Building Houston's Super School

Furr High School Experiments With ‘Genius Time,’ Letting Students Choose More Courses

Some people question if letting kids learn what they want is the best way to improve education.


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Inside the auditorium at Furr High School, dozens of teenagers crowd the stage. They side-step, clap and spin to the beat for an intense workout.

Over in the school’s courtyard, another student coaches his peers in a form of acrobatic martial arts, known as tricking. They twist and flip in the air.

And in the park near campus, a dozen students learn how to train pitbull puppies, with call and response.

Welcome to “Genius Time” at Furr High, a school once known for its gangs and high number of dropouts.

Now Furr has gotten national attention for its innovation, since it won a $10 million grant last fall from a nonprofit run by Steve Jobs’ widow, the XQ Institute.

School leaders say that Genius Time is just one way that Furr will transform the high school experience.

“It gives them that ability to start having voice and choice and you can see it from the kid as they're progressing,” said Fredalina Pieri, the magnet coordinator at Furr.

“Because at first they would go with their friends and little cliques kind of thing. And as time goes on, the kids start focusing on their interests and their passions that they have,” Pieri explained.

In that Zumba class, several students said they picked the course not just because it’s fun, but because they care deeply about health.

“There's a lot of chronic diseases going on, mostly with minorities,” said Jainny Leos, 18. “I'm a Latina and I know because of my grandma. She has diabetes and I'm scared that will happen to me because I know she takes a lot of medicine and I don't want that for my future or my brother and sister.”

So Leos has trained to teach Zumba herself in her own community.

So far, students don’t get a grade for their work in Genius Time. The electives rotate about every six weeks and meet twice a week. And the offerings vary widely, including offerings like the “History of Genocide” and “Creole Mystique” that sound like college seminars and also lighter options like how to train a puppy, juggling and painting murals.

“People are like, ‘How to train a puppy?!'” Pieri said.

In fact, some people question if letting kids do want they want is a good way to help them learn. Especially if students themselves are leading the class, as a few Genius Time courses are structured.

“We should not be so enthusiastic about personalized learning along the reasons I describe,” said Benjamin Riley, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Deans for Impact.

Riley said that one of those reasons is brain science.

“We know that students and anybody in general who doesn't have a very good understanding of a particular topic or subject is not in a good position to learn those things,” Riley said. “And that's again why we have the profession called teaching and the professionals called teachers.”

Riley urged schools to focus how those teachers can best teach children instead.

But some experts say that Genius Time could give students more voice in their education — and other research backs up that approach.

“I think that it's easy to look at individual offerings and say, you know, ‘Good God, What are students doing in Zumba class or training puppies when we need engineers of the future! And how are they ever going to learn to read,” said Rebecca Wolfe, who directs the initiative called Students at the Center at the nonprofit Jobs for the Future.


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Wolfe said that she wouldn’t advocate for Genius Time to be ” the stopping place.”

“But as a starting place I think it’s really promising to think about really putting that student in more of the driver’s seat and starting from a place of ‘What excites them? What makes them feel healthy? What makes them feel part of a community?” Wolfe said.

She said that research into the psychology of learning backs up the idea that engagement is more than fun and fluff, but that engagement and motivation need to be present for people to move to a deeper level of understanding facts and figures and applying them in different setting.

Wolfe said that before a school embarks on a more personalized approach to education, it’s important to talk with students and their parents about why. She also said that it’s important to offer all students more choice and agency – and not just certain students, such as gifted and talented or at more affluent campuses.

Recent research of student-centered learning at other schools indicate that it can help close learning gaps for under-served students, such as black and Latino students and low-income students. This includes higher graduation rates and better test scores.

In that puppy class, students said that they’ve learned more than just how to call a dog or trim its nails.

Rosa Rubio said that working with the puppies has taught her discipline and stress management. And she credits Genius Time for keeping other kids in class who used to skip.

“And it's actually a good thing because they can be happy with the school and go to class and get excited for the next day to come and do what they want,” she said.