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Ready to Design a New School? ‘Start With the Student.’

Educators share insights on building next-generation schools.

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Imagine creating a new public high school from scratch — not just the building, but the learning experience itself. How would you start? What would a typical day look like? How would it differ from most high schools?

At a recent EWA seminar, several educators who have faced this challenge shared their insights as they sought to better serve students by upending traditional school models.

Their strategies focused on student-centered approaches that appeal to students’ career interests, provide real-life learning experiences and consider project- and competency-based models over conventional classrooms.

“What we truly believe is that you have to start with the student,” said Matthew Pilarski, a longtime educator who is now the director of instruction and school design for Springpoint. This nonprofit helps design and launch new high schools.

Springpoint has been a partner in the development of 16 public schools in nine states, the oldest of which are in their fourth year.

Instruction, Core Values

Pilarski said his firm goes through a three-year design process with clients that considers three things: the physical design of the school, the instructional approach, and the development of core values.

“In the first year, the research is who we are and the community that we are in and what’s the best school that is going to be here,” he said during the panel at EWA’s December seminar, “A Reporter’s Guide to Rethinking the American High School.”

(Springpoint recently published a resource guide with information on more than 40 innovative high schools around the country: Learning From Great Practice: Schools to Visit in 2017.)

Among the schools that Springpoint helped to design is the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, founded in 2015, where students work on a competency-based model that includes significant student work on projects throughout the year.

Project-based Learning

At the school, part of the Denver Public Schools, students work at their own pace and move onto new concepts as they master skills and concepts.

“We believe that through project-based learning that’s the way students can demonstrate their skills and ability in meaningful and authentic ways,” said Lisa Simms, DSISD principal.

Simms said twice a year the school holds “demonstrations of learning,” which are “huge gallery nights” during which students choose their best projects and present the to the community.

DSISD became an early college school in May by offering Advanced Placement and concurrent college courses through Community College of Denver, University of Colorado Denver and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

The school is part of the Denver school district, but also was granted “innovation” status by the state, allowing it considerable flexibility. As a recent report by education analyst Craig Jerald for the Center on American Progress explains, the school received many waivers of state and local rules, including on mandatory instructional hours, governance, staffing, and collective bargaining.

Another example of innovation presented was the Iowa BIG High School in Cedar Rapids, a project-based school created after flooding had destroyed much of the downtown area and a local newspaper and television station put out a call to redesign the city, said Shawn Cornally, co-founder and STEM educator at Iowa BIG.

Cornally helped to spearhead a project that sent adults from the community back to high school for a day and to share their observations to inform what would work best for a redesign.

”They said, ‘Man teachers really work hard and nobody cares and students change classes a lot and they spend a lot of time caring (more) about transitional things than work,’ ” Cornally said.

The pilot of Iowa BIG started started as a summer program at a local community college. Students were assessed on their competency but received no grades. A local school superintendent asked Cornally’s group to create the program for public school districts.

Students at Iowa BIG come from three traditional high schools in nearby districts that “on the football field really hate each other,” Cornally said.

Students and their families decide how much of their day they want to spend at their traditional schools and how much they spend at Iowa BIG.  They can elect to spend from 30 percent to 100 percent of their time at Iowa BIG.

They get so involved in their projects they often stay after school to continue their work.

The Iowa BIG program is based on three principles: Students have to believe in what they are building, have to have an invested community partner and have to manage their time on the project the way professionals do under the supervision of teachers who filter curriculum concepts into the work.

Among current projects is construction of an aquaponic system. Students are also creating programming for community libraries.

The school has been nationally recognized for its innovation and is the recipient of a $1 million grant from the XQ Super School Project.

Cleveland Builds System of Charter, District-Run Schools

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is building a system of charter and district-operated schools geared toward educating students for jobs of the future by tapping into the interests of students and industry trends, said Christine Fowler-Mack, the chief portfolio officer for the district.

As part of its process, the Cleveland district has created stakeholder design teams that include community leaders, religious leaders and parents, with a focus on  “play, passion and purpose baked into school design,” Fowler-Mack said.

The result has been a science and health high school embedded at Metro Health Hospital and another such high school that operates in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, where students can observe surgeries.

There are also high schools for students interested in the digital arts, aerospace and maritime skills, architecture and design, engineering and information technology, and early college high schools where students can earn both a high school diploma and two-year college degree within four years.

During the EWA panel, the speakers stressed that the design process doesn’t end when a new school opens.. A continuous evaluation of what works and doesn’t work is necessary for success.

‘Breadth and Depth’

A struggle that DSISD is dealing with is meshing its early-college model with its project-based learning, said Simms, the principal.

“You have to cover so much curriculum in AP that you can’t go into the breadth and depth that you need to and desire to in a project-based world,” she said.

Learning what works and doesn’t work is a part of the design process, said Pilarksi of Springpoint.

His organization doesn’t yet have data on which programs and designs are most successful in its portfolio, he said, as the oldest schools are just in their fourth year of operation.

Because graduation rates and tests vary from state to state, Pilarski said, he would not consider them a measurable standard of success.

Rather, he pointed to “college persistence,” which in the early stages can be measured by students who return for their sophomore year.  He doesn’t have those statistics yet because Springpoint’s oldest schools are just in their fourth year. But they plan to track it.

“If you can get to your second year of college, you are in a good place and you’re in a place where we think you are going to be successful in whatever it is you chose to do,” Pilarksi said.

For Fowler-Mack, the sign of a successful school redesign is one that allows for both a college and career track. Older schools are “designed to get the outcome they are getting and things have changed,” she said.

“We want our kids to be prepared for their future ,whether to step into careers today or into postsecondary institutions,” she said.