Former COO of the Center for Advanced Research and Technology talks about what it took to design and develop an innovative high school model.
Sitting at the center of California, the cities of Fresno and Clovis form a joined metropolitan area and have a collective population of nearly 600,000 people.  These two cities maintain their Fresno and Clovis Unified School Districts and, when combined, serve more than 100,000 students  in-and-around the cities of Fresno and Clovis. With the knowledge that these two school districts serve a large group of students, I wanted to learn more about how the Fresno and Clovis districts are working together for better education outcomes. That search led me to the Center for Advanced Research and Technology or CART as it is commonly referred to. CART is designed for eleventh and twelfth grade high school students who come to the CART location in Clovis from their home campus to study one of four career clusters—Professional Sciences, Engineering, Advanced Communications, or Global Economics—in a laboratory setting for half of their school day.  To understand what was required to start CART, I met with the former COO, Susan Fisher.
From the beginning, Susan started her involvement with CART serving on the Curriculum Planning Committee, and in 1999, she became the Dean of Curriculum & Instruction. Then in 2004, Susan became the COO of CART, which could be compared to a Principal position at a traditional high school. She stayed in the COO position until 2010.
Susan starts the discussion with a statement that “CART is an experiment that worked.” She further explains that the experiment began in 1997 when the Fresno and Clovis districts decided to collaborate on the program. Clovis Unified had acquired a facility, formerly utilized by a pump manufacturer, with the goal of establishing a new kind of learning environment. This type of innovation required the talent and financial resources of both school districts so a partnership was formed.
Bridging the distinct cultures of two school districts was a challenge that Susan describes in great detail. She says the key to transcending the culture differences during the initial planning and development of CART was to establish a brand new culture, “defined by those who were in the room.” Individuals involved at the start had to become vested in the program by “giving up the past,” states Susan, which required identifying commonalities and compromising on differences.
The only agreement in the beginning was that the education model at CART had to be different, but Susan explains a consensus formed quickly around the idea that curriculum would be consistent while staying relevant for every student. To accomplish such a ground-breaking objective, people involved in the planning had to have the “freedom to change their approach,” shares Susan. These initial planners included the future teachers at CART, working in partnership for a year to design the program curriculum and teaching structure. Susan then shares her gratitude that the two school district administrations supported this collaborative planning phase, which she believes was critically important for the program’s success.
Selecting the initial group of teachers was unique because the selection criteria for a CART teacher was focused more on management skills instead of technical capabilities in a certain subject. In particular, CART was looking for teachers who enjoyed working with young people, were able to effectively manage teams, and could perform in a project-based education model. “We went after the best teachers we knew,” shares Susan, and what surprised her was the high level of applicant interest from the experienced teachers. Her original assumption was that a startup opportunity like CART would attract only those beginning their career in education.
When describing the educational environment at CART, Susan works to distinguish the team-based approach maintained by CART to traditional academic programs. She emphasizes that both the students and instructors work in teams, noting there are three or four instructors per class. Instructor teams are made-up of academic and business professionals, and they support student teams working on projects relating to their corresponding career cluster. Susan goes on to say that one of the benefits to CART’s model is that “team peer pressure for students and instructors makes everything transparent.” Greater transparency is what Susan attributes to an increased accountability in the classroom for both students and teachers and to the contribution of better learning outcomes.
It is Susan’s belief that CART is so special because the organization maintains some clear and simple objectives. The teachers and administration at CART want to create a space that is personalized for each student. Susan shares that when absent, “students will be missed” by team members and instructors for their individual contributions. Additionally, CART wants to keep students engaged by creating an environment that is comfortable and secure—a place where students want to be. Susan provides an amazing statistic regarding student safety: in ten years there has never been a physical fight at CART. When asked how CART works to maintain a student’s engagement, Susan says that it is simply important to give young people “something to go home and talk about everyday.”
Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.