School & District Management

10 High School Redesign Projects Win $100 Million in ‘XQ Super School’ Contest

By Catherine Gewertz — September 14, 2016 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


In one of the nation’s biggest school-redesign competitions, 10 teams won a collective $100 million Wednesday to create new high schools or transform existing ones across the country.

Each of the winners of XQ: The Super School Project will have $10 million over the next five years to undertake ambitious projects centered on innovative, engaging approaches to learning. All projects serve student populations that are predominantly low-income and/or racial minority.

Here are the 10 winning teams and their plans. (You can also meet the winners and watch video presentations about them in the archived version of the star-studded Facebook livestream where they were announced.)

Powderhouse Studios, Somerville, Mass. This new school will ditch traditional schedules and class periods, opting instead for teams of 30 to 40 students who become “investigators,” doing all their learning through real-world projects they conceive and execute. Each student team works with a curriculum designer, social worker, and project manager.

Brooklyn Laboratory Charter High School, New York City. This new charter school will focus on delivering college-prep studies to “complex learners” not well served by typical public schools, such as those who are learning English, have disabilities, or are over-age and undercredited. It will put particular emphasis on advanced literacy skills such as argumentation, and use an “orchestra” of educators, including teachers and parents.

Design-Lab High, Newark, Del. This charter school, which opened in 2015 for grades 9 and 10, will expand to include grades 11 and 12. It uses a student-led-project approach, with 9th graders taking the role of apprentice as they work on cross-grade teams, and assuming more responsibility as they progress through high school. The school emphasizes television and video production, museum exhibits, and presentations.

Furr High School, Houston. This former dropout factory, now boasting a 95 percent graduation rate, will redesign its learning approach

to feature projects that are created together by students and teachers. The projects will aim to solve real-world problems, and to give the students “a sense of hope and an abiding belief that they can be change agents in the turbulent worlds from which they come,” according to a summary of the plan. Students will have a significant voice in all major decisions made at the school.

New Harmony High, Venice, La. This new school will exist in multiple sites, including a barge in the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans’ Superdome, fishing boats, and science laboratories. Study will be built around the theme of rising sea levels and how they affect the Native American Houma people. Students will study with teachers, farmers, fishermen, artists, and environmental scientists. Students will also be part of a community-based “crowd co-design” of the school’s master plan.

RISE High, Los Angeles. This new school for homeless and foster teenagers “will quite literally meet them where they are,” by co-locating in the offices of shelters and other service providers, according to the plan summary. It will offer flexible scheduling and 24/7 online access to studies, making it easier for students to complete their work. It will also offer wraparound services to support their physical needs, and put special emphasis on close relationships with adult staff members to create a family environment.

Summit Elevate, Oakland, Ca. The Summit Public Schools charter network will open a new school that explicitly focuses on preparing for college and contributing to society. All students will graduate with transcripts that prepare them for “any four-year college or university,” according to a proposal summary. Working with Summit advisors and networks of advisors that they build themselves, students will design and complete interdisciplinary projects, culminating with completion of a thesis that answers the question: “What is the world asking of me?”

Vista Challenge High, Vista, Calif. This is a project to redesign a 2,200-student high school. With its partner, Digital Promise, the Vista Unified school district will create a “learning positioning system” to show students where they are in their study and how to move forward. Challenge High will use the United Nations’ 17 goals for sustainable development and global transformation to shape students’ projects.

Washington Leadership Academy, Washington. This new charter school aims to “replace whole-class lectures and boring printed worksheets” with online modules taught by teachers, as well as holographic field trips and virtual-reality studies that students deploy at their own pace. Students will also do community-based projects.

Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, Grand Rapids, Mich. This new district school will use the artifact collections of a local museum in an approach that uses the community as its classroom, and aims to create an education with a deep sense of place. Students will use the museum collections to explore questions about culture and history.

The contest was announced last September by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. It was originally a $50 million competition, but the total award pot mushroomed to $100 million in response to the deluge of 696 proposals, according to an XQ spokeswoman. Prize money comes from the Emerson Collective, a nonprofit that Powell Jobs established to work on education, immigration reform, and other social justice issues.

A key tenet of the competition was to create a vision of high school that drew heavily on the wants and needs of students themselves. To gather those views, the XQ team conducted a nationwide bus tour, making stops to talk to teenagers, as well as teachers, parents, principals, and others interested in reimagining secondary school. To guide its thinking further, XQ assembled a panel of advisors that’s unusual for its range and diversity: It includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Colorado state senator Mike Johnston, and science educator Bill Robertson, known as Doctor Skateboard.

Contests to Promote School Redesign

The XQ contest represents one of the biggest monied contests for school redesign. The biggest is still the 1993 Annenberg Challenge, which handed out $500 million in grants to school districts and partnerships to undertake a wide variety of school reforms in 18 sites across the country. Grants ranged from $1 million to $53 million.

Foundations have long sponsored initiatives to rework high school, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments in small high schools to the Carnegie Corp. of New York’s ongoing support for high school improvement. The Carnegie Corp.'s latest thinking about 10 key principles of strong high school design is outlined in its 2013 report, “Opportunity by Design.” It has committed $40 million in grants for projects guided by those principles.

President Barack Obama’s administration, too, has gotten involved in trying to improve high school. In November 2015, when the White House held its first summit on “next generation high schools,” the Obama administration announced that it had corralled $375 million from the public and private sectors that would be devoted to various types of high school programs.

Systems to Support New School Designs

But no one knows better than high school reformers that making profound change in that institution can be rough going. A 2002 report on lessons learned from the Annenberg Challenge, for instance, made it clear that significant change in schools is indeed a heavy lift.

Warren Simmons, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which ran that challenge, welcomed the XQ project as a valuable way to revisit ideas about school design periodically with changing student populations, needs, and technology in mind.

But he cautioned the winners to heed the experience of the reformers who’ve gone before them. Without deep changes in the district, state, and national systems in which schools are embedded, such as accountability, testing, and teacher contracts, even the most creative and valuable school designs could end up as just “pockets of innovation,” Simmons said.

Without systems redesigned to support them, new schools “either have to exist outside the system to survive, or they get derailed by systems that weren’t designed to sustain and support them, because the current structures and policies are inappropriate or ineffective in sustaining the new designs,” Simmons said.

For more stories on high school redesign, see Education Week’s 2016 Diplomas Count report.

Library interns Teresa Lewandowski and Laura Zollers contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this post had incorrect names for Powderhouse Studios and Visa Challenge High.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.