Tag Archives: High School

‘Active Participants in Their Own Learning’

 Lessons learned from BUILD in Boston after the  first academic year.

Boston, Massachusetts

While searching for a better understanding of the work required with starting and building something innovative, I have come to a deep appreciation of those that empower other people to better their own situation. This appreciation has been greatly influenced by my involvement in the business startup community of the Greater Boston area where entrepreneurs are surrounded by resources to support innovation. Two venues for this entrepreneurial support include the MassChallenge accelerator program and startup competition as well as the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) that provides flexible office space as well as opportunities for entrepreneurs to network and develop professionally. It was at an event held at the CIC where I first encountered BUILD, a program that uses entrepreneurialism to foster students’ engagement and success in high school.

Illustration of Ryan Oliver and Ayele Shakur

BUILD launched fall 2011 in Boston after successfully establishing programs in East Palo Alto, Oakland, and Washington D.C. Now that BUILD in Boston has completed its first academic year I took the opportunity to sit down with Ayele Shakur, Regional Executive Director for BUILD in Boston, and Ryan Oliver, Site Director for BUILD in Boston, to talk about lessons learned.

BUILD motivates high school students to achieve academic success through starting a business. Ayele shares that the program “helps young people tap into their own self direction” through academic learning in the context of entrepreneurialism. She explains that a critical element of motivation is helping students realize, in the process of building their business, “that [their] locus of control is no longer outside of them” and for many of the students it is “the first time that they’ve connected that level of success with school.”

In my attempt to better understand ways to cultivate motivation Ryan points out that students are building a business around a product they are already excited about “because they have chosen it or they have bought into it in some way.” Developing a business also offers a student a chance to win on different levels, he explains. The problem, as Ryan sees it, is that a lot of students “have decided already by the time they get to the ninth grade that academia is not a competition they can win.” Ayele then follows up on the importance of exposing the students to real world opportunities and competition. She uses an offsite field trip to the MassChallenge accelerator and startup competition as an example of showing “this whole idea of a business plan competition was not just some exercise that they do in school.”

An interesting piece about the BUILD program for me is that students will not only receive a grade for their academic achievement but they will also get to keep the money earned from selling their products. When asked about the power that money has as a draw for students Ryan states that “we can sometimes overplay how much the money is ultimately the hook that gets them in.” Both Ayele and Ryan reiterate the idea that there is a stronger appeal which comes from nurturing a sense of usefulness and developing the student’s belief that their work actually matters. They believe the primary value of the program is not created from the act of making money, but the real value derived from combining the relationship building, academic rigor, and the real world elements in the context that entrepreneurialism provides. This is a “mix of something that is real world and relevant but has boundaries,” explains Ryan.

When asked about the things that make the program innovative, Ayele states that BUILD is “one of those models that you see best played out in some of our best charter schools, but this is actually now taken out of that charter school setting and applied to traditional public schools.” She goes on to explain that the successful scalability of the program is unique—charter school models that are successful in one location are often difficult to replicate in another. BUILD is a program that has proven to be successful in the public school setting while maintaining the practice of reaching out to those students who are struggling to engage academically.

Both Ayele and Ryan relay that the BUILD students each come with their uniquely individual struggles as well as their talents and passions. When describing the growth that the students achieved with BUILD, Ryan shares that “there were obviously some kids that were just sort of naturals…we’re doing a service on one hand just by giving them a stage.” He goes on to share that the “beauty of entrepreneurship and the BUILD model is that there are all different kinds of roles and ways that they can sort of find their piece.” Ayele then states the importance of recognizing that the students who may have struggled in the program at the beginning all “learned over the course of the year to standup and represent their team.”

Ayele shares that the focus in the past has been predominately on reforming the system through such things as better teacher training, decreasing school size, and providing stronger curriculum. The exciting opportunity, according to Ayele, is to figure out ways that students are “not just passive and they’re not just showing up to school because it’s the social place where their friends are hanging out. “ Ayele believes that BUILD can use entrepreneurship to engage students to be “fully bought in and active participants in their own learning.”

Jason Freeman is the founder of Work of Start.

** Please note that the Work of Start founder interviews will be less frequent while we explore the historical context for innovation.  **

‘Something to Go Home and Talk about Everyday’

Former COO of the Center for Advanced Research and Technology talks about what it took to design and develop an innovative high school model.

Fresno, California

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. [1] These two cities maintain their Fresno and Clovis Unified School Districts and, when combined, serve more than 100,000 students [2] 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. [3] To understand what was required to start CART, I met with the former COO, Susan Fisher.

Susan FisherFrom 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.


1. Population statistics – City of Fresno maintains 494,665 people and City of Clovis maintains 95,631 people – acquired from 2010 Census Bureau’s website – Census.gov
2. Population statistics – Fresno Unified maintains “…more than 73,000 students…” and Clovis Unified maintains “…student population approaching 38,000.” – acquired from Fresno (FresnoUnified.org) and Clovis Unified (CUSD.com) websites
3. Acquired from the Center for Advanced Research and Technology website – CART.org