Schools That Think

Everyone agrees: Education is essential for the future of the new economy. Everyone agrees: The public education system needs reform. No one agrees on how to do it. Here are four models for the future.

Loren Brinton graduates this June from the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning in Denver, Colorado. When he looks back on the events that shaped his four years of high school, he won’t recall the football games or parties. And he certainly won’t look back on the exams that he aced or the standardized tests that he endured.


He’ll remember the semester that his classes in humanities, Spanish, and science focused on a single theme — the “American dream.” For months, he and his classmates and teachers explored every aspect of that dream, using literature, film, essays, Socratic seminars, and independent research projects.

Most of all, he’ll remember the way all of that learning came to life at the end of the semester, when his entire class took a one-week trip to the U.S.-Mexico border cities of El Paso and Juarez.

The students used their Spanish when they visited those places where their studies took on real-life meaning. “It was totally, 100%, intense,” recalls Brinton, who came away from the experience with powerful impressions and important questions about the tendency in the United States to equate money with happiness. The people he met in Mexico, he says, “might not have a lot of money, but they seemed happier than a lot of people in America.”


No multiple-choice test in the world can measure the problem-solving skills and creative thinking Brinton has learned in high school, skills that are sorely needed in the new economy. Talent is the scarcest resource in the new economy. And the growing consensus seems to be that the country’s schools are doing little to nurture talent. Our public schools are failing. Work is changing; competition is changing; business is changing. Therefore, education must change too.

Increasingly loud voices, many belonging to leaders of the new economy, argue that the principles of business should be applied to the business of education. What gets measured, they say, is what gets done. Under that model, teachers, students, and schools are gauged by how their test scores measure up. But there are other models of education, models far more in keeping with the kind of thinking needed to succeed in the new economy. Those models emphasize the social dimensions of learning: the teamwork that it involves; that it’s participatory and experiential; and that education — if it is like business — must shed its manufacturing mind-set and begin to operate as a service.

Today, all across the country, models of new learning are taking shape in hundreds of remarkable experiments in American public schools. And those experiments are producing great results. Here we examine four of these exceptionally promising enterprises. Each is a different school with a different approach, but all have similar instincts for encouraging creativity, individuality, responsibility, and performance in its students.


These educational startups range widely in theory and in practice. But all are driven by educators who share an understanding of and a passion for the essence of education. Those educators also are united in their commitment to grassroots change.

Their efforts are not fueled by big budgets or by big bureaucracies. Rather, they are driven by energy and imagination — by daring to go back to some of the basic principles, by daring to ask some difficult questions: What is learning all about? What is the larger purpose of education? What kind of school do we have the ability to create? And all of their work is done in partnership — teachers, students, principals, parents, and community members, all of them helping to shape a new vision of learning.

The Responsive Classroom

Greenfield Center School, Greenfield, Massachusetts
Principal: Laura Baker
Grades: K-8
Number of students: 147
Founded: 1981
Mission: To integrate lessons on civility, humanity, and diversity into everyday education.


It’s around 2 PM, and fifth and sixth graders at the Greenfield Center School, in the western Massachusetts town of Greenfield, are hard at work.

A dozen boys and girls are sitting in a circle, puzzling over questions on a flip chart that’s leaning near a wall of windows. They take their time writing out their answers before handing in their papers. The teacher examines the work carefully, one paper after another, and draws the students into a discussion.

“What do you look for in a friend?” Teacher Laura Sturgill, 26, repeats the first question on the chart and then reads some of the answers the students have written: “Someone that will give you stuff you need.” “Someone you can trust.”


More questions and answers follow about what the children do and don’t like in friends, until the discussion builds to the real kicker: “What does it mean to respect someone you don’t like? What does that look like?” The students wrestle with their answers: “Maybe you can make the best of it and try to make friends,” says one. “Try to think of things you have in common,” says another.

This discussion isn’t part of Sturgill’s lesson plan, which was to study the exploits of Odysseus in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” But things haven’t been going well for the past week or so: One student has become the target of a lot of teasing and hostility. Sturgill and fellow teacher Andy Hauty, 46, have decided to tackle the problem head-on.

Instead of scolding the students, the two teachers are working the issue through with them, patiently questioning, listening, and talking. This particular afternoon draws to a close with everyone thinking about respect and ways to deal with someone you just don’t like. No one has come up with a perfect solution, but that’s okay. The students are up against a life problem, the kind of social dilemma that stumps adults on a regular basis — which is exactly the point.


