I first got to know Chad Gestson when I interviewed him for The Great School Rethink (we talked about the Every Child, Every Day initiative he launched during the pandemic when he was superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School district, which you can find discussed in the book). Well, after eight years in that role, he’s taken up a new role tackling high school design at Northern Arizona University’s Arizona Institute for Education and the Economy. As a savvy leader working in a state long known for its wide-open educational landscape, I was curious about his current efforts and what he’s learned. Here’s what he had to say.
Rick: Earlier this year, you left the Phoenix Union High School district (PXU) to launch the Arizona Institute for Education and the Economy at Northern Arizona University. Why?
Chad: There comes a time when teachers know they need to leave the classroom in order to have a bigger impact. The same can be true for a superintendent. For me, after 22 years working in the system—the last eight as superintendent—I knew it was time for me to step out of the system to work more boldly on the system. Certainly, there is incredible innovation that can take place inside—PXU is a prime example of that. But there is also system-level work that has to take place if we are ever going to see the outcomes we want and need.
Rick: What types of things are you doing at Northern Arizona University?
Chad: There are great opportunities and breakthroughs on the horizon for public education. The future economy demands a different type of graduate and skillset. And this generation learns differently. They are digital natives. They require teaching, content, engagement, stimulation, individualization, and flexibility in ways that no generation ever has before. Today’s educational system is not designed to address these challenges. But there is good news. We are an entrepreneurial and innovative nation that once designed this system. We are fully capable of disrupting the old and rebuilding something new and better. In many ways, this is the work of the institute. We will create coalitions inside and outside of the field of education—here in Arizona and nationally. We will design schools and school systems of the future. And we will cultivate innovative and disruptive solutions to some of our most challenging problems.
Rick: That’s heady stuff. But what’s it look like in practice?
Chad: First, especially as it relates to high school and higher education, we need to rethink time. So long as schools are tied to the traditional Carnegie unit, innovation is boxed in. The institute will incubate school designs that do not live within the box of the Carnegie unit, such as PXU City, thus freeing up educational entrepreneurs to dream way bigger than we do now. Second, the institute will design schools with ed tech, AI, and digital learning as their foundation, not as a supplement. ChatGPT, Canva, and Gradescope alone aren’t going to transform education. Instead, it is the redesign of schools centered on these types of emerging technologies that will do it. Finally, we have to be honest with ourselves that we need an entirely different type of education workforce. We no longer have enough active teachers in our nation to teach our nation’s children—and that will only get worse, not better. The institute will work alongside partners to rethink and redesign the education workforce, which will naturally lead to rethinking and redesigning school models.
Rick: I’m curious how you see this relating to the work you did as superintendent?
Chad: This certainly builds off our work. Not too long ago, Phoenix Union was a typical system of traditional high schools. Today, PXU is an innovative network of schools. That’s because teams of dedicated educators designed and launched new micro schools, small schools, and digital schools, and even embarked upon genuine comprehensive campus reform. This is tough work. There has to be a vision for, and commitment to, radical change and success. But there also has to be a high tolerance for struggle and even failure. Reforming old models and designing new ones requires time, resources, and adaptability. It requires dismantling systems and policies.
Rick: Arizona has a reputation for being hospitable to charter schools and nontraditional models. How does that affect your approach to this work?
Chad: We have it all in Arizona, including universal vouchers. What we knew then, and know is even more true today, is that students, parents, and educators are looking for quality. They are looking for unique models that meet the unique needs of unique learners. It doesn’t matter if a school is private or district or charter. It’s about the learning and the work happening inside—or even outside—school walls.
Rick: One school you’ve been involved with, and mentioned earlier, that’s received some attention is PXU City. Can you talk about that a bit?
Chad: If we are truly going to disrupt old models, we need new models that challenge our thinking—that challenge what school really is. PXU City is a school without a school—the city is the classroom. How, when, and where learning takes place is up to the individual student. I love the tagline of City: where the city is your classroom and the future is your choice. Students work with learning guides to design their high school experience to fit their wants or needs. They can take classes in person or online. They can take classes on one school campus, on multiple campuses, at a college, in the workplace, or any combination of the above. Students can engage in dual enrollment or concurrent enrollment. They can do internships, work studies, or independent studies. PXU City is a unique example of a school that combines academic studies with real-life, career-based learning.
Rick: What’s your role in supporting a school like that?
Chad: Two things. First, we must remember that great leaders know when to lead, when to follow, and when to get out of the way. We cast a bold vision for City, hired a team, got out of the way, and simply said, “Let us know when you hit a wall. We’ll help break it down.” Second, you have to choose whether to listen to or ignore the critics. There were many faultfinders of the school design from day one. Many said it couldn’t happen. Some said it was dangerous—that there’s no way a school system can allow teenagers to navigate the fifth largest city in America on their own, let alone expect them to be successful with so much freedom and autonomy. We did not ignore these critics, but neither did we let them stop us—we listened to them, learned from them, and used their perspective to build an even stronger model.
Rick: What are some of the unexpected challenges that emerged when trying to launch new high school models?
Chad: Three quick lessons. Give yourself time. School design, start to finish, can take multiple years. Go fast if you must but go slow if you can. Diversify your planning team. You need students and parents at the table. You need experts—for instance, if you are designing an engineering school, you need engineers at the table. And make sure that you have other perspectives—think gender, ethnicity, and even industry diversity—in everything from teachers to technology experts. Build hype if you can, be patient if you can’t. There are times when new schools are instantly a hit in your community. There are times when it takes the broader community a few years to have trust or faith in your new design.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.