The iZone: The Evolution of a Central Office’s Approach to Fostering Innovations in Personalized Learning

As part of a series of posts on the evolution of organizations in New York City, the US, and other parts of the world including India and parts of Africa, this post explores the evolution of the iZone, a unit within the New York City Department of Education dedicated to “inspiring innovation in in NYC public education.” The iZone’s goals include designing “schools around the unique strengths, interests and needs of each student.” In order gain a better understanding of the possibilities and challenges for educational innovation iZone has encountered, we recently spoke with several former and current leaders of the iZone. They talked about the development of iZone’s work and vision as well as the constantly changing conditions in which organizations like iZone have to operate and adapt. 

What if the possibilities of technology could be harnessed to solve the organizational challenges of designing schools around the interests, needs, and strengths of students? This question animates the work of the Office of Innovation (iZone) within the NYC Department of Education. From its creation in 2009, iZone set out to create conditions that would enable associated schools to develop and achieve their own visions of personalized learning.  Positioning itself as an incubator of innovative educational practices, the office was organized around three main projects: iLearnNYC, iZone360, and InnovateNYC Schools. Through these projects, iZone has evolved from an organization that primarily strove to launch and replicate new schools designed around innovative practices in personalized learning to an organization that facilitates the adoption and adaptation of a variety of technologies, tools, and applications for personalized learning across existing schools. In the process, iZone itself has experienced the possibilities and challenges for both incubating new ideas and enabling those ideas to spread and have a significant positive impact on teaching and learning throughout New York City.

iZone 1.0 — Piloting New Student-Centered School Designs


iZone was launched several years into the administration of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and School Chancellor Joel Klein.  At the time, their approach to improving schools – which they called Children First –,was characterized by increased autonomy for schools and principals in exchange for greater accountability for student performance, small schools that would better engage students, and an embrace of educational technology. Ideas for an office dedicated to personalized learning enabled by technology represented a natural progression of the theories of change underlying these reform initiatives as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of early ed-tech start-ups at the time. The NYC Department of Education was already involved in a number of efforts to spur student-centered learning and innovation. The summer of 2009 saw the pilot of School of One (profiled by IEN in 2016) which tested the idea that technology could provide appropriate and responsive curriculum to meet each students’ needs. In addition, several new small schools in NYC were pursuing their own experiments with technology and personalization. In particular, iSchool, had been experimenting with online classes, allowing students to accelerate their learning by taking offerings that might not otherwise be available to them. These projects provided proof-points for the theory that technology could create flexibility in the traditional time and space constraints of schooling by freeing-up teacher bandwidth; easing pressure to staff courses; and allowing learning to happen anytime, anywhere. This meant, as then-Deputy Chancellor of Talent, Labor, and Innovation John White put it in a report by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, reimagining schooling by treating time, space, and human capital as variables, instead of constants, in the educational equation.

iZone’s foundational project was iLearnNYC, a learning management platform which allowed students, through their schools, to access curriculum from several dozen vendors. 81 schools began using iLearnNYC in 2010-2011. Taking classes online allowed for more flexibility in when, how long, and where classes took place. Schools used iLearnNYC for credit recovery, advanced placement, and blended learning which opened up more time for project-based learning, provided opportunities for accelerated learning, or made a greater variety of courses available to students. Over the next few years, 200 schools worked with iLearn, with 80% of them continuing to use it beyond the first year of implementation.

iSchool, School of One, and iLearnNYC inspired ambitious plans for whole-school change. This became the work of iZone360: a community of schools committed to “reorganizing all aspects of their school, including budgets, staff, space, instruction, scheduling, and technology, around meeting the needs of individual students.” The Office of Innovation would offer technical, financial, and professional support to help schools innovate toward their uniquely defined visions of personalized learning. iZone also served as an advocate for the pilot schools by addressing policies that hindered student-centered design and developing resources and tools that could help foster their work.  For example, iZone appealed to the NYS Board of Regents to amend seat-time requirements to allow credit for online or blended coursework.