Welcome to one of the more radical experiments in education reform — a school founded on the notion that how children learn to treat one another is as important as what they learn in reading, writing, and arithmetic. It’s a learning agenda that makes sense, especially in the new economy. “The school has a clear mission,” says principal Laura Baker, 48. “We’re about developing informed, ethical decision makers and problem solvers. That’s not instead of teaching academics; it’s teaching academics in a way that is always focused on making us more humane.”

It’s a mission that has been clear from the very beginning at GCS, a grade school (K through
8) with 147 students. Starting with a handful of children in a four-room rented building — the school now occupies two buildings on a campus in the rolling Berkshire hills — the teachers developed, and continue to work on, a style of teaching that they call the “responsive classroom.” What that means is that classroom learning at GCS, though rooted in academics, takes as its distinctive mission the nurturing of social skills like cooperation, standing up for what’s right, responsibility, empathy, and self-control — and does so on a daily, even an hourly, basis.

“It’s all about communication,” says Chip Wood, 58, one of the six teachers who founded GCS. Because Wood and his colleagues established GCS as a laboratory, outside the local public-school district, it technically is a private school. But there are no academic requirements for entrance, and tuition is based on parents’ ability to pay — anywhere from $650 to $6,050 a year. The only constraint on entry: A student body is chosen to maintain racial, gender, and economic diversity.


GCS serves a local population, but its impact is national. Its parent organization, the Northeast Foundation for Children, includes consulting and publishing arms to further the founders’ mission of transforming learning in U.S. public schools. The foundation regularly publishes books by its teachers and staff — including Wood’s recent “Time to Teach, Time to Learn: Changing the Pace of School.” Its newsletter reaches about 50,000 educators nationwide. Also, hundreds of visitors a year stop by to see the responsive classroom in action.

What those visitors — most of whom are educators — see or hear about in workshops is a kind of teaching that refuses to compress learning about character and civic values into a weekly one-hour unit. The staff at GCS has created a model of social-skills learning that is integrated into every aspect of school life: Each morning, in every classroom, all children greet one another and are given time to talk about whatever might be interesting or troubling them, at home or in school. Once a week, the entire school meets for a special morning meeting to celebrate academic and personal achievements.

The message isn’t lost on students, many of whom have been at the school since kindergarten. Seventh- and eighth-graders occasionally roll their eyes about things getting “a little sappy,” as one girl says. But they’re also clear on what the school has taught them. “I think I’d be a really different person if I hadn’t come here,” says Sadie Childs, 14. “I’m a better person. I’ve learned about things like conflict resolution. This school not only teaches you academic stuff; it also teaches you how to be a good person in the world.”


A lot of this learning doesn’t translate neatly into standardized tests. But at GCS, standardized tests are not the point. Even so, from the third grade on, students take the California Test of Basic Skills, and their scores consistently go up, so that by the seventh and eighth grades they’re in the 90th percentile.

As far as Baker and her staff are concerned, though, the standardized test is only one indicator of how well students are learning. At GCS, children are evaluated constantly. Teachers regularly keep classroom journals. And report cards are actually detailed assessments that cover specific academic and social skills. For first- and second-graders, skill categories run from “Understands and counts using odd and even numbers” to “Initiates and participates in conflict resolution.”

“These kids may have to learn certain pieces of rote learning when they leave GCS and go on to high school, but they leave here knowing how to go about finding what they need,” says Beth Gildin Watrous, 50, a GCS teacher whose two daughters attended the school and are now in high school and in college. “Kids here engage in a kind of creative thinking and problem solving everyday that I think links up with the incredible, creative entrepreneurship that’s going on right now.”


And that’s real education, according to GCS standards. In a time of tremendous technological and economic change, learning, they say, must lay a foundation for grappling with life and for determining what matters. “Most education reform has missed the mark,” says Baker. “Whenever there is a period of rapid change, you need to know what anchors you. You need to be firmly rooted in what you know is important and right. What we do here is focus on what’s important.”

The Service School

University Public Schools, San Joaquin Campus, Stockton, California
Principal: Mary Welch
Grades: K-5, expanding to K-6 in September 2000
Number of students: 350
Founded: 1999
Mission: To bring the customer focus and sense of responsibility of a top-notch service organization or consulting firm to public education.

