School & District Management

Ten ‘Super Schools’ Win $100 Million

By Catherine Gewertz — September 20, 2016 3 min read
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Ten teams across the country have won a collective $100 million to create new high schools or transform existing ones in one of the nation’s biggest school-redesign competitions.

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 part of a racial minority group. The 10 winning teams were announced last week.

XQ Super School Winners

The 10 projects named last week are:

Powderhouse Studios | Somerville, Mass.
This new school will ditch traditional class schedules. Students will become “investigators,” working in teams with adults on real-world projects. Each team will have 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.

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 acting as apprentices on cross-grade teams, and assuming more responsibility as they progress through school.

Furr High School | Houston
This former dropout factory will redesign its learning approach to feature student-led projects addressing real-world problems, and to give the students “a sense of hope ... that they can be change agents in the turbulent worlds from which they come.”

New Harmony High | Venice, La.
This new school will exist in multiple sites, including a barge in the Gulf of Mexico, on fishing boats, and in science labs. Study will be built around the theme of rising sea levels and how they affect the Native American Houma people.

RISE High | Los Angeles
This new school for homeless and foster teenagers will be located in the offices of shelters and other service providers. It will offer flexible scheduling and 24/7 online access for students, as well as wraparound services to support their physical needs.

Summit Elevate | Oakland, Calif.
The Summit Public Schools charter network will open a new school focusing on preparing students for college and contributing to society. All students will leave with transcripts that prepare them for “any four-year college or university,” says a proposal summary.

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 help students track where they are in their study.

Washington Leadership Academy | Washington
This new charter school aims to replace lectures and worksheets with online modules, holographic field trips, and virtual-reality studies that students use at their own pace.

Grand Rapids Public Museum High School | Grand Rapids, Mich.
This new district school will use the artifact collections of a local museum 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 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, which 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. XQ assembled a panel of advisers unusual for its range: It includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Colorado state Sen. Mike Johnston, and science educator Bill Robertson, known as Doctor Skateboard.

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

Beyond ‘Pockets of Innovation’

Foundations have long sponsored initiatives to rework high school, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s investments in small high schools to the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s ongoing support for high school improvement. The Carnegie Corporation outlined 10 key principles of strong high school design in its 2013 report “Opportunity by Design” and 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 administration announced that it had corralled $375 million from the public and private sectors for various types of high school programs.

But no one knows better than high school reformers that making profound change in that institution can be rough going.

Warren Simmons, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which ran that challenge, said the XQ project is 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 earlier reformers. 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 those changes, 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.

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

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2016 edition of Education Week as Ten High Schools Win $100 Million

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