‘Fresh’ and ‘innovative’ might be adjectives readily applied within the startup world; however, they aren’t often used to describe public elementary schools.Seven years ago, Aaron Brengard came to serve as principal of Katherine Smith Elementary, a 55-year-old Title I school within San Jose’s Evergreen School District. Despite its location in Silicon Valley, the school seemed a world apart from the region recognized globally for entrepreneurship and innovation.The majority of its K-6th grade students (81%) receive free or reduced lunch, and roughly six out of ten are also English language learners. Most students at Katherine Smith hail from either Vietnamese- or Spanish-speaking homes.From the very beginning of his tenure, Brengard championed a school redesign that would better prepare students for the real world. (He has since moved on to become principal of the district’s middle school, with close ties remaining to its elementary school operations. Kevin Armstrong and Rachel Trowbridge, also both founding teachers, now lead Katherine Smith.) The lessons learned from this journey toward High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL) remain relevant, however, as they could potentially be applied to public schools across America.Although the students of Katherine Smith are quite young, instilling them with principles and values in preparation for a high level of project work will undoubtedly impact their secondary and postsecondary experiences, as well as their entry into the workforce. In order to ensure success, school leaders and faculty engaged in frank conversations about openness, what HQPBL experiences looked like and about growing their real-world industry savvy.A New Beginning and a Culture Shift“We weren’t a charter,” Brengard explained. “There wasn’t any sort of school choice for families. If you live here, this is what they’d get for education. So we decided to take a unique angle. Many people think that innovative stuff only happens in special places, like charters or magnet schools—not in a traditional setting. But if you can gather a team that believes in an approach to giving kids meaningful work, that’s a different story.”As part of its redesign, the school established a PBL instructional model. This required a number of shifts in internal culture.Some teachers’ stances on radical change were deep-seated, including what was perhaps a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, there was a history of leadership challenges; Brengard was the school’s fifth principal in just 10 years. “I presented the idea about making a big shift and welcomed teachers to stay if they wanted, and to write a letter of intent. It wasn’t that they were bad at their jobs; we as a school hadn’t set them up for success. We’d had a fair amount of discipline issues and suspensions, and kids who were sadly disconnected from school,” he added.The teaching staff had already endured significant changes. “It was easy for me to be empathetic to the idea that maybe the faculty don’t want to buy what I’m selling,” Brengard said. “Right from the beginning, they had the choice. I held office hours to talk through our transition to PBL.”

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