• Allan J. Mucerino

INNOVATION TO THE THIRD POWER

I visited the Odyssey STEM Academy recently and came away confident that equity in education is not equal to World peace when it comes to comparing pipe dreams.

While in our darkest moments it may seem that way, at least to social justice advocates like myself and many of my colleagues, the truth is that innovation is happening everywhere, you just have to believe. The era of choice has made it fashionable to be a consumer when it comes to education options. That's our reality. Move or be moved. That's our choice as education leaders.


When the Paramount Unified School District launched an ambitious effort to reimagine high school in 2017, their mission was to empower learners by awakening their curiosity and passion to transform themselves and the world. They valued, above all, providing an equitable education. To that end, they built an inclusive, culturally-connected community of learners where the mind, hands, and heart are united, in addition to the community, to educate high school students beyond the brick and mortar model that has characterized traditional education programs. The Odyssey STEM Academy breaks the mold. But they didn’t do it alone.

Superintendent Ruth Perez, Assistant Superintendent Ryan Smith, and science teacher turned principal Keith Nuthall co-founded the school and built it with partners NuVu, the innovation school for middle and high school students based on the architectural studio model and geared around multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects, Big Picture Learning, with their sole mission of putting students directly at the center of their own learning, and the AltSchool, which has been building a technology-enabled network to empower and connect families, students, and teacher since 2013.

Their creation is currently serving 144 ninth grade students in its first year of existence. A new crop of 9th graders will compete (via lottery) for a place in the competitive academy in 2019-20, and by 2021-22 the school will be fully enrolled, 9-12 with about 600 students.

I was privileged to talk to many students and teachers during my visit, all of whom were happy to be there. That alone is a sign of a great school. But that was only the start. Students are challenged at Odyssey. Totally heterogeneously populated with a enrollment demographic that dutifully reflects Paramount Unified, students were willing to give up the comprehensive high school experience for the cozy, progressive, and forward-thinking innovation academy that aims to personalize instruction using the AltSchool platform. If you're not familiar with AltSchool (read my blog on the concept) it is designed to facilitate whole-child learning experiences based on a deep understanding of each learner’s interests, strengths, and needs. Consistent with Odyssey’s mission to create learners who advocate for themselves and strive to impact the world, AltSchool works closely with the Odyssey team to design learning experiences that give students ownership of their own learning. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.


Big Picture Learning (BPL) co-founders Dennis Littky and Elliot Washor have also been instrumental in designing this model. Their commitment to demonstrate that schooling and education can and should be radically changed has resonated in the progressive education community. All students at Odyssey participate in 8-week internships under the tutelage of mentors designed and facilitated by BPL. Students are assessed on exhibitions and demonstrations of achievement, on motivation, and on the habits of mind, hands, and heart, reflecting the real world evaluations and assessments that adults face in our everyday lives. Truly an example of career ready!

Ask Dr. Smith @PUSDsecondary about the fallacy of college and career readiness. He’s quick to point out that there’s a huge difference between saying you’re supporting it and actually supporting it. Odyssey supports it. I observed it first hand.

Innovative education environments are everywhere. But they are usually not serving underrepresented students. Paramount Unified is reversing that trend. Odyssey STEM Academy is an example of how the spirit of the LCFF can come to life in the schoolhouse. Thank you to Ruth Perez, Ryan Smith, and Keith Nuthall for your vision, creativity, and willingness to take risks and partner with experts who bring to the table what we are unable to provide....I enjoyed myself, as you can read.