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Boost for grassroots education

Five years ago, EdCamp was a seed of an idea, 10 Philadelphia-area educators in a room attempting to make traditional teacher training more meaningful and democratic.

Five years ago, EdCamp was a seed of an idea, 10 Philadelphia-area educators in a room attempting to make traditional teacher training more meaningful and democratic.

On Monday, the teachers' work - which has already been hailed as an international professional learning phenomenon - takes the spotlight. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is scheduled to announce a $2 million grant to the EdCamp Foundation.

EdCamp specializes in "unconferences" - training sessions where participants dream up the discussion topics, attend only the sessions they're interested in, and serve as the experts they are, leading sessions in their area of interest. There are no vendors pitching teachers on products, and there's no cost to attend.

"Part of the power of EdCamp is that it says to teachers not, 'You're doing it wrong, therefore, kids aren't succeeding.' It says, 'You are experts, and when we work together, we can change the face of education,' " said Hadley Ferguson, one of the original 10 teachers and EdCamp's first executive director.

Last year, 225 EdCamps were held around the world, each independently organized, with the EdCamp foundation providing assistance as necessary. The U.S. Department of Education has held two EdCamps; the first Ukrainian EdCamp happened in June. The foundation reported income of $109,000 to the IRS last year.

The founding 10 and those who bought in early knew their work was catching on - "taking off like a rocket ship," Ferguson said. But even she was surprised when, shortly after she became the foundation's first and only employee in December, the Gates Foundation reached out.

"It was quite a moment when I got the email saying, 'We're really interested in EdCamp,' " Ferguson said.

EdCamp's work is clearly in Gates' wheelhouse: A recent foundation report found that the $18 billion schools are spending annually on professional development "is simply not working." Research shows that the most meaningful training for educators is collaborative.

"Nobody knows teaching like teachers," said Carina Wong, a deputy director of the Gates Foundation. "EdCamp is a promising model, and we're thrilled to see them take the work to the next level."

Gates invests in more than 40 "teacher practice networks," Wong said, but most of them are not as informal and grassroots as EdCamp. Its shift to this model is deliberate.

"Teachers want to connect to other teachers, but they don't have the space and time, and EdCamp provides enough of a structure - even though it's quite minimal - for teachers to become leaders in their own profession," said Wong.

Stephen Santilli, principal of William Davies Middle School in Hamilton Township, Atlantic County, started participating in EdCamps three years ago. Now, he is an organizer of EdCamp South Jersey and an enthusiastic evangelist for the movement.

Santilli has helped organize EdCamps and EdCamp-style events for teachers, principals, even parents. Next spring, his school district will devote an entire professional development day to EdCamp-style training.

"When you're done, you have so many things that you want to put into practice," Santilli said. "It's like an adrenaline rush. The majority of things I've done in my own school have stemmed from conversations and ideas from EdCamps."

That's a sea change from past professional developments, Santilli said, "when the feedback we'd get is, 'I have my master's in this. Why did I sit through this for two hours?' Or, 'I could have given that presentation myself.' "

Founding EdCamper Ann Leaness, a teacher at Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber, is still charged up by the movement, five years later.

"It's just so empowering," said Leaness, a veteran teacher. "After the first EdCamp, we knew we had to show other teachers the energy that can be in the room at a professional development [session] instead of being bored out of your mind and being told what to do."

The Gates money will help the foundation build new programs, organize a central clearinghouse to communicate with EdCamp organizers, and continue to fund grants to spread ideas cooked up at EdCamps into classrooms.

"It's Gates saying, 'You are having an impact on teachers, you are facilitating their learning and their growth,' and they want to help us do that," Ferguson said.

It's change on a large scale, but it's also granular, said Leaness, who at a recent EdCamp presented a project her students worked on in class.

"I just said, 'Help me to make this better.' I said, 'What can I do to make this a better experience in my class?' " she said. "The power is in teachers becoming better, and making kids' lives better."