with the Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) and the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network (PLN). “The level of organization that allowed us to be effective and productive was something that was deeply assisted by being a part of a larger learning community, so PLN and CCE were instrumental in that for us,” notes Harry Gilliam, assistant principal at the Murphy School.

BoCoLab is a fully-fledged school on paper—the curriculum is written, the schedule established, and a budget has been set. So far, the BoCoLab team has run smaller pilots of the 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, assistant principal at Clarence R. Edwards Middle School, is also working with a few other teacher teams on their own interdisciplinary projects piecemeal.

Gilliam has implemented restorative justice practices, as well as racial and ethnic studies, at the Murphy School. The school now fully relies on restorative circles in lieu of the traditional code of discipline. “We still follow the code of conduct,” Gilliam explains, “but we now host restorative meetings rather than full disciplinary procedures where we used to just go straight to the disciplinary procedure.”

Now that the group has seen disparate parts of the models performing in existing schools, they’re looking forward to seeing it all happening together as a unified model either in partnership with an existing school, or as its own standalone institution. “It felt like these things together is what would really be necessary for kids to be fully effective and fully engage in their learning process,” says Gilliam.

Before BoCoLab becomes a fully-fledged school, the team must still overcome some challenges. Andrea So knows that the next step in the process is building a strong network, but it is a considerable time commitment. “All of us have full time jobs, and it's really hard to be able to take time out to do that,” she says. With that said, interest in BoCoLab has certainly been growing, in partial thanks to PLN and CCE for spreading the word. “We're at a stage where we'll be talking to different principals of schools and see if there's a plan we could figure out to become a program within a school,” So says.

BoCoLab has also had to adapt to political challenges within Boston Public Schools and the city government. “Boston is an intensely political place. There are a lot of moving parts,” says Harry Gilliam. “There's a question of how the district is going to configure itself in the coming years and we've tried to be fleet of foot in our design.” The team is working with the cabinet for the superintendent, as well as the mayor’s office to stay in line with what the city is envisioning for the school system, while also staying true to BoCoLab’s core values.

A physical location for BoCoLab, too, will prove a challenge. Some organizations and companies simply don’t want to travel to certain neighborhoods to work with students, which could put a damper on BoCoLab’s plans to have students perform externships and community projects.

“When I was teaching middle school, I coached the Technovation Competition, which is like a girls' mobile development competition,” recalls Mahoney, “My school was in Roxbury and we had one of the biggest parking lots in the whole district, but no one ever wanted to come to Roxbury, so when we had our mentoring sessions it would always be like a conference call and the kids thought it was weird and didn't really feel connected.”

To overcome this difficulty, BoCoLab will need to have easy access to public transportation, and Mahoney notes, “We’re last in line to find a place that’s accessible.”

Still, the teachers working to bring BoCoLab to life are ready to tackle these obstacles head-on, and are moving forward with the project with optimism. Since starting smaller pilots in different Boston schools, the team has received a lot of helpful feedback from students. The students enjoyed the freedom and respect that personalized learning offers.

“[Personalized learning] fits with the way we work and solve problems in our current economy, our current business practices, our current entrepreneurial practices, whereas [the current education system] doesn't,” Gilliam says. “So I think the kids even now grasp and understand that.”

The Boston Collaboratory School is at a critical point in its development. Networking over the next year could be key to the school’s future, which currently remains uncertain. If BoCoLab succeeds in its mission to partner with a school or find its own building, big changes could be afoot in Boston Public Schools thanks to this small group of passionate educators.