Consistent with the emphasis on autonomy under the Children First reforms, iZone’s initial plan was to recruit pilot schools by finding school leaders who were passionate about personalized learning. Each pilot school had the freedom to define what personalized learning meant to them and to set their vision for the next three to five years.  Successful pilot schools would then serve as models that could be scaled-up across the city. Ideally, the pilot schools would be embedded in networks of affiliated schools that would partner with and observe the work of the pilot school in the first year, adopt practices in the next year, and then continue to deepen their work through the sharing of best practices. In 2010, iZone presented its vision and plan to schools, recruiting applications. In 2011-2012, it launched 25 pilot schools, selected for their demonstrated interest and readiness to experiment with personalized learning practices.

These pilot efforts served as the foundation for what iZone’s leaders hoped would be more system-wide changes. But as then-Chief of Innovation Arthur VanderVeen explained, such “lateral diffusion” from a small number of pilots to a large number of partner schools is particularly hard to achieve in such a big district with shifting politics and priorities. While a pilot of 81 schools may be a large initiative in most districts, it reflects only a small fraction of the more than 1,700 schools in NYC. Furthermore, several national and state initiatives, including the development of new teacher evaluation policies and the rollout of the Common Core, made sustaining focus on innovative student-centered school models even more difficult. As VanderVeen explained, “getting the early success and recognition and building momentum around a vision for personalization so other school would want to take it on, was always challenging.” An additional challenge came when Joel Klein resigned in the middle of the 2010-2011 school year. According to VanderVeen, iZone’s theory of change relied on continued commitment and strong leadership—the ability to “encourage, drive, and support schools to move” toward this vision of personalized learning—at the system, network, and school levels. Without Klein, a strong proponent of technology and personalized learning, the future of iZone seemed to be in doubt. Under these conditions, White left in the middle of the year 2010-2011 school year, and VanderVeen left a few months later during the summer of 2011.

iZone 2.0 – Encouraging New Student-Centered Learning Solutions


New leadership, including Andrea Coleman and Steven Hodas, who joined Megan Roberts as Executive Directors of iZone, came in with strong backgrounds in technology, design and entrepreneurship, which influenced the direction of the office. While it continued to support and foster the development of innovative school designs, iZone also sought to change the conditions for the development of innovative products and services. This second phase of iZone saw a shift from implementing a vision of personalized-learning through school support services from traditional venues to working closely with users to identify key problems and develop scalable solutions by drawing on principles of design-thinking, rapid-prototyping, and market disruption.

In 2012-2013, iZone360 recruited an additional 25 schools, and iLearnNYC launched the Blended Learning Institute, a two-year certificate program in collaboration with Pace University that provided professional development in instruction and classroom management unique to personalized learning. Both branches of iZone continued to develop new means of supporting schools. In 2013, iLearnNYC worked with to add a computer science track to the Blended Learning Institute. iZone360 worked to empower educators with design-thinking process and low-tech solutions, through initiatives such as the Personalized Pathways Challenge for solving problems related to student-centered learning, Essential Allies Challenge for solving problems related to family engagement and iCamp, a 3-day conference that brings educators together to problem-solve and engage in competitions for pitching the next iZone Challenge topic.

