Teachers Launch Odyssey Initiative
In a recent post I wrote about the Education Department’s bus tour of the nation. It was quite the production, with high ranking department staffers, teacher ambassador fellows, public relations, media and logistics. But on the same afternoon, following the ED events, I also had the opportunity to learn about a smaller but more interesting project.
Teachers Brooke Peters, Michelle Healy, and Todd Sutler have launched a project they call the Odyssey Initiative. Working together at Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, the trio began kicking around ideas of opening their own school. To approach such a serious challenge, they began to wonder how they might learn more about what makes various schools effective and successful. Rather than rush headlong into the work of opening a school, they’ve raised money to travel around the entire country this year to visit a variety of schools to see what they can learn, what they can share, and what they can apply to their own efforts in New York City.
Todd Sutler is the executive director of the project, and the afternoon I met him he was in Palo Alto, CA, to promote the Odyssey Initiative. The event took place at the offices of ImagineK12, a ed-tech incubator of sorts, supporting new companies designing products for educational uses. With an audience of teachers, engineers and entrepreneurs, Sutler shared some of his personal history, the origins of his current project, his philosophy and his goals.
Overall, Todd Sutler is a walking oxymoron – and I mean that in the best possible way: simultaneously exhausted and energetic, confident and uncertain, polished and unfinished, Sutler embodies the qualities of more than a few fine teachers I know. I’m also a bit jealous of his work, as the idea of traveling and visiting so many schools sounds quite appealing to me – such a wonderful chance to learn about the diversity of schools, students, and teachers around the country.
If you check out Sutler’s bio at the Odyssey Initiative site, you can see that he has a background in finance and charter schools. He even applied to Teach for America, but turned them down and instead entered teaching via the Bank Street teacher education program. For some education policy watchers, this resumé might raise questions about Sutler’s motivations and goals. In his presentation, he said that he hopes to design, run, and teach in a non-charter school eventually, though he sees a charter as a possible means to an ends in the short term. As the Odyssey Initiative tours the country, their goal is to highlight the best of American public education in all types of schools, and they’ve set a target of visiting two non-charter schools for every one charter school. Sutler maintains an open mind about about the end game for this project, speculating about possibilities beyond opening a single school. As inspiration, he mentioned the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), a network founded by the late Ted Sizer. It seems like a good fit for Sutler, who exudes a certain confidence about the choices he’s made without feigning any certainty about what he’ll learn or where it will all lead. One of the hallmarks of the CES approach to school reform is the idea that no two schools are alike, an approach which leads to valuing people and principles above methods and mandates. At the end of the year, the Odyssey trio will certainly have seen more great practices than they could possibly hope to implement; however, to the extent that they enter the project with the right motivations, open minds, and the ability to discern the underlying dynamics that drive effective practices, there’s every reason to believe that this initiative will produce some results worth watching and emulating.
At the end of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns to Ithaca to restore order in his house, reunite with his family, and enjoy some peace after two decades of war and wandering. For Todd Sutler and his colleagues, the end of this year’s Odyssey will only lead to a new beginning. I’m anxious to see what they find out as they travel the country, and what they’ll make of all that learning when they return.
To follow the Odyssey Initiative, use the following links: