California Elementary School Models 21st Century Learning

By Partnership for 21st Century Learning

Katherine Smith Elementary School, a P21 Exemplar school, is a public neighborhood elementary school in the Evergreen School District in San Jose, California. As a New Tech Network school, Katherine Smith was reinvented from a traditional test-driven environment into a 21st century school. The design is based on having a project-based learning curriculum to engage students, an empowering culture, and the technological tools to support the learning. With 650 students, the special education percentage is approximately 8% with special day, resource, and speech services.

A leading elementary school in the Project-Based Learning-driven New Tech Network, Katherine Smith School is a neighborhood school with a majority Hispanic population, generational poverty, and numerous challenges. However, dedicated leadership and a committed staff have transformed the school into a vibrant and sought after exemplar for 21st century learning.

School Profile

  • 691 Students in grades K-6
  • Title I School with 82% of students on Free or Reduced-Price Lunch.
  • 61% of students are Second Language Learners
  • New Tech Network Elementary School
  • No Excuses University network school


Before a 21st century learning redesign, this 50 year-old school had issues with discipline, local violence, a predominate focus on test scores, demotivated educators, and disconnected parents. Superintendent Kathy Gomez wanted to revitalize a learning culture so that students wanted to be at school. The goal was to create “something more meaningful for students, moving away from a test-taking culture.”

Katherine Smith leadership engaged the school community with a project-based learning model for the school’s redesign. Staff members were asked to make a commitment to PBL and the school’s new vision to stay. Seventy-five percent of the existing staff exercised voluntary transfer and an influx of committed educators established a college-bound culture, with a belief that all students can make it and achieve at high levels, utilizing project based learning, professional collaboration, and shared leadership. “No other school has reinvented itself with PBL wall-to-wall,” says Principal Aaron Brengard, especially a high-functioning high-poverty setting like Katherine Smith.

As one of the first elementary school in the New Tech Network, school leadership worked with the Buck Institute to provide teacher training, entrench early learning research, brain development, the importance of play, and other research-backed strategies to meet the needs of all students. The Evergreen district partnership with the EdLeader21 PLC (professional learning community) allows district leadership to reflect, review content and teaching practices and to meaningfully embed the 4Cs of Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity into teaching and support practice.

“We are transitioning from a top down hierarchical district, to one that is a 21st century school district,” says Superintendent Kathy Gomez. “[At Katherine Smith] adults and kids use the 4cs right along side each other.”

Curriculum (through PBL), culture, and technology are Katherine Smith’s priorities for the staff leadership teams with participation from 100% of the staff. By embedding shared leadership, teachers focus on ensuring their shared vision is aligned to the school goals.

Superintendent Gomez says what is unique about Katherine Smith is that “teachers have chosen to be here. They have committed themselves to PBL, to leadership, collaboration, to doing teaching differently than has been done in the past.”

A Culture of Learning

“One of the advantages we have is what we make out of (professional development),” explains 4th grade teacher Kevin Armstrong. “It comes from authentic need, rather than something somebody else tells us we need.” At the beginning of the school redesign, the staff only had two weeks to transform the curriculum and learning to PBL, and used PD thoughtfully and strategically to build trust and educator capacity. As the PBL model grows and expands in the district, Katherine Smith teachers support educators at other Evergreen schools as well.

Staff utilize the Critical Friends process, allowing teachers to “experience what we expect kids to experience,” says Kevin Armstrong. Staff meet in multi-grade level groups to build projects and provide fresh pedagogical perspectives. “We ask each other probing questions that you wouldn’t feel safe to do at other schools,” explains 2nd grade teacher Rachel Trowbridge. Ginger George, a 5th grade educator expand on the level of teacher trust and collaboration: “On a daily basis I pop into next door class to ask advice, offer help. When kids see this, they know they can do the same.” Working collaboratively, teachers challenge each other to raise the rigor of projects and boost academics while increasing student engagement. Students have buddy classrooms across grade levels, to share projects, presentations, and gather feedback from each other. 

