New York City’s iZone Undergoes Changing of the Guard

Associate Editor

As a new wave of district “innovation zones” is sweeping the country, one of the originals—New York City’s iZone—is undergoing a changing of the guard, raising questions about where it is headed.

The iZone, which is the largest blended learning initiative in the country, has a number of programs underway as it works with schools, the ed-tech marketplace, and policymakers to design and scale promising learning models to prepare students for college and careers, according to its website. That work will continue, says a department spokesman.

However, since Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s arrival earlier this year, four top iZone staff members have left, including Steven Hodas, who was its executive director and a 2013 Education Week Leader to Learn From for his work around innovation in procurement. Hodas left last month.

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When we interviewed Hodas earlier this year, he said he hoped to bridge what he called “the moat” between the needs of the school system’s 1.1 million students and 135,000 employees and the hundreds of companies that would like to provide programs and products to meet those needs. As a start, Hodas introduced the Gap App Challenge and the School Choice Design Challenge, in which software developers solved problems idenitified by the schools. Hodas’ plan was to bridge the gap between the people with problems that needed to be solved, and the people who could solve them, by chipping away at changes to the city’s mononlithic procurement system.

Ultimately, Hodas said he decided to leave the iZone because “it was time to move to the next phase of work and that was going to happen outside of New York City,” he said. Now, he will approach this issue in various districts around the country through the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to improve education through transformative, evidence-based ideas. “We’ll be looking at districts’ operating systems, procurement, contracting, and IT as we try to discover and promote better practices,” he said.

A New York City schools spokesman said the city will continue to look for ways to improve the procurement process.

Shift in Focus?

As Chalkbeat New York reports, the chancellor’s interest in innovation centers largely on a new school experimentation program that she created with the teacher’s union. The iZone—which now counts more than 300 of the city’s 1,700 schools as members—hasn’t received her attention publicly, according to Chalkbeat.

A loss of some funding is a challenge facing the iZone. In a report for Gotham Gazette by Andrea Gabor, the iZone began facing financial challenges as early as last year. Ultimately, the iZone was one of the city schools’ departments to lose positions after federal Race to the Top funds were lost last year, said Hodas, but funding from two federal Investing in Innovation grants will continue into 2015.

Competing priorities appear to be another issue, as Mayor Bill de Blasio is funding, or planning to fund universal pre-kindergarten, a community schools program, an after-school program, and an expansion of arts programs.

Meanwhile, nearly all planned projects will continue, according to a department of education spokesman. The Blended Learning Institute, a two-year program to help teachers make smart decisions about technology use in their classrooms, and iLearnNYC, a blended and online learning program that supports teachers in more than 300 schools, are ongoing.

Two iZone challenges are underway: the Short-Cycle Evlauation Challenge, and the Personalized Pathways Challenge. The first pairs 12 tools with schools over the 2014-15 school year based on the defined needs of the schools’ teacher teams, then evaluates which teams the product works for, and under what circumstances. The “personalized pathways” challenge connects forward-thinking middle school educators as they collaboratively design and test new ideas for organizing time, resources, and student programs that maximize learning opportunities for each student.

Currently, only one iZone program has been temporarily delayed, the iZone Academy, due to “logistical  and planning reasons,” according to the department spokesman. The iZone Academy would be a “built from scratch” high school that would share space with technology companies.

The iZone, which was launched under former Chancellor Joel Klein’s administration in 2010 as a strategy to move from a classroom-centric model to a student-centric model, has been on an evolutionary path ever since.

Sara A. Schapiro, the director of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, said in an email that Hodas’ contributions to the iZone have helped it to emerge “as one of the more promising models for spurring and scaling innovation.”

“We’ve learned a lot from Steven and the progress he made there, and we’ll continue to learn from the iZone going forward,” said Schapiro, who leads the League of Innovative Schools, which counts New York City as one of its 57 members.

Photo credit: Image of Steven Hodas by Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

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