Christina Cross, 43, finally has found the elementary school that she’s been looking for, right here in what used to be a grocery store on a dusty road just off Highway 99 in Stockton, California. Cross thinks that it’s the perfect place for her 8-year-old son, Will Thomson, who’s a third grader there. Never mind the storefront setting. Never mind the there’s not a blade of grass in sight, thanks to the huge parking lot. Here, at University Public Schools, Cross has found a place that offers a challenging curriculum, one based, she says, “on learning how to think.”


What’s more, Cross found it all without leaving the public-school system, thanks to a 1998 California law that increased the number of charter schools that could be created throughout the state’s 8,000-school public-education system, from 100 to 250 and allowed for the creation of an additional 100 schools each year. Fortunately for Cross, her local district agreed to contract with University Public Schools, a nonprofit group of educators and businesspeople, to start the charter elementary school that her son and 349 other children now attend.

“Parents can have a say about what’s important to them,” says Cross about UPS, which leased the old grocery store and opened its freshly renovated doors last September. “If we think that it’s important for our children to learn about different holidays because of the many different cultural backgrounds in our community, we can ask, ‘Can this be included?’ It’s nice to be involved in the education that goes on here.”

Count Cross as one more proponent of school choice. Since the first law authorizing charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991, 37 states have passed similar laws. And the resulting schools have become powerful change agents in the push for education reform. A charter school, as its name implies, operates under a charter — a sort of mission statement that describes the school’s objectives in terms of student achievement. Test scores are just one proof of that achievement; others are records of attendance and individual progress. And in exchange for that achievement, the school receives per-pupil public funding and the freedom to reach its educational goals using curricula and teaching methods of its own choosing. Charter schools have a high incentive to attract and to satisfy both the state and parents: Without students and without proof of their achievement, there is no money and no school.


“This isn’t anti-public schools; it’s pro-public schools,” says Don Shalvey, 55, CEO of UPS. “I see charter schools as a way of demonstrating that public schools can be responsive, can grow, can change. Change creates a vibrancy. It forces you to consider what matters. Working at this school is like coming to work in a flotilla of kayaks, rather than sailing in on an ocean liner. You’re right on the water, where the action happens.”

Shalvey knows firsthand the difference between the small flexible charter school and the large, hard-to-maneuver public-school system. In addition to serving as CEO of UPS, he worked as a public-school superintendent in San Carlos until January 2000, an affluent community near Stanford University. His involvement with charter schools dates back to 1992, when his district became home to the first charter school in California. “We saw it as a necessary element in a high-performing organization,” he says. “You want to be able to attempt thoughtful innovation. That’s what charter schools do in the public-school system.”

But it wasn’t until Shalvey joined forces with Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings, 39, a leader in the drive to pass the new charter-school legislation in 1998, that he realized that if one charter school could promote change, then a whole system of charter schools could leverage it. With $1 million in startup money from Hastings — a sum matched by the New Schools Venture Fund last fall — the two men officially launched University Public Schools in 1999. The goal: to create a system of 110 elementary, middle, and high schools throughout California over the next 10 to 15 years. From the beginning, says Shalvey, the intent was to develop scalable models and to share all of the lessons learned along the way. Other for-profit charter schools were not as forthcoming. “We felt that none of the existing charter schools in California had as their purpose the intent to create replicable models,” says Shalvey.


With a staff of eight full-time educators, UPS opened one small school in Modesto last year, and this year it plans to open another one in Oakland and two more in San Joaquin County. But its real focus has been on the campus in Stockton, a 350-student showcase for education reform, in particular in demonstrating the idea that education can and should be a service industry.

“Traditional schools operate on an old-fashioned factory model,” says COO Gloria Lee, 29, who left McKinsey & Co., in San Francisco, last year, taking a 40% pay cut to work with UPS. But education is really a service business, where each child is highly individualized. “It’s more like strategy consulting,” says Lee, who has a master’s degree in education and an MBA.

What makes the UPS model so successful? What creates all of the satisfied parent-customers? It’s the teachers. Recruit the best teachers you can possibly find. Treat them as professionals, experts in their fields who don’t have to be told what to do in a classroom. And reward them. Link pay raises to performance — their own and their students’.

“Good teachers are the key to everything,” says Elise Darwish, 34, the organization’s chief education officer. “You can do everything in the world with infrastructure, but if you don’t have good teachers, kids aren’t going to learn.”

At UPS, teachers’ raises in pay are based on merit; they are tied to meeting team goals as well as individual goals and are measured in student achievement. Teachers are encouraged to plan standards-based thematic units together and to share knowledge with one another. They have the freedom to develop their own curriculum, and they are involved in every aspect of school administration, including hiring other teachers.

