The Year in Review: Academies Finish Strong

School Directors Mark Smith (Quest Forward Academy Omaha) and Karen Kenkel (Quest Forward Academy Santa Rosa) took time from their busy, end-of-year schedules to share their reflections of the school year that ends June 7. After two years, both Academies have learned from their students, their mentors, and each other in ways that will continue to build momentum well into the next academic year.

Mark Smith, School Director, Quest Forward Academy Omaha:

Reflection is a regular occurrence at Quest Forward Academy. Arriving at the end of a school year is another appropriate time for reflection. How can you sum up an entire school year? In the case of Quest Forward Academy Omaha, I believe it can be captured in three words:

We intentionally structure almost all of what we do (curriculum, the student experience, methods of assessment) in a way that highlights individual growth. It is exciting to see this happen in very real ways during the school year. We have seen significant academic growth, as evidenced by student work and overall NWEA scores. We have experienced the personal and social growth of students as individuals and collectively. We have also witnessed habit growth as students discover, and then develop, skills.

In very real ways we have students have moments of awakening throughout the school year. Often these moments are in the context of learning and practicing some of our habits. Having a student recognize that a habit is more than just something we talk about around here—that it is a living, breathing idea that actually empowers them—is like watching someone wake up with a new set of eyes. Watching a student recognize that the power to learn and grow really does belong to them can often be a humbling experience for the adults.

As students have grown and awakened to new ideas, they have begun to implement skills and habits for themselves, taking on leadership roles in a number of areas within the academy. They have: acted as co-creators alongside the adults to plan and implement new ideas; sought out new opportunities and summer internships independently; and registered for extended educational endeavors for this coming fall. In a number of cases, students have taken initiative, made thoughtful decisions, and taken action beyond what we have laid out for them at the academy. We can look back over this year and confidently say that there has been real, meaningful progress made.

Karen Kenkel, School Director, Quest Forward Academy Santa Rosa:

In our second year, it still very much feels like we are pioneers here at Quest Forward Academy Santa Rosa. This year has been one of exploration, innovation, and growth —fueled by action, reflection, and collaboration. We tried new things, made mistakes, and got better at what we do. The creative collaboration among mentors, students, directors, Quest Forward campuses, and the OE team was a rewarding experience that deepened our learning community. Here are some highlights:

Students and mentors test-drove the newly developed Exploration Phase curriculum and its integrated, interdisciplinary learning approach. In the process, students designed and built gardens and bridges, and explored the world and their own communities. We developed independent study programs and a concurrent enrollment program with the local junior college to provide additional challenges for highly motivated students.

Student Life
In addition to numerous student-generated clubs, students launched our first student leadership organization.

Student Recruitment
We added student visit days to our recruitment toolkit to provide prospective students a more intimate feel for the school. Students volunteered to act as Student Ambassadors to help new students feel more welcome.

Our developing City as Campus program expanded student learning by helping them explore the world and bring interesting voices into our school.

Cultivating Habits for Success
We deployed the design-thinking process to prototype a curriculum based on the Essential Habits in collaboration with Quest Forward Academy Omaha and Opportunity Education.

Professional Development
We developed and test-drove a peer-coaching program to help mentors become the best mentors they can be and to identify best teaching practices in the Quest Forward learning environment.

In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama writes: “Somehow, in all my years of schooling, I hadn’t managed to think through my own passions and how they might match up with work I found meaningful. As a young person, I…had been so afraid of floundering, so eager for respectability and a way to pay the bills, that I’d marched myself unthinkingly into law.”

The educational environment of Quest Forward Learning offered our students many opportunities to identify and pursue their curiosities and passions this year—to explore meaningful work and to productively flounder. This may be the greatest gift that our collaborative learning community provides.

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