Innovation can be a tricky word to define, especially in education. There are so many educational philosophies and ways of doing things that change, sometimes because of current research, and sometimes because it’s trendy.

What makes an ‘innovative’ school?

But far from being just a ‘flavor of the month’, we make the argument that innovation involves two things: new ideas, and purposeful improvement.

Innovation for the sake of innovation is empty. If you do something just because it’s ‘new’ it may lack purpose. And if you’re not open to new ideas at all, you could be stuck in the mindset of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ So combining the willingness to think differently, and act on something that is purposeful and leads to improvement, creates real innovation.

Take this quote from Michael B. Horn, educator and Christensen Fellow, from his keynote at REL Northeast & Islands’ Governing Board meeting in May 2023:

“It doesn’t count as innovation if it doesn’t actually help people make progress.”

All over the word, there are innovative educators and schools who are taking their ideas and using them to improve the student and teacher experience. Another powerful point from Michael Horn’s keynote mentioned above is that an innovation doesn’t have completely new idea that no one else has ever thought of before, but that is new to you, or your school community. With that in mind, consider the use of time as one area schools can innovate.

Why is Reimagining Time an Important Innovation?

One of the most valuable and fleeting resources in a school is time. How schools use this important resource can reveal what they truly value. We’ll touch on that a little more later, but really, meaningful innovation at a school is in some way going to alter how the school uses time. It could be a new program that alters the schedule, it could be how schools measure achievement and its connection with seat time, it could be the school calendar, it could be curriculum changes that affect how a class period is structured, etc.

In some states, schools are able to receive designation as an innovative school. While the criteria for becoming one of these schools or districts may differ from state to state, they all include how schools can structure and allocate time. Let’s examine what some of these programs look like.

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Districts of Innovation in Texas

Texas released House Bill 1842 in 2015 that introduced ‘Districts of Innovation,’ or DOI, which is a designation schools can apply to receive. A district essentially meets certain criteria, develops an innovation plan that, if accepted, allows them to be exempt from certain requirements. This can give schools greater flexibility and autonomy in certain areas, one of which is the school calendar and schedule.


Coppell ISD is a District of Innovation that makes several proposals in their innovation plan. One involves the use of seat time.

For a student to pass a class, in many schools it is required that they are in attendance in class for a set amount of time, regardless of mastery. At Coppell ISD, they offer a variety of courses and programs to enable students to dig deeper. They believe that, “Prioritizing the percentage of time a learner spends in a classroom more than a learner’s ability to demonstrate mastery of content undermines the innovative learning environments Coppell ISD provides.” So they proposed to use attendance committees to determine whether a student receives course credit based on seat time, or demonstrated mastery.

Districts and Schools of Innovation in Mississippi

In Mississippi, a school or a district can apply be designated as Innovative. What is the draw? This designation gives state-granted flexibility to schools and districts, giving them more freedom to find creative ways to engage students and meet their needs.

For instance, a School of Innovation in Mississippi can implement a flexible structure and use of time, impacting how they could work with seat time and the school schedule. Here is a list of what this designation allows districts to do, from the Oxford School District website:

  • Reducing achievement gaps by expanding learning experiences for students who are academically low-achieving
  • Increasing participation in various curriculum and instructional components and instructional components to enhance student achievement
  • Increasing the number of students who are college-and-career ready and reduce the number of students that exit high school in need of remediation
  • Expanding curriculum choices and learning opportunities for all students


The Gulfport School District in Mississippi adopted a flexible schedule in 2021. This District of Innovation has extended the school year, but not the actually number of school days. Instead, the schedule runs throughout the year, with extended breaks in between, instead of one long summer break.

As of last summer (2023), other school districts were choosing to begin early and adopt more of a year-long schedule as well, as stated in a local news report. What is the appeal of this less traditional use of time?

Innovation Schools in Massachusetts

Massachusetts similarly has adopted a program in the past several years to identify schools who have adopted innovative practices. Becoming an ‘Innovation School’ gives schools flexibility in the following areas:

  • Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment
  • Budget
  • Schedule and Calendar
  • Staffing
  • Professional Development
  • District Policies and Procedures


Muniz Margarita Academy in Boston is a dual language school, teaching students to be successful in both English and Spanish.  In addition to their bilingual curriculum, they also provide a Crew advisory program for students. Crew meets twice a week for 45 minutes, and is a time period that helps students build connections to each other, and a teacher in the building. Students meet with the same teacher who acts as the ‘Crew Leader’, giving the student a trusted adult in the building who can advocate for them.