It’s an unprecedented amount of freedom for teachers who, in traditional public schools, often complain that they’re given neither creative leeway in the classroom nor input into their school’s decision-making process. On the other hand, UPS does not offer tenure: The job security that many public-school teachers take for granted simply doesn’t exist at UPS. Teachers sign one-year contracts.

But tenure aside, teachers have shown an overwhelming interest in joining the faculty. In fact, for each of the 18 positions available at the Stockton school, 20 people applied. Teachers are so eager to work there some of those who were hired willingly make a daily commute of nearly four hours to come to work.

“We’re all willing to take a risk. That’s why we’re here,” says fourth/fifth-grade teacher Gina Solari, 33, who is also lead teacher for the school’s four fourth/fifth-grade teachers. “I believed in that when I came here, that I would be part of something big — a big idea.”

And that’s precisely the idea. “The basic principle at this school is that a rising tide lifts all boats,” says Lee of University Public Schools. “Our hope is that existing public schools will look at us as an example to follow and ask, ‘How can we learn from them, so that we, too, can better serve our children and their families?’ We’re trying to build a system of charter schools that has the ability to empower good people so that they can make a difference.”

The Expedition School

Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning, Denver, Colorado
Executive director: Rob Stein
Grades: K-12
Number of students: 315
Founded: 1993
Mission: To apply Outward Bound’s principles of expeditionary learning — real-life experiences, challenging personal goals, and individual support — to the field of education.

Okay, time for a pop quiz. The subject: World War II. Think hard. When was Pearl Harbor bombed?

What happened on D day?

Who was Robert Oppenheimer?

Come on! You must have spent a couple of weeks on the subject at some point in school. You probably can come up with the right answers: December 7, 1941; the Allied forces invaded western Europe; the man in charge of developing the atomic bomb.

Pretty standard stuff, really — the basics. What more can you expect from a public-school education?

A lot more, especially if you’re a student at Denver’s Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning, a public school, covering grades K through 12, that uses learning expeditions as the foundation of its curriculum. Children from four local school districts are selected by lottery for RMSEL. If they get in, students at every grade level embark on “voyages of learning,” near-total immersions in one subject, explored from every possible angle, for months at a time.

Take World War II: For nearly five months, middle-school students explored the war through literature, memoirs, film, museum visits, science projects, a camping trip to a nearby war memorial, creative writing, and talks with senior citizens and concentration-camp survivors.

Besides learning that Robert Oppenheimer was head of the Manhattan Project, they’ve also conducted experiments to test the theories of matter and energy that the bomb is based on. They’ve studied the effects of radiation and written pamphlets about its dangers. And, as with all learning expeditions at RMSEL, the class topped off its months of studying World War II with an in-depth project: After a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC, the students returned to school and went about creating their own museum.

Now, that’s learning, and the kids know it. “I can’t recall what I learned in public school two years ago,” says Misha Kravitz, 12, who transferred to RMSEL in the fall of 1999 from a traditional school. “It just wasn’t interesting. This school makes it interesting.”

RMSEL humanities teacher Kathleen McHugh, 30, one of four middle-school teachers who developed and taught the World War II expedition, describes the classroom experience as “in-depth learning.” “It’s not learning from the outside, or skimming the surface,” she says. “You live it, you breathe it, and you do it to learn it.”

McHugh sums up the passion that drives this school — that learning is a living, breathing, hands-on, hearts-and-minds-engaged experience with high goals and lofty expectations. “Why is it when you go on a three-week Outward Bound course, you’re transformed for life,” asks executive director Rob Stein, 40, “but you can’t remember what you learned in seventh grade? Outward Bound has this quality of high stakes, high standards, and the support so that everyone succeeds. That’s our goal: to make school more like Outward Bound.”

RMSEL began as a pilot project in 1993, one of 10 sites selected by Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound as a demonstration school for expeditionary learning. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based organization is one of eight projects sponsored by the New American Schools Development Corp., which is a nonprofit group of educators and business and community leaders that supports the development of break-the-mold designs for public schools.

In the years since its creation, RMSEL, with its 315-member student body, has served as a model for other public schools interested in expeditionary learning. To date, 85 schools in 25 states, working with ELOB, have made the switch.

And the results? Students routinely outscore other area students on national standardized tests. One longitudinal study by the Denver public schools showed that 72% of youngsters who transferred to RMSEL improved their reading scores.

