Why Eric Davis Creates Global Citizens

A well-traveled, seasoned educator sees the failure and devastation in the American education system—and opts to do something about it.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Some people are just plain passionate, and it shows. Asked why he created Global Citizenship Experience, a Chicago-based high school offering a new model of learning for its students, Eric Davis sums it up in three words: “I had to.” Eric has founded and/or served as executive director to several organizations, consulted on a wide range of institutions from startups to nonprofits and multimillion-dollar organizations. In 2001, Eric founded Educational Endeavors; in 2003, Camp of Dreams. He was interim director of Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund, and director of the Illinois Education Foundation. An active board member for Camp of Dreams and Polyphony High School, he has studied in Cuenca, Ecuador as well as Paris, France. A seasoned traveler, he has been to numerous countries and traversed the U.S. six times by car or train. Global Citizenship Experience is his latest passion, and Eric comes at it with more enthusiasm than ever.

Victor: Why did you create Global Citizenship Experience?

Eric: I had to. Fifteen years I’ve worked in education—as a teacher, coach, not-for-profit executive director, etc.—and I felt compelled to bring the GCE model into the world. Selfishly, I would not be complete without the effort. Philanthropically, I believe that GCE will provide the world with a model that shows an attractive and efficient way for schools to function for all members of their learning communities.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Eric: Macro perspectives, accountability, learning that begins in the classroom, extends into the world, and matters to each individual student and to the community at large.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Eric: GCE is a high school first and a model for learning through which interested parties can get engaged—professional development, replication, etc. I, Eric, created the model and it is being fleshed out by our core team of staff, students, advisory board members, and partners.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Eric: Daily High School. Institute for training, professional development for educators. Teaches awareness, reflection, life and academic skills. Exposure to culture, business, social service, and to the questions that drive our existence.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products or services? What companies or schools do you see as in the same market?

Eric: We compete most directly with independent—private—schools and high-end religious schools. We are unique in many ways: range of student demographic, class size —12 or fewer, weekly field experience—students explore curricular extensions throughout the city ever Friday as opposed to passive field trips once/quarter at most schools, integrated curriculum—we try to tie everything together as opposed to compartmentalize courses, global connections—intensive efforts to compare/contrast and expose our students to topics as viewed through many cultures, digital portfolios—student work demonstrated online and curated by them, network building—professional, social, and cultural connections that will lead to opportunities throughout high school and in the future, executive functioning skills—daily focus on the skills that students need to succeed in life—org, time management, note-taking, etc, as well as integrated and customized curriculum—connect all courses at each grade level each term through generative themes and guiding questions; customize to each student by allowing for general rubrics and unique projects based on individual interests and passions.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Eric: Fifteen years of professional experience channeled into last 18 months. Used to home school individual students for a year or less as they required transition from one school environment to another. Last year, in 2009-10, we had three families request homeschooling and we offered a GCE pilot instead. We completed the year with six students.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Eric: Chicago and Chicago. By 2014 or 2015, we will look to replicate nationally and internationally.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Eric: $20,000—between high-end private schools and Catholic schools. Forty percent of our students receive financial assistance. This year, 60-plus percent receive assistance.  Incredible range of students: north shore families of considerable means, folks from all over the city—south and west sides, downtown—and four refugees who have resettled here within two years.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Eric: Field experiences—GCE Amazing Race, interviews with Rabbis and monks, Newberry Library as our “reference” library, graffiti tour, student presentations at Northwestern U, global exchange with sister schools abroad, incredibly cool courses and much more.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?

Eric: GCE is best for curious, motivated, passionate learners, including those who are “gifted” or have learning differences. Skills we can teach and curriculum we can customize. GCE is NOT for passive learners and those who seek direct instruction environments.  We are an active place for learning that demands accountability from all participants.

Victor: What can you tell me about your views on technology in schools? What is your approach at GCE?

Eric: As you can see in one of our student’s very funny satire of our staff training sessions http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/6907027/, we employ a range of technology tools, and the goal is very much to seamlessly integrate them into our school culture. An advisory board member of ours who is a technology consultant said something like, “technology isn’t a solution in and of itself—but if used properly, can make your solutions much more effective.” That is more of our approach. Here’s what we do, and why:

-Internally, for project management, the staff uses 37 Signals’ Basecamp. This hold all of our ongoing school projects and we employ write-boards, tasks, messaging, etc. The idea is to have a collaborative space that organizes the myriad projects and accompanying docs required to run or build GCE without subjecting ourselves to death by email.

-CRM, we use 37 Signals’ Highrise, very intuitive, simple, and easy to build over time by adding tags as we clarify how our community grows—for example, we have “prospective students,” “current students,” and “alumni,” and we can add/change/remove tags at any time to accurately categorize and query our constituents.

-Googledocs is used for shared spreadsheets, i.e., lunch orders and attendance.

