ACS Athens—Modeling Education for the 21st Century

JUL-AUG 2016|BY RAYMOND MATERA
Dr. Stefanos Gialamas, President of ACS Athens, discusses how  ACS Athens is modeling education for the 21st Century.

Dr. Stefanos Gialamas speaking


You have been called one “of our highest performing schools” by the President of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA). What does this mean?

We need to begin with the process of accreditation itself. Accreditation is a system of accountability that ensures that schools, through a process of intense self-study and external validation, can demonstrate that they meet standards of quality in all areas of their operations to ensure that each student receives a quality education and to demonstrate a continuous commitment to improve students’ learning. ACS Athens has been accredited by the MSA since 1974. Based on our record of achievement since our last re-accreditation in 2007, MSA chose ACS Athens to be the first international school to pilot a new accreditation protocol that they call Sustaining Excellence. This is a process that engages an entire school community in designing and implementing a school-wide research effort to identify areas for growth and improvement, to examine thoroughly the research into best practices in those areas, and to create new knowledge and best practices by conducting action research investigations during the process of implementing new initiatives.

What does it take to get there?

It starts with a vision. In her closing remarks at the ACS Athens Colloquium held this past April to report on and share the findings of our school-wide research, Dr. Jane Pruitt, our MSA Visitor, stated, “Accreditation provides a systematic process that requires a school to ask why it exists, to establish a vision for the future, and to determine specific paths for reaching that vision.” At ACS Athens our work is guided by a commitment to making our vision real: Empowering individuals to transform the world as architects of their own learning.

How is the vision translated into action?

Dr. Pruitt also reminded us that “excellence is not accidental, but it is the result of a deliberate decision to continue to achieve excellence.” This means that a successful school must have a commitment – shared by all stakeholders – to an educational model that has the pursuit of excellence (intellectual, academic, social, physical, emotional, ethical) at its core. At ACS Athens, we are committed to the implementation of an educational model that we call the Global Morfosis Paradigm, which holds that for learning to be successful, the teaching and learning experience must be holistic, harmonious and meaningful – and guided by ethos.

This is a school-wide commitment, shared by Board, administration, faculty and staff. Specifically, this means that as educators, we are committed to continuing professional development and life-long learning; to becoming mentors, guides and inspirers by example; to creating a culture that sets high standards for civic responsibility, based on respect and caring; to sustaining a notion of professionalism that encourages us to take risks and to escape from a fear of implementing innovation. In this way, our school professionals become the “architects of their own learning,” that we wish our students to become.

What kind of leadership is needed to promote such a commitment?

Leadership, too, must model the kind of learning it wishes to inspire. Educators committed to implementing the GMP model we’ve described need leaders who will provide support (time, resources, training, vision), encouragement, genuine recognition of effort, and venues and vehicles for sharing new knowledge and best practices. At ACS Athens, the latter includes promoting conference presentation and attendance; participation in our teacher-developed Collaborative Learning Communities; publication in in-house and public academic, educational and popular journals, magazines and newspapers, webcasts and podcasts. 25 ACS Athens educators are contributing authors of a book, Revolutionizing K-12 Blended Learning through the i2Flex Classroom Model, which will be published this summer.

What did this process look like in action?

We are committed—as teachers and administrators—to modeling in our own work, the kind of student-centered, inquiry-based learning model we wish our students to engage in.  We can best describe the process of engaging with the Sustaining Excellence protocol as a series of five steps: action research, creating new knowledge, empowering individuals, providing “safe” and constructive feedback – to create a learning experience that is transformative at a deep level. By “transformative,” we mean an experience that reshapes the way we think, understand, act and perceive what is possible. These same five stages define the kind of learning experiences we want to create for our students in and out of the classroom.

What can you point to as manifestations of success?

First, there is the fact that we have been re-accredited by MSA on the basis of meeting and exceeding their 12 standards of quality and on the basis of our research proposal and the presentation of the results of our research at the Colloquium. A number of our faculty presentations at the Colloquium have been archived on our website (http://www.acs.gr/colloquium2016#colloquium-ph-v) they truly demonstrate the level of intellectual and academic excellence, born of a genuine passion for teaching and learning, that mark their work. Or we can see it in the work of our students daily in the classroom: in the investigations designed by students in our Elementary School Science Center; or in the experience of fourth graders learning math as they interact with our canine partners in the Dogs in Learning project; or in our eighth graders demonstrating the knowledge and understanding they gained from a year-long research into the refugee/migration crisis in a student-organized and led Model United Nations. And again, we can point to the fact that over 95% of our graduating seniors have been accepted at a best fit college or university.

But there is more: becoming architects of their own learning means that students understand that they have the power (and responsibility) to turn their learning into action. The refugee/migration project we mentioned earlier began with a question from two middle school students who asked what they and their classmates could do to assist the refugees and migrants in Greece. Their question led to a year-long collaborative investigation into the roots and realities of the current crisis, which, in turn, led to their holding a day-long conference devoted to the issue as well as their organizing three targeted campaigns to collect specific items their research had taught them that the refugees and migrants in Greece needed – and which were then delivered to refugees and migrants in Lesvos and Pireaus by students and teachers and administrators. And their work was the impetus for our current initiative — again a collaborative effort by students, teachers and administrators – to provide a meaningful educational and recreational experience for a group of unaccompanied migrant children in our Summer Camp. Reflection on this initiative will allow all involved to plan future action – and the cycle of research translated to praxis continues.

Graduating Class

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