Public Schools at the Crossroads of Deeper Learning & Social Justice

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“Learning Happens Everywhere: Public Schools at the Crossroads of Deeper Learning and Social Justice” recently appeared in print in Independent School magazine. I am grateful to Michael Brosnan for inviting and supporting my contribution to the magazine’s 75th anniversary edition. I owe a special thanks to Karen Aka, Jamaal Bowman, Jobynia Caldwell, Pam Moran, Ira Socol, and Rick Watson for their dialogue and collaboration, upon which this piece is based. [Citation: Thinnes, C. (2016). Learning happens everywhere: Public schools at the crossroads of deeper learning and social justice. Independent School, 75 (3), 78-84.]


Learning Happens Everywhere:

Public Schools at the Crossroads of Deeper Learning and Social Justice

Chris Thinnes


EdLeader21, a professional learning community for school and district leaders from the public and private sectors committed to system-wide integration of the four Cs — critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity — recently held its national conference in Dallas, gathering several hundred school leaders to discuss the future of American education.[1] Between sessions, I was continually drawn into conversations with longtime friend and mentor, Karen Aka, the Chief Academic Officer of Academy21, who advises and supports a wide range of cutting-edge public and private schools in Hawai‘i.[2] She regaled me with extraordinary stories of transformative learning experiences that students across the Hawaiian islands were enjoying in public and private schools, notably in communities we might not reflexively associate with the pedagogy of “deeper learning” — which, as Harvard’s Jal Mehta noted some time ago, “has historically been the province of the advantaged—those who could afford to send their children to the best private schools and to live in the most desirable school districts.”[3]

Nānākuli Elementary School

The best of Aka’s stories reminded me that effective schools are primarily responsive to the identities of their local students, contexts, and communities in particular — and secondarily influenced by the now ubiquitous evidence of best, promising, and emerging practices in teaching and learning. For example, teachers and staff at Nānākuli Elementary School — which serves more than 400 students in the federally protected Native Hawaiian Homesteads of Nānākuli Valley and Princess Kahanu Estates — take to the streets at the beginning of each year in five-member teams to establish contact with families, to gather community input about how the school could better meet those families’ needs, to learn what talents new families might have that could help serve the school, and to foster all employees’ understanding of the conditions students experience outside of the school day.[4] Given that more than 70 percent of Nānākuli’s rural population identify as Native Hawaiian, and that more than 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, Area Superintendent Ann Mahi and Nānākuli’s Principal, Lisa Higa, recognize that it is out of this soil that ever-deeper integrations of a design thinking framework must be grown.

As Mehta puts it, “No one has a monopoly on deep learning.”[5]

Nānākuli Elementary understands not only its obligation to prepare students for the future, but its opportunity to deepen that learning further still by recognizing its community’s past and present traditions in “one ‘ohana [family] full of aloha, resilience, culture, and compassion.”[6] This is “a conceptual message,” as Aka puts it, “ that any school could use, including private schools.” And it is precisely in that spirit that the Nānākuli students, teachers, and leaders gather each morning in an assembly inspired by the piko — the Hawaiian word for “umbilical cord” which “connects a baby to its mother, the link to another generation: the physical link to all ancestors.”[7] When, each morning, a school leader calls out “Where does learning happen?” the students call out, in unison, “Learning happens everywhere….”

In an essay on the public purpose of independent schools I wrote in these pages some time ago,[8] I cited Carla Rinaldi’s admonition that “we must not forget how closely the school is connected to the society in which it is situated.”[9] Among my concerns at that time was the seeming separation in our schools between conversations about transformative teaching and learning, on the one hand, and conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion on the other. Surely each of these conversations in independent schools is deeper and more purposeful than either has been in the past. But the fact remains that these conversations still tend to take place in separate rooms, at different times, and among different people — as though our commitments to educational excellence and our commitments to educational equity were somehow unrelated to each other.

We have continually invited and encouraged each other to innovate, to disrupt, to deepen, to transform, to reimagine, to remake, and to reinvent the prevailing model of teaching and learning in our schools. Most often this dialogue is situated squarely in the discourse on “college and career readiness,” motivated by a desire to prepare students for the future workplace. Rarely is this dialogue situated in broader but no less pressing concerns about how we might help students to thrive in a pluralistic but systemically inequitable society.

