Blog Refresh! School for Real Design Blog Take 2

I am pleased to announce that School For Real is getting a bit of a refresh. We are tweaking the look (still in progress) with a focus on separating out the different themes we explore and giving school design itself its due place in both the metaphoric and visual heart of what we do.

The impetus for this in part the return of some wayward writers, but it is also a long needed change that reflects the current state of our organization which is really a loose consultancy and think tank.

I am excited to share, on a personal and school design note, that I have spent the past year working for Building21, a start-up, competency-based high school model opening as a Philadelphia School District school partnership in the fall of 2014. Their work is extremely interesting and represents a significant advancement in the field. I will write more about it in upcoming posts. In the meantime, check out the building21 blog, which is in itself both interesting and important. See for example, the thoughtful work they are doing with the language of competency and mastery.

Finally, I am very excited to share the research on school design I have been doing over the past five years. I am going to publish an overview of design and reviews of a wide  range of school design texts. I hope it will prove a useful tool for school designers and researchers.

Send us your thoughts!



A footnote to my previous “Design for Student Leadership”: Student Voice and School Design

Working on my never-ending doctorate (I’m on year 7, I note sheepishly), I recently re-examined one of my absolute favorite school design texts, Peter Senge’s Schools That Learn: A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education (Senge, Cambron-Mcabe, Lucas, Smith, Dutton, and Kliener, 2000).

Recently I wrote about student leadership and what I believe to be the profound educative value of leadership experience. Then, while reading Schools that Learn, I stumbled across the following:

One last comment on why schools seem remarkably difficult institutions to change and where particular leverage may lie. Industrial-age schools have a structural blind spot unlike almost any other contemporary institution… (more…)

R.I.P. Pete Seeger – May your legacy renew the voice of the folk

Rest in peace Pete Seeger. He was a voice for the voiceless and a fearless spokesman for peace and justice. (For a terrific remembrance, check out this piece from this morning’s NPR Newshour, by Paul Brown.)

Pete Seeger is one of my heroes. If you do not think he was courageous, I ask you, where is the voice of the folk now?

Who is it that is brave and compelling enough to call us together so that we know we are all human–so that we know that we are brothers and sisters? Whose voice is it that dominates the airwaves or web-ways, but treats us with respect and teaches us to respect ourselves?

I am searching for the folk and I am having a hard time finding us. As our popular culture splinters in the internet age we leaving many old myths behind, but we are in danger of losing our power. As Saul Alinsky wrote, in his book Rules for Radicals, “there are two kinds of power, money and people.” Right now, there is no question the dollar has the upper hand.

Where is the voice of the people? Are you, yourself, willing to speak out? If not you, then whom? If not now, then when?

As the grandchild of a socialist organizer, I was brought up with the Seeger spirit. If you have a hammer, you have a responsibility. If you do nothing to help make us better and stronger–to help those with less than you and to hold us, as a nation, to the highest standards–then you are not worthy of your hammer.

If you have a voice,

Sing it in the morning.

Sing it in the evening.

All over this land.

Sing out justice.

Sing out freedom.

Sing out love between our brothers and our sisters, all over this land.

Design for Student Leadership: Participatory schooling is extremely educative (and empowering)

True, I was always a student who wanted my voice heard, and student government in both high school and college gave me ample chance to be in front of my communities, but an extremely overlooked benefit of student leadership is experience with designing and planning.

The process of identifying needs, determining the required resources, planning, and executing is a powerful tool in the developing toolbox of young student leaders. Anyone who was ever on student government probably had growth experiences similar to my own–experiences with thinking up, designing, and executing public actions and events. For student government officers, this certainly includes dances and spring fairs, but also extends to planning speaker series, organizing conflict resolution and community meetings, travel planning, and strategic collaboration with a variety of partners and organizations.

As a believer in apprenticeship and experiential learning, I think one of the best design features schools can choose to incorporate is a mechanism that ensures students will be able to think of, create, and execute, their ideas. More importantly, a mechanism that ensures that these ideas, when serious and well-vetted, will be approved. Students will not be willing to take the risk of investing a lot of work into a great idea unless they are confident that their idea will at least have a fair shot. When there happens to be a strong leader in a school or when systems are in place to empower students and give their ideas a shot, they can create brilliant things. (For an example, see my friend and now departed student Mikals Program Proposal for an Arise school mentoring program. He wrote this as an Alumnus, not as a student, because he cared and wanted to be involved. I discuss some of the things he learned later on.)

