After White House talk, Austin educator launches high school of future

After a trip to the White House to advise the Obama administration on what the high school of the future ought to look like, longtime Central Texas school Principal Steven Zipkes has decided to come out of his brief retirement and build one.

Zipkes was one of the educators who participated in an invitation-only national summit in November about so-called Next Generation High Schools, his third trip to discuss education policy with President Barack Obama’s Cabinet members.

Now he is interviewing staff and putting together the curriculum for a Cedars International Academy charter high school in Central Austin, right next door to the Highland campus of Austin Community College, which will partner with the school.

Zipkes was the founding principal of Manor New Technology High School, where students worked in teams on real-life projects instead of listening to teachers lecture. The school’s well-documented success in sending virtually all of its low-income, minority students to college prompted a visit in 2013 from Obama, who praised it as the kind of school more American teens should attend.

Zipkes hopes to take the planned charter school to another level, with project-based learning that includes career and technology education, gives high school students a chance to earn credentials or an associate’s degree, and an emphasis on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), as well as art. All of those things are already available in various Central Texas public and charter schools, but Zipkes wants them all under the same roof.

“There are excellent schools throughout the country,” Zipkes said, pointing to the strengths of local schools such as the Austin’s nationally ranked Liberal Arts and Science Academy and Manor New Tech. “But what I’m trying to do is bringing all of these aspects into one school.”

Bell’s not the boss

Zipkes plans for Cedars Academy Next Generation High School at the Highland campus to debut in August with about 125 students in grades eight through 10, and to eventually grow to 225 students through the senior year.

Courses will integrate multiple content areas so the students can get credit for two or more courses within one class. Zipkes anticipates that, by their junior year, all courses that students take will be college level, whether they’re at Cedars or across the street at ACC. Unlike traditional dual credit courses, Cedars will give greater weight to grades than Advanced Placement classes.

Zipkes also plans to give the students more freedom to plan their own studies — if they need more time in one class, for example, they can stay to focus on that subject rather than get shuffled to the next class.

“That’s been a real problem with education. When that bell rings you have to leave to go to the next class, even if you have an A in it. But if you design a school to have that freedom to go back and forth and work with those teachers and those projects, it is designed for the students and not the bureaucracy or the standard system we’ve had in place forever,” he said.

“It might seem a little chaotic … but I foresee it working. There’s already schools throughout the country doing those things.”

By bringing in veteran educators, including teachers he formerly employed at Manor New Tech, and a couple of adjunct professors from Austin Community College and the University of Texas, Zipkes believes it will work.

Swayed to unretire

Cedars operates one charter school in North Austin, a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus that teaches largely low-income, Hispanic and black students. At Cedars, about one-third of the nearly 400 students are learning English, and testing results are lackluster in some subjects, while outshining the state average in others.

Zipkes’ desire to prepare students for college and careers aligns with ACC’s goal of improving college readiness in Austin, where about 40 percent of students who get high school diplomas aren’t ready for college.

“We’re just excited about this, and it goes to our goal of closing those education gaps,” said Shasta Buchanan, ACC’s executive director of college and high school relations.

When Cedars first called him, Zipkes says he turned it down. He had just retired in September. But over time, the thought of designing a school with the kind of autonomy that Cedars offered intrigued him.

“I’ve never been in a charter system before, but the beauty of it is I will have the freedom now,” Zipkes said. “We’re going to take those best practices we know and implement those, but adjust for more personalized learning.

“If it doesn’t work, we’re going to adjust as we go.”

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