How do we manage the shift to personal digital learning? That’s the current whole-systems challenge in education. As chancellor of the largest district in
the country, Joel Klein decided New York City needed a kickstart and created the iZone.
I conflated the iZone with the Empowerment Zone, a system of earned autonomy launched in
2005, but Stacey Gillett, deputy chief of innovation at the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Innovation, cleared that up for me.
iZone was launched in 2010 as a change-management strategy to move from a classroom-centric model to a student-centric model. iZone helps schools identify
and implement next-generation curriculum, personalized learning, new student and staff roles, and real-world learning environments. Gillett described iZone
as a community of schools committed to personalization innovation.
In a recent Kennedy School blog, Gillett notes that the iZone
builds on the success of empowerment and new school development, “The department has replaced...117 large, historically struggling schools with 535 small,
high-performing schools. It has also empowered school leaders in their efforts to improve student achievement.”
While some districts have focused on 1:1 deployments and others have introduced online learning, NYC has successfully keep the focus on personalized
learning. The focus and scale of the iZone probably influenced the construction of the RTT-D program.
iZone has three initiatives:
One hundred ninety schools flexibly meeting student needs through online and blended learning. iNACOL (where I’m a
director) has recently begun supporting professional development for iLearn teacher.
: Fifty middle and high schools engaging in whole school redesign and creating innovative, student-centered school models (most schools are also in
: Incubating and evaluating new strategies and tools to personalize learning including piloting School of One
, testing personalized learning systems, and managing a handful of i3 funded edtech
In support of all three initiatives, the iZone team is deploying innovative purchasing strategies. They are framing key challenges around the
implementation of the Common Core State Standards and personalized learning and issuing requests for proposals from vendors, selecting promising responses,
and developing pilot projects.
As Gotham Schools reported, some
teachers were initially skeptical that part of the instructional program could be moved online. Sam McElroy, now the iLearnNYC coordinator at Flushing High
School, was nervous but now describes himself as a convert to blended learning, “Students quickly learned to treat the equipment respectfully (in most
cases), took to the routine, and stayed engaged in their work with little or no distractions throughout each class period.”
iZone schools receive support, guidance, and professional development from external partners. Schools engaged in redesign engaged in a design conference
this spring where they developed a future-state design and an implementation plan. (Here’s a Vimeo detailing the process.)
Gillett and her colleagues facilitate connections with edtech partners that personalize learning. Schools receive laptops and small cash grants in support
of their plans. With some advocacy support from the iZone team, the collective power of a large group of focused school leaders helps reduce local and
state policy barriers.
“We hope that the iZone’s strategy of incubation, evaluation and diffusion of student-centered learning models will create schools and entire districts
where the iZone-tested strategies are no longer considered innovations, but the new norm,” said Gillett.
In some respects, viral app adoption, the network effects of big platforms, and growth of online learning all make districts less important as a unit of
change. But given taxing authority, employment policies, and budget management school districts need to be constructive actors in the shift to personal
digital learning. The iZone is a useful change management model already being adapted by other districts. Add it to the list of important contributions
from Joel Klein and Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.