The performance measures use old standards, traditional criteria. Real achievement at RMSEL is measured by something completely different: the students’ portfolios, a rigorous body of work that reflects their learning and knowledge. RMSEL students do not receive letter grades or pass routinely from one grade to the next. They must prepare portfolios and present them to a panel of judges that include teachers and members of the community. These comprehensive reviews are required on four different occasions during the course of a student’s career: to pass from second to third grade, from fifth to sixth grade, and from eighth to ninth grade, and to graduate.

The learning expeditions — among them the “American dream,” “Harlem renaissance,” “Galileo and the scientific revolution,” and the “eye, art, and the camera” — are the raw material for the portfolios. Each portfolio has a different set of requirements that meet or exceed state education standards. A fifth-grade portfolio, for example, must have, among other things, a personal statement that reflects a student’s thoughts on the learning experience; a research project using a variety of resources that shows an understanding of a culture or historical period; and an analysis of a scientific article that demonstrates a clear understanding of the subject. Instead of grades, students are assessed using four levels of achievement, from beginning to exemplary. Those who fail to complete their portfolios do not move on to the next grade until the portfolio is finished.

“We measure students’ thinking by how they perform and by what they have in their portfolios,” says Stein. “We measure progress, and we reward students by what they have in their portfolios. There’s no way to test out of the fifth grade. Students don’t move on until they complete their portfolios. It’s just like the real world. A contractor gets paid when the job is done and the building inspector says that it meets code. That’s what a portfolio does. Why is that method commonplace in business but radical in school?”

Loren Brinton, 17, came to RMSEL in ninth grade, after years of being told that he needed special education, which meant having to leave his classroom for special instruction. “Dealing with that kind of stigma for so long lowered my self-esteem,” Brinton says. “I learn more with a hands-on approach so this place really clicked for me.”

Brinton says that his graduation portfolio — which will draw from all four years of high school — will include the results of a four-week miniexpedition: During their senior year, students design and carry out two expeditions. For one, Brinton, an accomplished snowboarder, worked for a California snowboard maker and designed his own board. For the other, he plans to develop a business plan for his own snowboard-clothing company.

“I think RMSEL is like life,” he says. “It’s taught me to be self-directed, and that teaches you how to learn. It doesn’t just teach you.”

The Transformed School

North Jackson Elementary School, Jackson, Mississippi
Principal: Joyce Pully
Grades: K-5
Number of students: 500
Founded: 1981
Mission: To reenergize public education through the application of high standards and nontraditional teaching techniques, and the supportive training and development of teachers.

Talk about change.

When principal Joyce Pully walked into North Jackson Elementary School on her first day on the job in 1994, the school was the very model of old-fashioned American learning: Students sat quietly in neat rows; teachers stood at the front of the classroom to teach; and learning was straight out of state-adopted textbooks.

Walk into that school today, and here’s what you’ll see: In a fifth-grade classroom, you might find students lying on their backs, coloring on paper taped to the bottom of their desks, while classical music plays quietly in the background. After 20 minutes or so, the teacher stops them and says, “You don’t know this, but you’re working the way an artist named Michelangelo painted during a period of time called the Renaissance. It’s what we’re going to be studying for the next three weeks.”

Rote learning, rote teaching, rote education are gone. In their place are innovation and excitement at the prospect of discovery. That current runs through every classroom, where about 500 students, all African American, are actively engaged in creative learning.

The magnitude of the change at North Jackson Elementary School in six years is staggering — testimony to what is possible in education reform. But even more remarkable is that all of this change took place within the context of the school that was. Working with the school’s existing staff, students, and budget, Pully has pulled off an educational triumph: She has brought innovation and systemic change into a tradition-rooted, bureaucracy-bound setting.

“I came into a setting that was very traditional,” recalls Pully, 52. “It was highly structured, and it was very orderly. Now it’s chaotic. Children sit in our classrooms and learn. They aren’t sitting there reading page 64 of a textbook, learning what some author wants them to say. They’re exploring, researching, and writing. It’s not a regurgitation of facts anymore.”

What’s happened at North Jackson is a tale of transformation worth noting: The vast majority of U.S. children go to traditional public schools — and will for the foreseeable future. If change doesn’t happen in those schools, then the kind of learning that is needed for the 21st century simply isn’t going to happen.

In the case of North Jackson, Pully says, she was fortunate in what she found when she came to the school. She had worked for 10 years as a teacher and a principal in northern California. In her last 3 years as a principal in Sacramento, she had turned around a failing school. At her new job, Pully found a well-run school and a dedicated staff that was committed to teaching students well. And at one level, they were doing just fine: Students at the school consistently scored above the district average on standardized tests.

But Pully came to the job with the conviction that education could be — had to be — better. Not only did a fast-paced economy demand more-innovative education; but the changing community of North Jackson was calling out for it. The once relatively affluent neighborhood was becoming less so, evidenced by the proportion of children receiving free or reduced-price school lunches. When Pully came, the percentage was already on the rise: It reached 50% in 1994; today, it stands at 69%. And research, Pully says, shows that “with poverty comes children who have not had exposure to a high level of literacy, children who don’t come to school ready to learn.”

Pully knew exactly what kind of changes she wanted to see at North Jackson. None had anything to do with what she dismisses as “little boxes and kits” — the programs that all too often pass as reform in the nation’s classrooms. Pully’s vision, similar to that of other cutting-edge reformers, was rooted in research showing that real learning takes place through methods that break the mold of the old assembly-line model of education, such as those described in the following examples.

Thematic teaching. Pully wanted to replace rote textbook learning with “thematic teaching,” creative instruction that ties together several disciplines — math, reading, art, and science, for example — around a single theme, such as the Renaissance or ancient Greece.

Cooperative learning. Pully’s plan for cooperative learning had students sitting in pairs or in small groups, collaborating on assignments. Pully doesn’t think single-row seating is completely useless: It can be good, say, for independent tests. But it’s hardly the stuff of a model classroom. Get students out of neat rows and into small learning groups.

Continuity in learning. Pully’s model involved keeping students and their teachers together for at least two years. Continuity, she insists, gives students stability and makes teachers accountable.

Pully’s was a huge agenda for change, and she began putting it into practice in an unconventional way: For the first year, she did nothing. “I knew that in order to really effect change, you don’t change anything for a while,” she says. “Change is difficult; that’s a given. You’re asking people to come out of a comfort zone.”

So instead of charging ahead with her plans, Pully first worked to build trust. She talked about her ideas, many of which she had put into practice in California, and she shared current research about learning and the brain with her staff. She listened carefully to teachers’ concerns and involved them in decision making. She promised them that they would be trained before she asked them to try new approaches to teaching. She made it clear that her expectations were  high — “Her expectations are about here,” says fourth-grade teacher Megan Price, 30, holding her hand above her head — but she also encouraged her staff to take risks, not to fear failure.

“There’s a caring in the way she administers,” says first-grade teacher Mildred Burnett, 49, who has worked under every principal at North Jackson since it opened in 1981. “She assured us that our ideas were much needed and that she would respect us.”

Pully introduced thematic teaching in her second year at the school. “It was very gradual,” says second-grade teacher Lynn O’Dell, 56. “We had professional development to help us make the change. We weren’t beat over the head with it. We were encouraged to do thematic units, and she would point out those of us who were doing that — right in front of the others. She’d kind of brag about us.”

The change meant more work, says O’Dell: It involved planning units of study that weren’t textbook driven. But the hard work also offered personal rewards. “It’s all cut-and-dried. This new method seems more fluid. You can go your own way. You can ask yourself, ‘How can I best teach this so that children master it?'”

As changes continued to be implemented over the next several years, Pully kept all of her promises. Out of the school’s 31 teachers, 5 eventually decided to go work elsewhere. And Pully helped each one of them land a job at a different school. “What I was asking was a little too much for some people,” she admits. “This method is not for every teacher. But I won’t hang anyone out to dry. If you’re honest, and you come to me and sat that it’s too much for you, I’ll help you make a change.”

Today, every one of Pully’s changes has taken hold at North Jackson. And the result? A school that was once a quiet model of tradition is now alive with learning. Walk through the school on any day, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a single neat row of desks or a teacher standing in front of a class. Instead, you’ll see students engaged in all kinds of learning — writing a first-person story from the point of view of a Chinese immigrant in America and then building a diorama to illustrate the story; working out math problems in small groups; discussing the importance of the Statue of Liberty and other symbols; doing independent research projects on Native Americans; even learning the Bill of Rights by doing a bit of creative word juggling and performing it as a rap song.

“You have to change the way you think,” Pully says. “You have to think outside the box. You can’t sit there and wait for somebody else to do something for you.”

Sara Terry [], a frequent contributor to Fast Company, also writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the Boston Globe.