Education innovators make their mark

How four grant-winning 'social entrepreneurs' have made fresh ideas practical and improved the lives of teachers and teens.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The nonprofit Ashoka organization has been awarding grants to "social entrepreneurs" around the world for 20 years. It expanded to North America in 2000.

About one-third of the 1,200 Ashoka fellows in 44 countries focus on education or "innovative learning," says Paul Herman, director of the United States and Canada candidate team.

Ashoka's goal is to position these educators as leaders. In choosing projects to support, Mr. Herman says, "we not only look at the number of people affected, but the mind-shift [the project has fostered in a community]."

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The fellows in the US receive an average of $55,000 a year for three years, plus pro bono legal, public relations, and consulting services.

Four of these innovators are introduced below, along with the story of how their programs have begun to transform everything from classroom teaching to inner-city students' confidence about the future.

Sparking creativity

In a chilly hardwood-floored studio here in Washington, a group of 18 adults stand in a circle, in socks or bare feet, and warm up by acting out their emotions from their day at school.

"Whatever you did today that really stressed you out, show how it makes you feel," says Aleta Margolis, offering an example with a theatrically angry face and animalistic sounds that become drowned out by roars and growls from the circle.

Ms. Margolis then instructs everyone to gather up all those feelings, throw them in the center of the circle, and stomp them out. Participants pretend to hoist up various sized jumbles of emotion and heave them into the center. A moment later, all 36 feet are stomping around inside the circle as though trying to squish grapes.

For the next three hours, Margolis, founder of the Center for Artistry in Teaching, leads this group of public school teachers in exercises, games, and discussions that focus on reinventing the way they teach.

"The standard model is the teacher delivering information to kids, and kids trying to memorize and regurgitate it to please the teacher," Margolis says. "We believe that children are innately curious, and we want to change the model to get kids to ask questions on their own."

Margolis holds intensive two-week workshops every summer and monthly three-hour workshops during the year. She trains teachers to take risks in the classroom, whether it's teaching children about equilateral triangles by having them sew triangular-shaped pillows, or inspiring them to call pilots at Andrews Air Force Base to learn how planes fly.

The best teachers are creative problem solvers, analytical thinkers, and strong communicators, Margolis says. And the best compliment, she says, is a student telling her teacher, "You didn't teach us anything. We figured it out for ourselves."

During her years of teaching in public schools, Margolis grew frustrated with the complacency of some of her colleagues. So she created her nonprofit organization in 1995 with the hope of reshaping the role of teachers.

Margolis measures change by looking at the time teachers spend disciplining children or lecturing to them. Her research shows that before teachers participate in her workshop, 40 percent of their time is spent disciplining, and afterward it falls to 20 percent.

Her studies also show that the questions teachers ask students shift from basics such as "Did you do your homework?" to more thought-provoking probes such as "Why do you think the author ended the book that way?"

'I have a reason to stay out of jail'

Just a few blocks from Margolis's workshop studio, in northwest Washington, is the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, cofounded in 1997 by another Ashoka fellow, David Domenici. Poems written by high-schoolers are tacked onto colored construction paper in the school's lobby. The theme is "I am," and one student writes, "From a water head [overly emotional] mother and crack head father...." Another poem reads, "I am from eating at all the carryout places.... My mom didn't know how to cook."

The 85 students at Maya Angelou, some of whom live in the school's dormitories, are there because they have been in jail or they couldn't make it in the city's other high schools. The average entry age is 16, but the average grade level is sixth or seventh.

"We want to give options to kids that no one wants to give options to," Mr. Domenici says.

"We've helped them develop into candidates who are more likely to overcome things in life. When we ask seniors things like, 'Would you ride in a stolen car, or would you pull out a weapon in a fight, or why not get high seven days a week?' they write, 'I don't want to get arrested. I have a reason to stay out of jail. I want to go to college.' They wouldn't have responded that way coming in here."

The school provides academics, job training, and counseling. Students are required to be in school 11 hours a day. They also work at one of the school's two businesses - a catering company and a technology center.

About 60 percent of the students who stay through the first of three years end up graduating. This is an area in which Domenici would like to see improvement. He has found that students who graduate strongly believe that the school "works," and they often become advocates for it.

He plans to establish a program in which any graduate who also completes college will be guaranteed a job at the school or the organization that runs it, Domenici's See Forever Foundation. He also plans to expand the concept by opening a new campus every year in the D.C. school district, starting in 2004.

Reducing teen pregnancy

Some Ashoka fellows foster change in schools indirectly. In 1994, Angela Coleman founded Sisterhood Agenda in Durham, N.C. It offers a program called "A Journey Toward Womanhood" for at-risk African-American teenagers.

"I noticed a lack of empowerment in young people," Ms. Coleman says. "Part of it was common sense, things I learned from my mother that I thought other girls weren't getting, like be assertive, be yourself. All that ties into self-identity and positive development."

Four groups of about 10 girls, ages 12 to 17, meet for four hours a week. Topics include cultural awareness, nutrition, sexual health, and life skills. The organization also provides the girls with an adult mentor and offers them a place to spend the night if they need it.

Coleman, who has expanded the program to New Brunswick, N.J., says research shows that participants miss fewer days of school and have lower rates of sexual activity and pregnancy.

Disadvantaged teens learn journalism

In Milwaukee, Wis., Ashoka fellow Matthew Johnson created Strive Media Institute. It trains disadvantaged minority teenagers in five areas of mass communication and also provides outlets for them to practice their skills.

During the year-round program, the youths are linked with internships, which have resulted in companies turning to Strive to diversify their talent pool. Eighty percent of the program's graduates remain in the field.

Mr. Johnson says involvement in Strive leads to higher grades in school because students learn to plan their time better and set goals.

"They start using their creativity, and a light goes on upstairs," Johnson says. "They realize that through the media, they can make an impact."

For more information about Ashoka, see www.ashoka.org/us-canada or call (703) 527-8300.

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