Thinnes Q1Invited in this issue to shine a light on innovative public schools from which independent schools might stand to learn a thing or two, I began to wonder: which public schools are exploring educational “excellence” at the intersections of deeper learning and social justice — not only innovating in the areas of teaching and learning, but also innovating in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Cornerstone Academy for Social Action

Jamaal Bowman, the fiercely committed and outspoken founding Principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action [CASA] Middle School in the Bronx,[10] agrees the framing of that question might illuminate a critically artificial distinction in wider contemporary dialogue about the purpose of schools. At CASA, a design-thinking framework is explicitly integrated throughout the “core” curriculum and its innovative programs, perhaps most impactfully in its multifaceted approach to student inquiry and activism about issues that affect their community. According to Bowman, the design-thinking framework encourages social activism — but just as important, a focus on social activism enriches students’ development of 21st-century skills. For example, in twice-weekly sections of Genius Hour that Bowman facilitates, students chose to pursue projects on such topics as drug use, domestic violence, and economic disparities impacting the community, which hone their capacities to create, communicate, collaborate, and think critically about real-world problems. Similarly, following a St. Louis grand jury’s refusal to indict Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, students in a Creative Arts class collaborated with community partners in a design-thinking project that culminated with a widely viewed and much-lauded music video, “We Will Not Be Silent.”[11]

On the relationship between 21st-century skills and social justice, Bowman is resolute: “21st-century skills have to be embedded, both for the nature of our work and for the longevity and sustainability of our community.” And the results of these reciprocal commitments to deeper learning and social justice are extraordinary, even on conventional metrics. CASA’s more than 250 middle school students — 64 percent Black, 34 percent Hispanic, 19 percent with special needs, 80 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch, and nearly 90 percent arriving from local elementary schools testing below grade level — demonstrated the highest combined growth score average among all of New York City’s more than 1,800 public schools on last year’s mandated state exams. Importantly, as Bowman proudly reminded me, “we are not a test prep school.”

Bowman QBowman recognizes that the key to systemic transformation is through the authentic empowerment of students. This is a central tenet of how CASA makes “cultural responsiveness” visible: by using a deeper learning framework to meet individual students at their level, to foster their identification of issues they care deeply about, and to catalyze their active voice in the mitigation of actual problems faced by their communities. “Our kids need to learn to manage their own freedom,” he asserted. “If students don’t have a voice and choice, then how can we sustain a culture?”

Center for Advanced Research and Technology

Watson QRick Watson, CEO of the Center for Advanced Research and Technology [CART] in Clovis, California, echoed this commitment to student empowerment from his vantage point in California’s Central Valley.[12] During my recent visit to CART, Watson dryly commented about the impact of “disruptive innovation” on much of current education policy and practice. “Profound disruption,” he suggests of many students’ experience of schooling, “is to be treated like an adult.” CART, a program created through a Joint Powers Authority Agreement to serve students from both the Clovis and the Fresno unified school districts, empowers approximately 1,400 high school juniors and seniors from both districts by offering one of the most integrated and interdisciplinary project-based learning programs in the country. Students choose one of 16 themed “labs” — such as Environmental Science and Field Research, Digital Video Production and Broadcast, Web Application Development, and Forensic Research and Biotechnology — and visit the CART site from their home schools every day for a three-hour intensive learning experience devoted to that field. Each “lab” satisfies a variety of the University of California’s graduation requirements.

“We’re here because we want to learn,” Karlie, a student, informed me. And true to Watson’s comments about the disruption of treating students like adults, Karlie and every other student I encountered positioned himself or herself as a proud owner of the place, facilitating a culture of collaborative inquiry and shared accountability. Students revealed that they deeply cherished not only the real-world applications of their interdisciplinary learning experiences, but also the social and cultural experience of continual communication and collaboration across difference. For example, Skylar, another student, told me she learned more about different religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds from students across these two districts at CART than she would ever have learned at her home school, which draws from a more homogenous population.