As part of the school’s partnership with No Excuses University, every classroom ‘adopts’ a college, reciting college cheers, celebrating College Day, and more - building a college-going expectation for students early on. Relying on the Habits of Mind model the school distilled the habits into 6 core traits which form the basis of the school’s mission and are visible throughout the school grounds. 

Technology Integration

The district made a $500,000 technology investment a Katherine Smith to boost student engagement and access, something that was not on the map before the redesign to PBL. This provided more tools for students and educators, including 350 iPads as well as interactive whiteboards and laptop carts for student use. In a creative twist on building student leadership, the staff turned to students to help integrate and troubleshoot technology issues, creating the K. Smith Tech Genius squad. Geniuses attend a summer training program with the school’s staff tech leaders, receive special t-shirts, and badges, and not only ensure devices are working properly, but also create tech awareness for their peers. “We made a video that taught students how to take care of technology,” remembers fifth grader Annamaria, a Tech Genius. The student produced video includes instructions on cleaning, storing, and handling the technology in each classroom.

Students also use technology for presentations and collaborations, and manage their own online portfolios to document progress on learning goals. Principal Brengard shares student work daily through the school’s Facebook page. Students also help staff design projects that integrate technology in a relevant way. The school aims for transparency of student learning and outcomes that are meaningful and tangible.

“Project design and the 4Cs are what it means to be college bound and ready,” says principal Brengard. “Students want to build meaning and knowledge themselves. There’s a purpose for what we’re doing and we’re doing it together.”

Community Partnership

“We are not a charter or a magnet. Just a neighborhood elementary school. That is important in the bigger conversation of how are we going to change education. It’s entirely possible to change it within the structure that we have. It’s not easy at all, but it is possible,” says Superintendent Kathy Gomez

The parents and community supported the reinvention of the school, and have embraced the college-going focus of the school. Empowered parents make suggestions, and have regular opportunities to interact with staff and the principal, and see students present their work during student exhibitions and weekly pride meetings. Parents welcomed the transformation of the school’s culture, and have become more engaged. Building a strong school community has yielded other positive results, as suspensions declined tenfold and student participation at exhibition nights increased to 95% of the student body.

A partnership with Bulldog Tech, another Evergreen District school, provided educators and students a way to connect and build capacity for CCSS-aligned PBL and 21st century learning. Fundraising from the local realtors’ association and other local businesses boosts community engagement and support. Students also received a $100,000 fitness room as part of the school being named a National Champion School, and the Governor’s Fitness Award. 

As the school’s PBL practice has become more rigorous and intentional, so have the school’s assessment and educator support needs. Staff regularly utilize numerous rubrics for both formative and summative assessments. They have also collaboratively developed a new learning management system to assess and communicate student learning to parents, as well as allow students to set personal learning goals, including key 21st century skills and habits of mind. Staff are committed to improving assessments and continuing to build student literacy, and the school is very intentional about providing all students, especially English-language learners, with deeper learning opportunities and connections that strengthen literacy skills. Rachel Trowbridge, a 2nd grade teacher who transferred to Katherine Smith 12 years into her teaching career believes the school is “challenging me every day and making me a better teacher.”

Katherine Smith’s Principal Aaron Brengard recently brought together key member of his team to write a recent series of blogs for the Partnership for 21st Century Learning and tell firsthand how a school's policy and practice are connected so that all students with special needs are included as 21st century learners. The team strives not to water down rigor or make accommodations that can remove the challenges of deeper learning by separating how and what special needs children learn.

Part 1: Principal Aaron Brengard. writes an overview of the school’s approach to special needs learning in the 21st century.

Part 2: Teacher Sergio Hernandez discusses Full PBL Inclusion: Ensuring Deeper Learning for my Special Education Students.

Part 3: Jennifer Oien-Chen,  a Speech Language Pathologist specializing in Augmentative Communication and Autism, outlines Pre-Identification Systems for 21st Century Learners with Special Needs.

Part 4: Teacher Rachel Trowbridge and Ms. Oien-Chen write about engaging young children in Young Children with Needs and PBL.

School Characteristics