There are a number of ways schools can design for this kind of empowerment. (more…)

A Eulogy for Mikal from Alexine Fleck, his English teacher at Community College

I have copied it here for you exactly as I received it from Ms. Fleck. I think the similar themes across everyone who knew him are evident. Mikal was an excellent human being and a roll model for all of us. 

Hi Gabe,
Here is the eulogy I wrote for Mikal. I read it at the memorial we held at CCP last week. I hope it brings you as much comfort as your’s brought me.
How do you write a eulogy for a man like Mikal? As his friends told me on Monday night, Mikal was such an amazing person that the stories wash over you and there is simply no way to capture all of the ways he was wonderful and maddening and inspirational.

I could start by trying to describe Mikal, but how do you describe the wind when you know it best by the way it changes the world around it? I could begin by telling you how I met Mikal, but as we all know, you don’t really “meet” someone like Mikal in the same way that you don’t really “meet” the wind. Mikal engulfed people with affection, optimism, high expectations, and an astounding amount of generosity. Mikal was a force of nature and we are all better for being swept up in his wake.

Mikal came to me because he was having some trouble with his writing. He was supposed to write three sentences in response to some question, so I asked him to read me what he had. Scrolling down his iPhone, Mikal probably rattled off about twelve sentences before I asked him, “is there going to be a period in here at some point?” That’s where we started: with periods, the most basic way to divide one idea off from the next one. Because he’s so smart, Mikal didn’t have much trouble figuring out how to punctuate his sentences and, after we reviewed the rules, he announced that he was going to come to me every week for help. Later, he enrolled in my writing class. (more…)

For my friend Mikal, an inspiration, who died far far too soon

Rest in Peace my friend, please know that the world was better for you having been here.

Please know that you changed my life. That you taught me important things about being a grownup, a guide, a teacher, a leader, and a friend.

Please know for sure, that I am not the only one. Know that your friends, classmates, peers, teachers–that all of us–were blessed to have known you. You were a young man who could push us to our limits and far beyond.

I cannot speak to the specifics of your passing, which was a tragic accident regardless of the details, but I can speak to your life and in your honor, try to speak the truths, and the be the man, I think you would want me to be.

Before I begin telling your tale my friend, I want you to know that Val gave birth to a beautiful baby girl this week, and that we are giving her the Hebrew name Michaela so that we will always remember and be inspired by you and our time together. Val told Rue and Nate that you passed–you were always so awesome with my kids. It was an extreme week in our house full of sadness and joy, but in my family’s traditions it is considered lucky to bring a baby to a funeral to help carry on the spirit of the the departed.

I also ask your friends, teachers, and supporters to please feel free to post their love and remembrances as well (feel free to send them to me if you have any trouble posting or just want me to do it). Click on the title to view the post with Mikal’s friend’s comments. 


Dear Mikal,

(A letter that will now only be sent to the winds and be carried only in the hearts of those who come after).

It is certainly no secret that you and I love each other and I think anyone who knows us knows that it is tough love. You have often told guests about how we would yell at each in my office. In answer to my, “Mikal, you are yelling at me,” you shouted back, “Well if you are going to be in my support network, you are going to have to deal with me!” I know I am not the only member of your team to take some heat. (more…)

I Resign from Arise

Dear friends and colleagues, It is with sadness that I share that I stepped down from my position as CEO of Arise Academy Charter High School in June.

I want to say that my students are incredible and I believe in them. I was truly blessed and privileged to have been able to spend time with them, learn from and with them, and share in their lives. There was never a day, not one day, that I went to work sorry to be serving the young people we served. Fighting for the students I worked with at Arise has been one of the great honors of my life.

I also want to thank and appreciate the incredible hard work being done by so many in the human service field supporting youth in care. I particularly want to note and point readers to the work done by the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN to locals), the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (their child welfare research is excellent), and the Support Center for Child Advocates.

I wish Arise Academy and its students the best and I hope deeply and  I will continue to advocate strongly for our city, state, and nation to invest real resources youth in care need to be supported and successful.

Thank you for your support.