School Climate & Safety

A National Push to Redesign High Schools, Led By Steve Jobs’ Widow

By Catherine Gewertz — September 17, 2015 2 min read
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Apple founder Steve Jobs’ widow has launched a $50 million competition to create new high school designs that maximize student engagement and achievement.

An unusual feature of the competition, which opened quietly on Sept. 11, and has been trickling into the national media this week, is that it places student and community voice at its center. Leaders are kicking off an eight-city tour to publicize the project and collect input. It will include a town hall for student feedback, and a public installation designed to receive ideas about school design, The Los Angeles Times reports.

It’s called XQ: The Super School Project, and it’s led by Laurene Powell Jobs. Leading the day-to-day work as chief operating officer of the XQ Institute is Russlynn Ali, who was assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, and vice president of the Education Trust, which focuses on school improvement for low-income and minority students. Ali has overseen education grantmaking at the Emerson Collective, a philanthropy established by Jobs after her husband’s death.

The homepage of its new website,, features a rotating scroll of challenges: “Rethink high school,” it says. “Rethink the bell. Rethink repetition. Rethink desk time. Rethink the questions. Rethink the answers. Rethink knowledge.” It flashes a list of questions: “What if we take our desks outside? What if we knock down the walls? What if learning is a game?”

Hints of the school qualities the project values can be found in the way its leaders explain the origin of the endeavor’s name.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the project is seeking feedback from students, teachers, civic leaders, artists, and others to “create high schools that foster dynamic learning, critical thinking, intellectual flexibility, collaboration, and other skills needed for the modern world.” A key goal is to create high schools that serve as “great equalizers” rather than perpetuating gaps in achievement among racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups of students, Ali said.

Fifty million dollars in funding is available to support at least five schools over a five-year period, the website says. Applicants are expected to submit their concepts by November to confirm eligibility, with “discover and design” phases of the applications due in February. Finalists will be chosen in April, and winners announced next August. Resources on the Super School Project’s website walk applicants through the process, and provide materials to support them as they design their ideas.

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