-Wordpress is used so that each student can curate their own digital portfolio and each staff member his or her own blog.

-Moodle is our online platform for curriculum, discussion forums, student work submissions, etc.

-Dropbox shares “completed” docs so that we don’t need an onsite server and to vpn into it.

-Social networking, which we’re just getting ramped up for, will lead us to Facebook, Twitter, flickr and vimeo.

-Cell phones are also part of our learning environment—photos, texting, tweeting, etc. They are a learning tool that can be effective when used appropriately.

Students—since they just started this past fall—are expected to build and update their portfolios twice per week and staff to update their blogs once per week. These efforts are built into course assessments and staff meetings so that we can ensure they take place and are more than just a good idea. Our goal is truly to be as transparent about our learning experiences as possible and to engage a wide, supportive audience in the process. Certainly, this means grappling with some major issues: safety, cyberbullying, public/private content issues, etc.—but we relish the challenge and the process of working through the pros and cons.

I’m sure I’m missing something, but the bottom line is that all of these resources, if used appropriately, give us mass flexibility. The challenge is always to avoid duplication of effort and to select the appropriate platform.  The guide above is our operational strategy for technology—at least for this year. We’re already aware of refinements we’d like to make for next year, but we want to test out the technologies currently in place and limit unnecessary changes throughout the school year.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Eric: I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, our country—I’ll focus internally for now—is faced with a tidal wave of undereducated, disenfranchised consumers. This is horribly devastating to our future. Hundreds of thousands of kids are passed along year after year while gaining little relevant skills, understanding, or meaningful exposures to the world in which they will soon become adults. Bad planning.

On the other hand, there are huge efforts to improve education—public, private, online etc—Obama’s “Race to the Top,” while limited in its own ways, is driving large-scale reformation—at least on paper—and forcing districts across the nation to rethink their approaches. This in and of itself is good.

Particularly devastating problems I see today: fiscal irresponsibility and lack of creativity —our model shows a long-term cost per student that is lower than public education in Illinois and in most states across the country—how can that possibly happen! National assessment continues to drive curriculum—this is a woeful disservice to individual students and teachers who can do better than lower their expectations. Complete lack of global initiatives which connect people culturally, through activities, and that break down prejudicial barriers. Lack of arts programs. Failure to engage communities in the learning process.

On a positive note: so many good people are working to improve education that it seems everyday I come across great ideas and collaboration—all problems I just listed and solutions to more as well, from technology to after-school programs, etc.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Global Citizenship Experience?

Eric: It’s funny but I feel like I knew since I was a kid that I would teach and coach. I didn’t know that I’d build the kind of organizations that I have—I didn’t understand enough about business to see how much good you can do if you run a profitable venture. I was an LD/ADD kid who didn’t fit. I was almost always in the lower half of academic performers throughout lower, middle, and high school. Wasn’t until college that i realized i was capable and interested in doing much more. Several formative educators included folks who refused my charm and held me accountable for my less than stellar performance. I had some great coaches too. Mostly though, GCE is a testament to the educators who I didn’t have—those who are working day in and day out to improve opportunities for communities across the globe. I’ve found more camaraderie through my professional networks since i started teaching/coaching in the ’90s than I ever did as a student.

Victor: How does Global Citizenship Experience address some of your concerns about education?

Eric: I think the key concerns GCE addresses are: relevance—learning stuff that matters to kids and staff, skills that underscore learning—curriculum is a gateway for learning how to learn; if we inspire in the process, then our students will know how to access all content not just what’s covered in the term, class size—gotta have personal attention for each kid; there’s just no acceptable alternative if we truly seek to understand and respond to each child, model for learning and teaching—adhering to collaborative principles even when it’s tough and holding ourselves accountable for transparency and evaluation so that we are always pushing ourselves to learn, innovate, and refine, fiscal responsibility—our cost per student goes down as the number of students rises; we have no “fat” in our school; there are no extra positions for people to sit around and waste money, connection—we build community of students, staff, parents, board, visiting experts, partner organizations, etc. online and in-person.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Eric: I addressed much of this already [see question 11], but despite my concerns I think that the jury is still out. We will have a rough few decades, but it is quite possible that the disappointment and institutional failures we face in the next decade—that have been compounding for years and years—will fuel the kind of sustained energy and commitment to education that we desperately need. Obviously I’m still optimistic or I wouldn’t do what I do. Strange how I see—and work with—so many challenges and feel positive about the possibilities.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Global Citizenship Experience? What makes you say that?

Eric: GCE is a model to build on, to integrate into your schools, to use with mentoring programs, and to implement for Professional Development.  I say this because everyone who gets to know us says that GCE is doing everything they wish their school/org was doing. High aspirations, I know, but it’ll keep us humble as we’ll never be able to do enough.

PHOTOS: All images provided courtesy of Eric Davis, Global Citizenship Experience.

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com 


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