Skylar was alluding to a crucial element of the CART experience: the opportunity to create, communicate, collaborate, and think critically across substantial ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic differences. More than 90 percent of the Fresno school district’s students are students of color, the majority of whom are identified as Hispanic; 85 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch; and 25 percent are English Language Learners. In the Clovis school district, nearly half of students are white and less than half are eligible for free or reduced lunch. These differences in demographics made me wonder if it might be because of this diversity, rather than in spite of it, that CART has had a transformative impact on so many of its students. 11th grade SBAC testing results for English Language Arts: the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards was 32 points higher for Fresno students who’d been attending CART – by that point, for less than a year — than Fresno’s district average.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools

Jobynia Caldwell, director of equity affairs for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, Virginia,[13] captured the spirit of Virginia Beach’s commitment to equity with a quote she attributed to Maya Angelou: “When you know better, you do better.” Caldwell outlined the district’s devotion to using data-based decision making to examine learning pathways, supports, and outcomes for its diverse population of students, “digging down into data-based disparities at the individual school and classroom level” to ensure that all students are provided with the transformative, 21st-century learning experience promised in the district’s vision.[14] The district’s earlier revolutionary work, under the leadership of celebrated former Superintendent James Merrill, focused on system-wide integration of the four Cs in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The next crucial innovation to extend that work, with Caldwell’s leadership and current Superintendent Aaron Spence’s support, focuses on schools’ responsiveness to students’ individual needs. As Caldwell notes, “You do all of those things well [determine curriculum, instructional strategies, and assessment methods] by responding to students’ needs.”

Knowing better, so that district schools can do better, is the primary focus of a Disciplinary Task Force, constituted by an inclusive array of district leaders, teachers, parents, students, and community partners, that was convened in order to address three strategic priorities in Virginia Beach schools: reducing the number of disciplinary referrals, increasing the instructional time provided to students who are subject to those referrals, and investigating the disproportionality of those referrals among various demographic subgroups, particularly among African-American males. This data-based examination of schools’ practices is accompanied by the task force’s ongoing exploration of restorative disciplinary practices and educators’ capacities to be culturally responsive — especially by unseating misconceptions “that because of some students’ lack of access, that they’re intellectually inferior.” Given that the district has set a high bar for student proficiency for all of Virginia Beach’s students, it recognizes its corresponding obligation is to “provide a pyramid of supports to ensure the success of all the children in those schools who need them.”

Caldwell QKnowing better in order to do better, according to Caldwell, also requires a deepening of relational dynamics with students and their parents — which, in turn, requires educators’ willingness to be vulnerable. A multitude of students recently convened with teachers who were new to the district this year. According to Caldwell, students cut right to the core of the matter: “We want a relationship with you. We want you to know us, and we want to know you. We do better when you care about us….” This resonates with the three-point call to action that Superintendent Spence has often framed at meetings: “I want you to love our children, unconditionally. I want children in this division to feel physically and emotionally safe. And I want to make sure that there’s purposeful learning every day, so students can share with their parents what they learned today.” Thus, the key to their transformative deeper-learning model is intertwined with the third goal of its five-year strategic plan: “All students will benefit from an educational experience that fosters their social and emotional development.”[15]

Albemarle County Public Schools

Ira Socol, Albemarle County Public Schools’ passionate Educational Technology and Innovation Director, underscores that “All means all” — noting that Albemarle, in Virginia, is in the top 3 percent of counties in America with regard to income inequality.[16] Pam Moran, the district’s legendary Superintendent, confirms that in some areas of the district “you can have a property with 1,000 acres and an antebellum plantation home next door to a trailer or a shack that’s in pretty rough shape.” In addition, Albemarle is a diverse district on a variety of indicators: 80 languages are spoken by families, and many children come to the district with international refugee status through the efforts of the International Rescue Committee.

Socol emphasizes that, for students, “cultural competence starts with having some sense of who you are.” Moran adds that, for adults, it starts with recognizing that “the rural kids, kids who struggle with issues in their own lives, kids who are dealing with issues of poverty, or gender identity — that all these factors cause kids to see themselves as different.” Accordingly, the best expression of culturally competent 21st century learning begins with questions: as Socol asks, “What’s the voice that the kid needs? How is the child going to express himself? How can we get students to see their individual passions? That’s where the cultural response really comes in.” Moran agrees, emphasizing that their team strives “to sustain the curiosity and creativity that’s innate among all students and connected to their passion for learning and their empathy.” Socol believes that “letting kids construct their own sense of what education needs to be for them: that’s the culturally responsive thing.”