Other Innovative Schools

Apart from state initiatives that may create a more specific definition for what an innovation looks like, there are many schools who are choosing to make innovative decisions based on research and experience. Let’s look at several innovative schools across the country, and what sets them apart.

West Side High School

When it comes to reimagining time, some schools have adopted extremely fluid, student-centered schedules. The flex mod schedule at West Side High School in Omaha Nebraska is one of those schools. Since 1967, West Side High School has been running a flexible modular schedule. A flex mod schedule allows students to learn at their own pace, incorporating large group and small group instruction, labs, and independent study time.

The use of time in a flex mod schedule is essentially broken into flexible chunks. Students learn how to manage their time well, prioritize, and have time to meet with teachers. Learn more about the schedule at West Side High School here.

Radnor High School

Radnor High School, in Radnor Township school district, is a school who is piloting a model based in part off of the model at West Side High School. They are dipping their toes into flex mod scheduling by giving interested teachers the option of teaching their class as a flex mod, and students the option to choose that mode of learning.

Looking ahead, Dr. Scott Hand, Director of Technology Innovation & Instructional Design at the school shares,

“So I just had conversations today with the High School administrative team, saying, Ok we are here, where would we like to take this next year, and to what level? We know at this point we couldn’t have an entire flex mod scheduling, we’re not quite ready for that or every class being a flex mod because we wouldn’t be able to support that with our physical space, so what is our threshold, how would we like to expand this and what are some of the early results we are seeing..?”

What are some of the early results? A lot of it comes down to students’ investment in their learning, and how it’s impacting relationships. Dr. Alexis Swineheart, an English teacher at the school who is taking part in the flex mod program shares that,

“I feel such connection with my flex mod, even though I have 2 sections and I technically don’t see them every day it’s because when I do see them it’s so individualized and it’s either a small group or a conference, that, they’ll come in and stop and tell me something or say, hey I know I’m not supposed to see you but I finished my independent book can we have a book talk now?”

Hear more about their unique program in this podcast episode.

Synergy at Mineola High School

Synergy, a subset of Mineola High School in New York, is another example of how reimagining time is an innovation that can benefit students. At Synergy, students’ learning is largely self-guided. The school is set up much like a creative office space. Students check in and creat their plan for the day, which might include meeting with advisors, attending lectures, and takina a deep dive into projects. Back in 2021, we spoke with education leader Jennifer Maichin about these changes at her district.

“I think that in traditional education and education in general, it’s so hard to move forward because there are, or there feel like there are, so many constraints,” she says, “But we tend to take on a design thinking mindset in which, there are solutions to everything if you can find them. And if you think a little bit differently, for instance reimagining time, you can identify those challenges and look at them as opportunities to find a new solution. And that’s what we’ve done at Synergy.”

To learn more about Synergy, check out this article in EdWeek, and listen to our podcast episode with Jennifer.

How Can My School Become Innovative?

Being part of a specific program or organization doesn’t make a school innovative. Innovation is happening every day in schools because of teachers who are willing to disrupt the way things have always been done, principals who are forward thinkers and open to ideas, students who are looking for more.

Innovation can happen at the individual, classroom, school, and district level. So making your school innovative could start small and grow, or could involve big changes. Your schedule is at the heart of what you do at a school, so for many, it can be a good place to start. Does your schedule align with your school or District’s core values?

Lastly, here a quote from Principal Zak Cohen to think about:

“You know time is undoubtedly, inarguably, the most precious commodity in a school. Not just in terms of prep periods or the cadence and regularity of meetings, but in terms of students’ schedules and how it aligns to and reinforces our community values. There’s that old saying that if you want to know what somebody values, look at their checkbook. For schools if you want to know what you value just look at your schedule. More than any other document the school schedule reveals hidden beliefs and exposes those discrepancies between those professed ideals and the reality of our practices.”

So, can your school start its innovation journey by examining how time is being used, and how it can better serve students?


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