Recognizing that challenges in the procurement process and bureaucratic layers between companies and schools hindered the development of targeted technology solutions to personalized learning, iZone also sought to have a greater impact in the educational ecosystem of NYC. A third branch called Innovate NYC Schools sought to influence the development and purchasing of ed-tech by facilitating partnerships between technologists and teachers. This would lead to developers solving more directly for classroom needs with feedback from teachers. It sought to marry the “start-up” mentality of the NYC-based tech scene in the budding Silicon Alley with the work of school improvement. Innovate NYC was housed in a co-working space for start-ups in order to break down the bureaucratic barrier between the office, schools, and developers and staged competitions to spur innovation, such as the Gap App Challenge. Companies partnered with schools for five-month prototype process, in which teachers worked alongside developers to share feedback on products for classroom use. Daily feedback alongside more formal data collection in Short-Term Evaluation Cycles provided information about the effectiveness of the product and areas for improvement. Many products were favorably reviewed, and teachers and entrepreneurs developed mutually beneficial relationships with each other that could continue beyond the formal structure of the challenge. Such partnerships signaled a broader vision for shaping the educational ecosystem: “The hypothesis,” Steven Hodas told Edsurge, was “that if you put teachers and developers together collaboratively for a long period of time, each of them will change.” This model of match-making between educators and developers was repeated in challenges like Music Education Hackathon and School Choice Design Challenge. For example, the Short-Cycle Evaluation Challenge partnership between East Bronx Academy of the Future and Listenwise (formerly Listen Current, a listening comprehension program featuring engaging, relevant content), resulted in a product that better met the needs of the school’s ELL learners and struggling readers. Through these initiatives, iZone sought to reshape the educational ecosystem by creating informal channels between educators and entrepreneurs and refocusing purchasing around the needs of schools (see Hodas’s (2016) report on the lessons of Innovate NYC for more on this topic).

iZone 3.0: Supporting Student-Centered Learning and Teaching  


Toward the fall of 2014, iZone reached a “crossroads” as journalists at Chalkbeat put it, when a new mayor and Chancellor took office. Coleman, Hodas, and Roberts left, along with other senior staff. In addition, funding from Race To The Top (an initiative of the Obama administration) ran out (although there was still some funding from another federal initiative, i3 grants, though that funding ran out in 2015). The confluence of changes in leadership, funding, organizational structuring, and pressures of Common Core implementation shaped the evolution of the iZone, as it adapted strategies to achieve its mission under these new conditions. Although incorporated back into the NYC Department of Education’s organizational structure with a smaller staff and less funding, iZone in this third phase continues to add to its existing programs and aims to incubate ideas that, if successful, will get scaled up through other divisions in the New York City Department of Education. For example, the Mastery Collaborative, a professional community of practice around the idea of mastery-based learning, generated sufficient interest from schools that it was moved into the Office of Postsecondary Readiness, Teaching, and Learning, a professional development program that support schools in designing student-centered learning, for continued support. iZone also continues to support schools through professional development initiatives such as the Blended Learning Institute and Affinity Groups, which offer a space for small groups of educators to gather around shared problems. iZone also continues challenged-based programming, such as #SharkTankEDU, in which edtech startups pitch their ideas to and receive feedback from the education community. iZone has also begun a third cycle of Short-Cycle Evaluation Challenges teams for the 2016-2017 school year. At this point, support for schools and mediation between the tech sector and schools are key pillars of iZone’s work. As current iZone members describe it, the first two phases of iZone generated feedback and ethnographic insights that helped iZone understand what support schools needed—such as professional development, new policies, and different procurement processes.

Reflections and Implications

iZone, like many organizations in the 2000’s, originally aimed to advance personalization through the development and replication of new school models. With changes in policies, politics, and funding, iZone evolved into an organization that, as it currently describes itself, “works with schools, the edtech marketplace and policy makers to design and scale promising learning models that prepare all students for college and careers.” Throughout this evolution, iZone itself has experienced the possibilities and challenges for an organization intent on both incubating new ideas and enabling those ideas to spread and have a significant positive impact on teaching and learning. iZone’s efforts may provide particular lessons for those who seek to connect teachers and schools with entrepreneurs and developers to create the tools and resources that respond to the students’ needs.


2 responses to “The iZone: The Evolution of a Central Office’s Approach to Fostering Innovations in Personalized Learning

  1. Pingback: A new model for integrating technology in schools? The work of eduLab in Singapore | Thomas Hatch

  2. Pingback: A new model for integrating technology in schools? The work of eduLab in Singapore | International Education News

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