A Charter School Looks to Plant Roots in Holly Square
Currently in its community outreach phase, Roots Elementary would open in 2015
By Erin Vanderberg, Editor
Next spring, Jon Hanover will submit a new school application to Denver Public Schools with the intent to build Roots Elementary at Holly Square. The school is currently in the community engagement process.
“It’s important to me that we have a community dialogue from the beginning,” said Jon. “We have a strong vision for the school but the details are in pencil right now so we can be responsive to what the community needs.”
The school has very good early stage buy-in, with over 250 families, representing 400 students, signing official Letters of Intent to show their support for the program.
“Parents have been overwhelmingly excited about the prospect of a new school, having felt frustrated with the options they’ve had,” said Jon. “I know these schools are trying hard, but our kids can’t wait.”
Jon is particularly hopeful about the environment in Denver. He sees an education reform ecosystem in the city.
“Denver is big enough that it has same urban challenges as other cities, but small enough that it feels like transformation is really possible.”
The Road to Roots
Jon Hanover has witnessed first-hand how “path changing” education can be, particularly with his father. Jon’s dad grew up in the south side of Chicago, attending what were then some of the worst schools in the country. But then in middle school his dad “got the golden ticket,” an all expenses paid acceptance to an elite prep school followed by a full scholarship to college. “You shouldn’t have to win the lottery to get a good education in America,” said Jon.
Jon didn’t set out to be an educator initially. The Ohio native studied Government at Harvard and took a job in management consulting at Bain & Company. While at Bain, he had an opportunity to advise a fledgling charter school, and the experience led him to a fellowship with the Charter School Growth Fund, a non-profit based in Colorado.
At the CSGF, Jon looked around the country for schools that were beating the odds and then worked in an advisory capacity with school leadership to distill what was working, replicate that model and open up more campuses. When he left last year, the organization had over 200 schools in the portfolio with over 90 percent of students going to college, despite most being the first in their families to do so.
Jon left because it was time for him to be in the field. “I needed to stop telling people how to do the work and start doing it myself,” said Jon. He now works as a Kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Prep in Southeast Denver.
At Roots, Jon is looking to bridge the ideological split between educators who believe kids need to explore and discover their learning and those who see a need for targeted skill-based instruction. He believes kids need both and has developed a vision that combines self-guided learning with more teacher-driven coursework for portions of the school day.
In this same line of thought, he envisions a more dynamic grouping of students that moves away from self-contained classrooms, “into a model where you have, at the core of the school, a multi-age space where kids are doing primarily self-directed work. Students are then flexibly pulled out in small groups for targeted teacher-led instruction. It’s a concept that is pliable, and will be formed and reformed as the students learn more and progress.”
Jon sees kids spending lots of time working on teams collaboratively toward a goal. He is quick to point out that this is not just a feel-good concept, but instead a critical experience to prepare kids for college and the labor market afterwards.
“We have a public school system designed to educate factory workers 150 years ago. Everything about the structure of schools and the traditional pedagogy is designed around that. When you work in a factory there is a predictable problem every day, and a set of instructions you need to follow in order to finish the product. The economy now couldn’t be more different.
What’s needed now is the ability to identify new problems, develop a vision for success, and flexibly problem-solve on your way there,” said Jon.
For more information on Jon and Roots Elementary, visit rootselementary.org.