Author Archives: Jeremy Knight

More, Better, Faster: Q&A with the Bellwether Team Behind Eight Cities

Last week, we released Eight Cities, a multimedia website designed to show current and future superintendents, school board members, and state education leaders that it’s possible to go beyond incremental academic improvement even in the largest or most politically charged environments.

The site is visually stunning, and takes a unique story-driven approach to covering education reform in places where leaders are getting more kids into better schools faster than other urban areas. The bulk of the writing and research was done by Bellwether’s own Lynne Graziano, Jason Weeby, and Tanya Paperny. Given the project’s unique approach, I chatted with them to share more about the process of creating Eight Cities.

What was the motivation behind doing this project, and why now?

Jason Weeby: Over the past two decades, multiple cities have been implementing similar strategies to improve their schools. CRPE calls it the “portfolio strategy,” David Osborne calls them “21st century school systems,” and the Texas Education Agency calls them “systems of great schools.” Whatever you call it, the various strategies have common beliefs and pillars, namely that schools should be the unit of change, they need certain freedoms to serve their students, and they should be held accountable for whether their students are learning.

In a lot of the cities where this has been put into practice, student achievement has increased and achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their wealthier, whiter counterparts are closing. This project aimed to verify the academic improvements and understand how the strategy evolved by talking to the people who were closest to it. Our goal is to share lessons with current and future superintendents and board members who are interested in the approach that these eight cities took.

You focus on eight big urban districts, all of which have had a flurry of controversy tangled up in their reform and modernization efforts. Why did you choose to explore these cities specifically?

Lynne Graziano: We looked for cities that had several components in place or in the works, things like universal enrollment, a variety of school types with some degree of choice for families, and/or a talent strategy for teachers and school leaders. We also selected cities where research identified strong student achievement gains during the years we studied. While most system leaders would tell you there is more work to be done, we wanted to share stories of dramatic gains made in communities where student gains were previously rare.

JW: Put simply, we were looking for cities that had implemented a citywide improvement strategy based on the beliefs and practices we laid out in our introduction and which have seen more than incremental gains.

This is a really fancy website. Why didn’t you just write a report? Continue reading

Behind the Scenes on Our New Education-Themed Web Game

Last week, we released Rigged, a choose-your-own-adventure-style game designed to represent the experiences of youth trying to navigate school while experiencing challenges like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. The game is a glimpse into the impossible tradeoffs these students face regularly.

We collaborated with the folks at Filament Games, including the project’s sole engineer, Terra Lauterbach, to create this one-of-a-kind game. Terra has been a game engineer at Filament Games since early 2017, and for Rigged, she engineered the unique card-based mechanics and supported with the game’s user experience and sound design. I chatted with Terra to share more about the process of creating the game.

The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What were the objectives in creating Rigged?
Rigged was envisioned as an interactive way to help players develop increased understanding and empathy towards underserved youth who have spent time in juvenile detention, are on parole, or may simply be struggling to navigate the system. Bellwether wanted players to be able to relate to the characters in the story, putting users in the shoes of underserved individuals in order to promote inclusivity and a greater shared perspective.

How did you approach designing a game around these topics?
We always intended for Rigged to be an open-ended experience. Our team wanted to give players a menu of choices and require them to balance the consequences of their decisions. Bellwether chose five in-game domains for the player to balance: money, relationships, health and wellness, academics, and responsibilities — all things that one must manage in day-to-day life. Each binary choice that the player faces has a non-binary effect on those domains, positively affecting some domains while negatively affecting others depending on what path the player chooses to follow. Having Bellwether’s subject matter experts easily available at all times (they created the actual content) was extremely useful throughout development. Continue reading

High School Sucks for Many Queer Youth — I Was Lucky

photograph of author Jeremy Knight in high school

photo courtesy of the author

The common narrative is that for many queer-identified people, high school is a time of awkwardness, isolation, or fear. As young queer people come into their own identities and expressions, they navigate building supporting friendships while being true to themselves, and may even experience taunting or violence.

But during those years which most of my queer friends bemoan, I actually flourished.

Sure, coming out is difficult, and it’s particularly difficult as a black man. There were very few public examples of queer identity, same-sex love, and men bucking traditional forms of masculinity, especially ones that included men of Caribbean descent like myself.

But as I came out during my sophomore year in high school, I actually found solace in school. Antithetical to the schoolyard bullying that many face, all of my teachers, administrators, and peers loved me for who I was. Business went on as usual — I still got parts in our theater productions, kept all my friends, managed to date, and was even elected student body president. All without issue. And, importantly, all while getting a rigorous education.

I owe a lot of that to my environment — I spent my middle and high school years in a pretty racially mixed, middle-class suburb outside of Atlanta after spending my early years in a black, working class community in the city. My mother moved us to the suburbs because the schools I was zoned for were notoriously dangerous and had poor academics. Even in elementary school, I had instances with teachers questioning my academic ability.

Had I stayed in the schools I was zoned for in Atlanta, my story would likely be very different. It’s hard for me to imagine getting the same emotional and academic support.

I owe a lot to my high school teachers and administrators. They created a school environment that felt safe, inclusive, joyful, and deeply rooted in strong academics. It was this environment that encouraged me to think about pursuing a career in education. When I got to college, I began taking a few education courses and joined Students for Education Reform, a student organizing group advocating for better K-12 schools, and realized policy and advocacy could be an avenue to make large-scale changes that affect more than one school building. After graduating, I led and supported successful campaigns to raise teacher pay in North Carolina, elect a school board member in Los Angeles, and get better supports for English language learners in Massachusetts.

This passion started because I wanted to help design a school that was as supportive and enriching as my school in the suburbs — but for kids in neighborhoods like mine in Atlanta. I want a world where black kids can be challenged, supported, and realize their limitless potential in a loving school community — no matter what identities, interests, or experiences they bring into the classroom. I’m encouraged by the progress major urban districts have made this past decade, and look forward to the next generation of young, queer school advocates who will continue to lead with equity and intersectionality in mind.