Member School Spotlight: Millennium School

By Paloma Cotton-Herman

This is the first piece in our “Member Spotlight” series in which we highlight unique programs and initiatives from our Elevate member schools.

Millennium School, located in the heart of San Francisco in the Mission District, considers itself a “learning lab”.

Serving the middle grades with an enrollment of around 90 students, Millennium was founded five years ago. The school’s founders took key practices in Developmental Science for this age group to help shape the school’s unique and precise “big idea”. At its core, Millennium is looking to redefine what “success” means for their students, practically applying developmental science to the transitional phase of adolescence and incorporating more holistic, student-guided practices. Teachers, known as “Guides”, see their charge as instilling in students three foundational purposes: to live a meaningful life, to feel connected to others, and to take conscious action. Through a balance of both academic and life skills, the Guides work with the students on deepening these ambitious goals.

While many schools have adopted a focus on interdisciplinary learning, Millennium lives this commitment by reflecting it not only in their values but in their daily schedule, through courses called “quests‘. Using developmental science research and their connections with various nearby universities, they shaped the schedule and curriculum to break down the silos typical of middle school, which normally has shortened periods focused on a single subject. Instead, quests ask students to combine writing, humanities, science, and technology skills in order to answer big, thorny questions, such as: Can the truth be told? How do our bodies transform? Can we hack for good? How can one communicate effectively in outer space? Students immerse themselves in two quests per term, one in humanities and one in STEM, as Guides prioritize making content personally relevant to the student while still building key skills in the subject area, making connections to their own lives and context. Each quest ends in a culmination of learning that is truly student-guided; students self-assess on a rubric, reflect on the growth they experienced, and conduct student-led conferences with their families to share what they have learned.

Millennium’s progressive, child-centered orientation has garnered attention from far and wide, so in addition to the lab school, they house a professional development program for teachers that sheds light on their holistic teaching model. Known as “Forum”, the program creates communities of wellbeing for approximately 250 educators across the country. Forum is set up to pair educators from different schools as they go through a series of twelve lessons. These lessons focus on concepts such as well-being and resiliency, and promote a partnership between independent and public schools nationally. According to Roberto d’Erizans, Millennium’s Head of School, the goal of Forum is to “fortify the educational community by fostering wellbeing and connection”. They utilize tech tools such as Circles, a platform designed to replicate a more connected learning experience, offering kudos and feedback easily through it. Students also participate in their own version of a Forum; on Wednesdays they spend the morning on social-emotional based content and in the afternoon on real-world projects and apprenticeships.

What is noteworthy about the programs we highlighted at Millennium?

Millennium’s stance on broadening the definition of student success pairs well with educating “the whole child”, focusing on the skills that students will need to thrive in what is being called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

Now with an uncertain as ever future, it is even more crucial to include life skills on par with the traditional content emphasis.

In particular, calling out the purpose of “taking conscious action” ensures that Millennium is helping to raise a generation of students actively committed to impacting their communities and greater society.

One way they make this goal tangible is by students embarking on “quests” where they explore deep questions in an interdisciplinary fashion, applying learning in real world contexts.

Students continually explore three fundamental questions: 1) who am I? 2) how do I relate to others? and 3) how will I contribute to the world?

The combination of deep personal reflection, coupled with calls to action, helps students develop self-awareness, confidence, and appreciation for others during a period of life that is marked by great physical and emotional change.

The pandemic highlighted what we already knew to be true about teaching, that it can be an isolating role, particularly in smaller institutions with limited colleagues.

Creating an intentional community of educators to share practices and discuss wellbeing builds much-needed collaborations with teachers outside one’s own institution and serves as a spark for both renewing energy and idea hunting.