School & District Management Opinion

CentennialX: A Summer Program that Ruined School for Our Students

By Patrick Larkin — February 06, 2017 7 min read
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Guest Post: By Ignacio Jayo @jayoig, Steven Beal @SteveBeal15, Albert Catarro @alcatarro, Rena Friedant


That elusive glass ceiling; you know the one. It’s that magical plane for all who believe in pushing boundaries and eking out the last drop from every unknown corner. It’s the beacon that stands for all with the courage and perseverance to drive without abandon and reach for the unreachable. As educators who believe that glass ceiling exists in our own paradigm and aim to shatter all it keeps at bay, it has been our vision, our dream, to provide a platform wherein students envision this spectacular dome, only to smash it with their own creativity and fortitude. Last summer our team experienced a fallen shard from that boundary we work to wipe from existence.

The first day of our 2016 school year, Cayla, strode in and with shoulders back, fearlessly announced, “CentennialX ruined school for us this summer”. As an educator reading this article you may be thinking this sounds an awful start to the year, but to us, we heard the crackling of glass.

Seventeen-year-old Cayla is one of 23 high school students we introduced to a new learning experience. She is part of CentennialX, a program initiated two summers ago in an attempt to reshape the traditional school archetype. The problem, we believe, is well documented: students trained to memorize content, following strict guidelines, ticking off rubrics, working in isolation, staying clean with sleeves buttoned down, all with little encouragement or opportunity to think outside the proverbial box. Next stop is the workforce or university, where expectations of collaboration, innovation, and problem-solving are paramount for success. But how are we preparing our students to be champions of these skills when far too often the shackles of our public educations have compromised the process? How may we facilitate a sort of awakening and sharpening of the tools our students so desperately need?

Creating CentennialX

This dissonance is what led us to create CentennialX, an incubator that encourages students to collaborate and work under the guidance of teacher leaders, industry professionals, and entrepreneurs to create solutions for challenges provided to them by our partners. Our inaugural collaborator was with global pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly. Joe Kim, Senior Clinical Innovation Advisor at Eli Lilly, is a visionary dedicated to improving the process of medicine development with the goal of getting new and potentially life-changing medicines quickly into the hands of the people who need them. In the summer of 2015, through the mentoring of Joe Kim and the collaboration of the teacher-leaders, two teams, comprised of three students each, worked in developing software concepts to heighten awareness for enrolling in clinical trials. After six hot weeks of research, inspiration from local entrepreneurs, and a crash course in the pharmaceutical trade, our student teams proudly presented their offerings locally, plus on the stage at Stanford Medicine X in Palo Alto, California.

Reflecting on the experience, our team set out to expand on the successes and access more professional partnerships while also servicing a broader body of future students. Again, with the support of Eli Lilly and now an added interest from PRA Health System, in the summer of 2016, five student teams were charged with designing and executing educational kits for use with elementary aged children. The kits focused on a specific disease currently matriculating through the clinical trial process along with a trial drug targeting that specific disease. Students followed the design-thinking method of research to gather information on the identified problems and projected resolutions. The students brainstormed and joined forces with their mentors to ultimately create physical prototypes. These kits were tested, critiqued and edited through the process of design thinking. The physical kits, though bright, thoughtful and entertaining, deliver powerful insight into complicated medical inquiries and begin to simplify the complexities for children of families affected by the disease.

Inspired by British educator, Sir Ken Robinson promotes the concept of “students getting educated out of creativity”. We are humbled to witness first hand what he is describing and passionately believe we can offer an environment in which student-learners, as well as educators, maneuver in such a meaningful and rich environment. For our team, through the reflection of our student Jocelyn, her sentiments materialize our goals; “This program contrasted with the traditional school projects I was familiar with because I wasn’t aiming for an A, instead I was aiming to change society and have a positive effect on the world”. Jocelyn and her teammates exemplify the notion that when learning is relevant, and students have choice and control, they become more invested and engaged.

For a culminating experience to our educational experiment, we presented our own mini-conference titled, “CentennialX”. With an audience of pharma industry professionals, educators, entrepreneurs, families, and friends, the students presented and pitched their months of work alongside national advocates for the diseases we all are working towards making non-existent in our society. Once again, the teams presented locally and in California. Unexpectedly, but oh so enthusiastically, two of our teams were also invited to share in Boston at the dPharm industry conference.

How was all this possible?

Having a core group of teachers who dedicated their evenings and summer to this mission was paramount. As a team of four diverse educators, with backgrounds in the sciences, business, public speaking, marketing, fine arts, and design, we offer and encourage a stage onto which the students can safely get messy while passionately devouring the creative process on the road to real-world problem solving.

However, the true spark of transformation in our quest from classroom to meaningful internship, undoubtedly, was the introduction of our partners. At the core, CentennialX is different because it’s not hinged solely on teachers guiding students through prescribed designs. Rather, the mentoring from accomplished professionals, along with their willingness to donate time and expertise in counsel to our students, are what begin to shatter any borders that may have existed, both physically and metaphorically. Through collaboration, bridges are built, and impractical ceilings approach extinction. No rubrics. Undefined resolutions. Constant reflection. The open-ended nature of this process proved challenging to many of the students. Comfort in prescribed daily instructions with clear pathways to goals and the ever sought for “answers”, have been the norm for these successful students. As educators, we hope to illuminate a forum where the elasticity of thought prevails and confidence is nurtured through meaningful content. CentennialX students knew they were working on authentic challenges, and their solutions, potentially, can provide widespread benefits for many in need. Our assertion is when learning is relevant, and students have choice and control, they become more invested and engaged. CentennialX students were intrinsically motivated and worked many hours beyond the required school timetable.

As a socio-economically diverse, working class, small-sized district, thirty minutes outside of Philadelphia, many of our students will be the first in their family to attend university. Our courageous students are poised to close the opportunity gaps in which some find themselves. Through these eclectic experiences, a hunger has been stirred and eyes awakened to prospects far beyond district boundaries. With the unbridled support from our school board, administrators, and non-profit education foundation, we are positioned as educators to be as creative in this process as our students. Our direct supervisor and principal, Dr. Dennis Best, with a pedagogy rooted in authentic learning for all, has traversed the trenches alongside us while keeping doors open for our team to barrel through. We are an example of true district teamwork. This trust has invited outside partnerships to be formed and flourish. Each of our professional partners witnessed the dedication amongst all stakeholders and confirmed their instincts that they too, were part of something special.

How does CentennialX build on this momentum and continue forward?

As a team, we are passionate about and committed to creating a culture, which is pervasive in all schools, and questions how we have always performed our jobs. We see tremendous potential for growth in partnerships, challenge types, and additional school involvement. As the educators designing the skeleton onto which the program is built, it is our resolve to be as flexible and spirited in the process as that which we encourage from our students. Creativity, perseverance, authenticity, tenacity, and good old fashion hard work, have been the tools towing this garden. The blossoms, no doubt, are the intrepid young learners rising high in this newborn arboretum. School may be ruined for them, and that’s okay. From what we have witnessed, we hope to ruin it for many, many, more.

Interested in Learning More?

Join CentennialX and Apply as a Summer 2017 Team (or as a Partner): Centennialx.com

Connect with our team from William Tennent High School: Ignacio Jayo @jayoig, Steven Beal @SteveBeal15, Albert Catarro @alcatarro, Rena Friedant, A.J. Juliani @ajjuliani

The opinions expressed in Reinventing K-12 Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.