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Book Review: What The Academy Taught Us by Eric Kalenze

April 6, 2022

What The Academy Taught Us: Improving schools from the bottom-up in a top-down transformation era by Eric Kalenze. Published by John Catt, 2019.

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2021 was to read more books and I intend to continue that into 2022. I will be reviewing those books that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased.

This book tells the story of a school improvement initiative within a school in Minnesota. In 2004 to 2008 it was decided to create a school-within-a school, The Sophomore Academy, for the students most at risk of dropping out.  The idea was that this school-within-a school would have smaller classes with more experienced teachers, and would not compromise on expectations. They were also to have most of their lessons together and encouraged to have a shared identity that would motivate them to achieve their potential.

The book describes the challenges involved in setting up and developing the project. The Sophomore Academy project had to be designed from scratch, as there were no existing models to copy. It had to be planned carefully, creating no insurmountable problems for the rest of the school. It had to be staffed with the right teachers.

The original cohort was to be two sections of no more than 25 students each. The teachers became convinced that shared expectations would be vital, including over things such as not allowing students out of lessons to go to the toilet or visit their lockers. While it’s no blueprint for other schools (particularly not schools over here) there are a lot of interesting stories and explanations of original ideas that were put into place as part of the initiative. The author describes not only his own experiences, but he also interviewed a number of those former colleagues and former students who were part of the Sophomore Academy.

As well as the Sophomore Academy initiative itself, the book describes the background and the dissolution of the project. It also uses this to discuss education policy more generally. The project took place at a time when school reform was in fashion in the US, but largely ineffective. The Sophomore Academy is given as a contrasting example of a teacher led, context-specific and effective reform. That it did not last for more than a few years, is perhaps indicative of how much schools in the US are dealing with constant change and constant pressure, like schools here in England.

One comment

  1. Not a ‘conventional’ book review, I would suggest.

    Somewhat thin on detail, perhaps.

    Very thin on detail, possibly.



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