Socol QThis expression of cultural competence extends into the design of learning spaces themselves that honor and promote students’ self-defined passions. Socol recounts, for example, the story of a librarian who noticed it was hard for her to draw a group of rural white boys from an adjacent town into the school’s library. They didn’t seem to see any particularly authentic value in the education they were being offered. What became a grand experiment started with what Socol referred to as “small bets,” in this case inviting the boys to perform a lawnmower engine repair inside a room in the library. Before long, the boys’ new learning space featured a V8 engine fully assembled by the students, the relocation of the library’s engineering collection to the room, and the eventual demolition of walls between the traditional library and an open maker space. Similar thinking guided the transformation of Monticello High School’s library into its learning commons, and won Albemarle County the Grand Prize in the National School Boards Association’s Magna Awards.[17] That library received about 400 individual student visits per year. As a learning commons, it draws more than 70,000. Other “small bets” include the district’s installation of a maker space inside a mobile home park whose children are served by the district, and the district’s maintenance of its own 4G network to ensure equitable wireless access for all its students. “The trick,” Socol insists, “is to listen to a community and to respond really quickly to their needs.”

Moran Q“The reality is that we have created the disruptive innovation,” Socol explains. “We have students who are finding their way into libraries . . . that didn’t even know they wanted to do it. Kids who are saying ‘I’ve got spaces I can go to see myself as a designer, a creator.’ Kids of color, kids in economically disadvantaged situations, kids with school-based handicaps, kids who march to different drummers… All kinds of kids.”

–       –       –

“Learning happens everywhere,” these public schools and districts tell me, when schools are as intentionally and fearlessly committed to diversity, equity, and social justice as they are to transformative teaching and learning. As Carla Rinaldi suggests, not only about our schools but also about our society, “We will find the ‘new’ and the ‘future’ in those places where new forms of human coexistence, participation, and co-participation are tried out.”[18] Or, as Ira Socol defines the spirit of educational equity in the service of deeper learning: “All means all.” This is the “disruptive innovation” in education theory, practice, policy, and discourse to which we ought properly to turn our attention, in order to serve the purpose of education in a democracy.


Chris Thinnes is an educator, facilitator, and consultant in Los Angeles. To learn more about him, visit; you can also follow him on Twitter. The author extends deep gratitude to Karen Aka, Jamaal Bowman, Jobynia Caldwell, Pam Moran, Ira Socol, and Rick Watson for their dialogue and collaboration.



[1] For more on EdLeader21, see (Albemarle County Public Schools, The Center for Advanced Research & Technology, and Virginia Beach City Public Schools, discussed in subsequent sections, are members of EdLeader21’s PLC.)

[2] For more on Academy21, see

[3] Jal Mehta, “Deeper Learning Has a Race Problem,” Education Week, (June 20, 2014). Online:

[4] For more on Nānākuli E.S. see

[5] Mehta, op. cit.

[6] From Nānākuli mission. See

[7] As described by Kauanoe Kamanā to Karen Aka

[8] “Educational-Relational Thinking and the Future of Public-Private Partnerships,” Independent School, 74(1), Fall 2014. Online:

[9] Carla Rinaldi, “Teachers as Researchers,” In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia, New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 140. [Amazon]

[10] For more on Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, see

[11] See For more information, see

[12] For more on the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, see

[13] For more on Virginia Beach City Public Schools, see

[14] Virginia Beach City Public Schools, “Compass to 2020: Charting the Course,” 2015. Online:

[15] Ibid.

[16] For more on Albemarle County Public Schools, see

[17] For more information, see

[18] Carla Rinaldi, “Infant-toddler Centers and Preschools as Places of Culture,” in Project Zero and Reggio Children, Making Learning Visible: Children As Individual and Group Learners, (Cambridge, MA & Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children Publications, 2001), p. 45. [amazon]

  • Matt Karlsen

    Inspiring to read these stories, Chris – thank for sharing them.
    If you ever make you’re way up to Portland, I hope you’ll come visit us at Opal School.