Palo Alto High School English teacher David Cohen is taking the year off to travel to school districts up and down California, hoping to document the creative and positive innovation taking place throughout the state's public schools.
"There are absolutely serious problems in California public education," Cohen said.
Many classes are bursting at the seams, impacting learning. Funding is hard to come by. The achievement gap continues to be unbridgeable for many schools and students.
Cohen is taking a different approach to addressing those problems by highlighting the positive stories occurring at California's public schools.
After 20 years in the classroom, Cohen is hitting the road for the year, aiming to visit more than 50 schools, both elementary and secondary, throughout the state and document what he observes through writing. He plans to go as far north as Eureka and as south as San Diego, with many visits in between from the Pacific coast to the Eastern Sierras.
Cohen, who has taught at Paly for the past 12 years, is also associate director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT), a teacher leadership network launched in 2008 as a project of the National Board Resource Center, which is run by the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. He said through that experience and others, he's met inspirational, dedicated and creative teachers from all over the state.
"I was constantly impressed by people's knowledge and their efforts and their creativity and things that they were doing, not only with whatever it was that brought us together they might be doing something interesting with technology or curriculum -- but things they were doing like visiting students' families and doing community outreach, literacy efforts, building community and family literacy," he said. "There are so many good things happening and it just doesn't match up with the public perception and the first things that come to mind for the general public when you say public education."
Through ACT and other education connections, Cohen has set up visits at places like Chrysalis Charter School in Redding, which is entirely teacher-run, with no traditional administrative structure. Cohen is seeking out teachers or schools he's read about that have a particular kind of innovation. He's also been invited by various schools who heard about the road trip.
Last week, he stayed local, visiting Los Altos High School and Graham Middle School in Mountain View with a Norwegian principal who started a 1:1 pilot program using Chromebooks (meaning that every student has access to at least one device at all times) and was in the area for related training with Google. Cohen answered the principal's Twitter-proliferated request to visit schools focusing on technology integration in the area.
This week, Cohen is heading to Bagby Elementary School in San Jose to visit teacher Alicia Hinde, who he said is a "dynamic speaker, a great representative of our profession in her work on the state commission for teacher credentialing, and a union leader who focuses on parent and community engagement."
This is not only a project with ambitious educational goals, it's expensive. Cohen launched a Kickstarter campaign on Sept. 22 to raise money for travel costs, aiming to reach $30,000 in one month. Day trips to visit Bay Area schools mean expenses like gas and bridge tolls; farther flung visits mean gas or air fare plus car rental, lodging and meals. He's also raising money for the publishing of his book, with costs in the thousands for things like developmental editing, copy editing, graphic design and promotion.
"With this Kickstarter project, I want to take you inside some great classrooms and schools throughout California," his campaign description reads. "Maybe you've heard discouraging news, observed some acrimonious debates and political battles about education; it's easy to become frustrated and disengaged, to feel powerless. But in recent years, through contact with hundreds of teacher leaders all over California, I've emerged optimistic and energized."
Cohen said the trip is something he's had in mind for three or four years, and he hopes that it motivates some real change.
"Negative stories don't motivate positive changes," he said. "I figured it's time for people to know more positive stories."