SEIZING THE OPPORTUNITY

Renaissance Arts Academy

Every adult is part of the ensemble.

Los Angeles, CA

Renaissance Arts Academy in Los Angeles is a “break the mold” kind of school.

Almost everything about this K–12 charter school spread out across the floor of a warehouse is literally outside the box. But in some very important ways, Renaissance Arts is like any school where the adults know how to work together to meet the individual needs of every child in the building.

This school with no walls or traditional classes gives teachers no choice but to work together across conventional boundaries. Students in grades 6 through 12 work on a shared curriculum, staging theater productions, teaming up on projects and breaking down texts from Shakespeare to the U.S. Constitution in multi-age discussion groups. They blur lines between subjects, grades, special education and general education.

Photo courtesy of Renaissance Arts Academy

The school’s core philosophy is to find solutions that meet student needs, not try to fit the students into an established program. 

When the school’s first deaf student enrolled, Renaissance Arts hired an interpreter—not just to help one student, but to help everyone in the school learn sign language. Instead of accommodating one student, the school decided to teach all students a new way to communicate. 

Collaboration is the fuel that drives this kind of innovation. In our study, we found educator collaboration is most effective when it is foundational to a school’s approach, not an add-on or confined to isolated meetings among grade-level or subject-area teams.

In schools that embrace this principle, collaboration informs teacher hiring, curriculum planning, and problem-solving to meet the needs of every student. Adults collaborate because the culture and structure of this school leaves no other option. 

As unusual as Renaissance Arts is, many of its practices are applicable on any campus. 

Although more traditional buildings may not lend themselves to spontaneous cross-department discussions, teachers at other schools could adapt some of Renaissance Arts practices to work in their environment. For example, teachers here keep track of individual student progress and goals online, using a shared database to communicate. Adults at Renaissance Arts, no matter their specialty or credential, move throughout the big open learning hall, guiding students as needed. With some creative scheduling and the right leadership, other schools could add some more flow to their days as well.

While teachers, called advisors, hold regular subject-area meetings similar to their counterparts in more traditional middle and high schools, planning and collaboration are also fluid, and often happen in real time.

In a school with no walls, spur-of-the-moment meetings can happen at any time, ensuring students receive expert guidance or just some extra help. Teachers can literally walk away from their group and go ask another adult for help. Imagine, for example, a text-for-assistance system in a school with a more traditional building.

Photo courtesy of Renaissance Arts Academy

When students studying Shakespeare go on a tangent toward world history or poetry writing, instead of redirecting back toward the plan, both the adults and students can pivot. The open campus makes some of this possible—in part because everyone sees and hears what is going on around them, and adults can push in to students discussions as they see fit—but technology and flexible staffing could make it work in more structured environments.

This ad hoc environment could easily lead to a loud, chaotic free-for-all. But in this music-and-dance-focused academy, the learning is as choreographed as its arts performances. 

Although the school does have dedicated special educators, every teacher works in special education through the shared curriculum and culture. 

The shared curriculum crosses many boundaries from age to ability, and intentionally includes students with special needs. And adults, regardless of their formal role or title, are constantly helping students. This allows students with disabilities to work seamlessly alongside their peers, and for adults to provide unobtrusive support. 

Some of the coordination is done behind the scenes through the shared student database, but for the most part, from an outsider’s perspective and from the point of view of the students, all adults in the room are working with all students to help them overcome their challenges and get the extra help they need. 

Curriculum planning is schoolwide and continuous throughout the year. Themes don’t just pop up on occasion. Teachers embed them in the curriculum for the whole year, and repeat them each year so students can grow their learning of certain texts and topics over time. Renaissance Arts is certainly not the only school with such an intentional, long-term structure, but it is a good example of making such a culture work. 

The diverse student population of about 530 students in grades K–12, including a majority of socio-economically disadvantaged children, beats district averages on graduation rates, test scores and college enrollment.

One of the ways Renaissance Arts makes this collaborative culture possible is through carefully hiring people who are comfortable with constant teamwork, which is different from the mostly solitary nature of teaching in a single-grade classroom with no other adults in the room. While this flexible approach can be seen as a benefit to many educators who thrive on collaboration, those who would rather run their own show may not be comfortable here. 

Through its post-graduate fellowship program, the school uses brand new teacher interns and recent college grads in the same way many schools use classroom aides or para-educators. But these programs also allow the school to attract teachers from nontraditional backgrounds—from an astrophysicist teaching math to a psychologist teaching humanities—and to weed out people who are uncomfortable with the structure. The school supports teacher credentialing for successful fellows who continue with the program. And this 16-year-old program likes to welcome back its former students as teachers and interns.

These norms help the school run with minimal managerial oversight. Its staffing model includes a single administrator position, which is divided among two leaders, each of whom is also a half-time teacher. They spend most of their time circulating across the open floor, working with students and collaborating with colleagues. 

The school has no soloists, nor a conductor; everyone is part of the ensemble.