Learning Loss or Innovation Gain? You Decide!

by Greg Goelz, West Allis-West Milwaukee School District

The global pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives, including education. As a result, there has been a lot of conversation about “learning loss” when we should be talking about creating “innovation gain.”

Rather than looking back and trying to get “back to normal” (whatever that means), let’s focus on forging ahead. As educators, we have a rare opportunity to reinvent what education looks like, so stop dreaming and start doing!

I am very fortunate to work at James E. Dottke Project-Based Learning H.S., where we chose to hit the gas pedal and accelerate our school transformation BECAUSE of the pandemic, not in spite of it. In the spring of 2020, we conducted dozens of empathy interviews with staff, students and families and asked them what they thought school should be–and then we made it that. We are definitely not finished with creating our new school, and we’ll never actually be done, but it feels AMAZING (and absolutely exhausting) to be a part of something so special and impactful.

If you want to know what’s missing from your school, ask the end user–the student! They are the key ingredient to our success. We discovered that our students were bored with traditional, one-size-fits all educational models and instead, wanted authentic learning experiences where they could do something with their learning. So, we gave it to them.  

Let me tell you something, changing a whole school is no easy task! You only make progress with dedicated staff and a vibrant school culture where everyone works together towards a common goal. The point is, change is never easy. The last couple of years have made me realize how much easier it is to simply maintain or tweak current systems rather than wipe the slate clean and start over. But, the easy decision is not always, (or even usually,) the right decision.

Our school change was grounded in the Deeper Learning Competencies as adopted by our school district, and we use project-based learning (PBL) as the vehicle to achieve deeper learning for the students. We know that in order for our students to be successful and live life on their own terms after graduation, they need to be able to show content mastery, an academic mindset, self-directed learning, communication, collaboration and critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Like most school principals, every summer I spend some time reflecting on the previous year’s successes and challenges, as well as excitedly pondering the year to come. Like almost every other summer at Dottke, I came up with a theme for the year.


This year it is “ELEVATE.”

I chose this word because our small, wonderfully unique and diverse school has gone through some interesting changes in the past few years. You see, for over three decades we’ve been an alternative education high school for at-risk, credit-deficient juniors and seniors. We have recently transformed our whole educational existence to now be a fully-functioning project-based learning school for any 9th-12th grader in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District who wants to learn in a different way. 

If we want to achieve our district’s vision of creating “experiences that build community and empower learners so they can live life on their own terms,” then we need to place them in real world situations where they can learn and grow. We do this through developing real world partners, working with experts and developing creative spaces for students to build and create. It’s about elevating our performance in everything we are doing in order to become the school we all have envisioned it to be.

We turned an unused locker room into an aquaponics lab. We acquired a beehive where students create products and sell them at our local farmer’s market. With the help of Trek, we created a bike shop and a mountain bike team. Another locker room became a huge community clothing closet. We have a maker-space filled with equipment to build and create cool projects. We started a student-run t-shirt business and a coffee shop. There is a space where students can play and record music and mix in beats and another area for video and podcasting recording. We are in the midst of building a restaurant-grade culinary arts kitchen. And more!  

We accomplished all of this in about three years with fewer than 20 staff and about 200 students. Take a moment and think about your school or district. How many talented, creative and driven staff and students do you have just waiting to be tapped into? What types of spaces and equipment do you have or could you obtain? How do your students want to learn? What types of skills does your community need students coming out of your school with?

And the last question is this one……..what are you willing to do to ELEVATE your school?

Greg GoelzGreg is a past certified social worker and school counselor who is currently the proud principal at James E. Dottke Project-Based Learning High School in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District (school video). He is an advocate for all kids and believes in seeing students as assets as a starting point in developing student-centered learning opportunities. Greg recently co-authored What’s in Your CORE?: An Educator’s Guide to Plugging into Purpose and Perspective and he’d love it if you followed him on Twitter @goelzg and @DottkePBLHS.