Education Philanthropist Jonathan Sackler Presents Talk on Innovative Education Models

Jonathan Sackler

News Story: March 6, 2013

Education philanthropist Jonathan Sackler was the guest speaker at Sacred Heart University on the topic of “New School Creation: The Emergence of a New Public Education Model and What it Means to You.” The event was sponsored by SHU’s Isabelle Farrington College of Education.

Sackler, a Greenwich resident who is managing partner for the investment management company Kokino LLC and divides his time between the business and non-profit world, spoke before a packed house of education students, faculty and staff. He shared some of the exciting changes that are taking place in education today.

Sackler challenged the students in the audience to become tomorrow’s education scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs. “We are on a path to produce better educational outcomes for children, and progress on that path will be driven by your creativity, your thirst for knowledge, your powers of observations and your ability to disseminate what you learn,” he said.

Sacker, who is a trustee for Achievement First, a charter management organization operating 22 public charter schools in four cities that serve more than 7,000 students, said that too many children are still falling through the cracks in schools. “There are too many kids who never really reach their full potential,” he said.

He noted that we are entering a great period of new school creation and, more and more, parents will have choices when it comes to selecting a school for their children. There are now public charter schools in 42 states and Washington, D.C., serving five percent of the population, and the number is growing 12 or 13 percent a year. “Many young teachers will make their careers in public charter schools,” he said.

He described three schools that have implemented innovative programs and ideas to engage students in learning. The first was Achievement First, which opened its first school, Amistad Academy, in New Haven. Amistad is a traditional school model, focused on academics, with classrooms where teachers stand in front of the class to teach, “but its genius is in its intelligent use of data and an enormous emphasis on school culture, managed by the faculty” Sackler said.

He said Amistad faculty developed the curriculum based on the state standards. Every six weeks, the students take a comprehensive exam to track their individual progress. The test is followed by a Data Day where results are reviewed, and the faculty leaves with a clear sense of what went right or wrong and a plan to address any gaps.

Amistad’s culture includes such activities as Morning Circle, which affords regular public recognition of good work and exemplary citizenship, town hall meetings, Scholar Dollars, academic competitions, uniforms earned through good conduct, participation in student organizations, creative arts and performances and more. “The most important thing is a purposeful, creative, joyful atmosphere: staff members work hard to create what they call ‘the J-factor,’ ” he said.

Sackler’s second model was High Tech High in San Diego, which now has 11 schools serving 4,500 students in grades K-12. Admission is by lottery with quotas by ZIP code to create a diverse student body.

While Achievement First focuses primarily on academic study and the need “to know,” High Tech High emphasizes project-based learning and the importance of “learning to do” or what they refer to as “head and hands.” Student projects are carefully developed and managed by teams of teachers, he said. “The school is a beehive of activity. It’s an excited, turned-on place where kids are doing documentary films, building robots, creating and publishing their own illustrated textbooks, producing fantastic artwork and more. The teachers have broad latitude to design their own programs.”

Sackler’s final model was Acton Academy in Austin where students are “learning to be.” Acton’s mission is “to inspire each child and parent who enters our doors to find a calling that will change the world.”

Sackler described it as a place focused on developing self-sufficient students. “Teachers never lecture, instruct or tutor. They coach, guide, pose questions and tasks and put groups together,” he said. Students work at their own pace on computer-based instruction and learn from their peers, with different ages mixed in one room.

“When I visited, they were in the middle of an exploration of the life of Thomas Edison. The kids had been taught how to write patents, and they had read a number of Edison’s own patents. Then the school assembled a huge table full of gadgets and materials for the kids to experiment with, create their own discoveries and write their own patents. It was fascinating to watch the kids dive in and explore.”

Along with their active learner approach, Acton places great emphasis on self-exploration by focusing on the concept of “the hero,” which they define as people who work hard and, by their efforts, make society a better place. Students are asked to identify heroes in history and in their own communities. They explore the hero’s life story and challenges faced and overcome to better understand how to define and achieve their own aspirations.

Sackler, who was the founding chairman of ConnCAN (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now), concluded by saying that schools of the future will be very different than today’s. “Every child will have access to learning material on any subject. Work will be self-paced. High school-level work will blend into college work. Schools will foster their students’ passion and engagement every day,” he said. “Students will be producers, not just consumers. The creative arts will be fully integrated into the curriculum. Teachers will be coaches and mentors rather than lecturers and tutors. Schools will embrace the full range of human experience – to know, to do, to be, or if you prefer, head, hands and heart. These are the things that excite me, and I hope they excite you as well. I hope in the future, you will produce schools that thrill both students and parents.”