Before Kristen Angell took part in District C, an after-school program that brings together a diverse group of teenagers to solve complex, real-world problems, she was not a fan of group projects.
“I went into District C as an individualist,” said Angell, a high-achieving senior at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, N.C. Now, she’s a team player.
That’s the kind of turnaround District C wants to achieve as it prepares students for a changing workforce that values employees who can work in diverse groups to collaborate and solve problems.
These so-called “soft skills” are in high demand, but employer surveys consistently show that students are entering the workforce without them.
“Employers need students who can face ambiguity, leverage the strengths of a diverse team, persevere when they’re faced with challenges or problems, think creatively, analyze problems,” said Dan Gonzalez, one of two former teachers who co-founded District C in Raleigh.
Students in the District C program work in four-person squads to solve challenges generated by businesses in the Raleigh, N.C., area. These have included:
• A sports science and technology company looking to increase user engagement with its injury-prevention app
• A juice bar and cafe looking to improve customer experience through better design of its space
• An established real estate company looking to improve communication and alignment across its divisions
• A provider of high-tech satellite and drone imagery for farmers looking to define and standardize its customer-service operation
• A nonprofit coffee shop with a social mission looking for a way to more clearly define and measure impact
• A nonprofit, pay-what-you-can cafe looking for a system and process for managing volunteer staff
• A software development consultancy looking to attract and hire underrepresented software engineers and designers
• A maker of healthy dessert snacks looking to play a role in alleviating food insecurity
“If we don’t quickly as a society help students get these experiences in high school and perhaps even before,” he added, “they’re going to be unprepared and ill-prepared for an economy that quickly, very quickly—it’s happening today—is automating away all the jobs that require execution of procedures. These are routine cognitive jobs, routine manual jobs that artificial intelligence and robots are quickly able to do.”
Learning to Listen
Angell’s experience in solving problems and collaborating with District C was worlds away from her old high school group projects. In those classes, she didn’t really trust her classmates to pull their weight, so she always took the lead. The 17-year-old joined the program during the second semester of her junior year, working with teams of students to solve three distinct problems drawn from the business world.
“District C taught me to listen and learn and value the ideas of others,” said Angell. “You can’t reach a solution that’s really the best you can get without the perspectives of others.”
District C was started as an independent nonprofit by Gonzalez and Anne Jones in 2017 after doing extensive research into labor trends and the skills employers valued. Both are Ivy-League graduates who spent time as K-12 science teachers before leaving the classroom to become leaders in ventures related to education.
Their after-school program brings together teams of four students from four high schools to solve complex, real-world problems brought by local businesses or organizations, such as how an athletic-apparel shop can improve its hiring process or how a boutique near a college campus could attract a more lucrative clientele.
The students are either nominated by their schools or themselves. And they’re drawn from public, private, charter, and home schools.
For the founders, that’s key to achieving the diversity they want in each team.
“There’s nothing that says diversity to a high school student like you’re from a different school,” said Jones.
And although Angell is proficient enough to take online courses at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a top residential public high school in nearby Durham, Gonzalez and Jones also encourage schools not to just recommend captains of the debate team and would-be valedictorians. They say any student interested in problem-solving and who reads and does math on grade level is a good fit.
“The nice part about it is when they enter the program, they’re all at a level playing field because none of them has done this work before,” said Gonzalez. “It’s brand-new to everyone, which for those students who typically fall under the radar, it’s an opportunity for them to express their strengths, skills, and passions in a way that they haven’t before and maybe even reassess and re-establish their role in the group.”
Coaches Help Along the Way
Those groups, known as C Squads, meet with their business partners to get a good understanding of the problem, then they work together online after school with coaches who help guide them through the process of finding a solution, and finally, they pitch their solutions during a live workshop that’s open to the community.
The coaches help the students break down the problems, test their ideas, set goals, and recover from setbacks.
Yonas Kemal is a junior at Apex Friendship High School in a suburb of Raleigh. He took part in the program earlier this year, deciding to nominate himself after a friend raved about the experience.
The 16-year-old called the program’s launch day “life changing” and nothing like what he was used to in school.
“It was so free,” said Kemal. “It was so open. We had full control over what we did and how we decided to run things when it came to solving issues.”
Kemal said the team feels pressure to come up with solutions, but it all seems doable because they’re guided by coaches who help them every step of the way without ever being condescending.
“I learned how to get a problem, widen out your scope and try to look at it from multiple perspectives, and then come down really deep and hard and try to solve that issue,” said Kemal. “That’s something we don’t learn in school.”
Before completing the program, Kemal saw himself as strictly a tech guy. But now he’s considering pursuing degrees in computer science and business from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—a shift in focus he attributes to his District C experience.
Since the program’s inception, it’s served more than 165 students. That’s expected to jump by about 100 students by year’s end.
Local school leaders have fully embraced District C. Drew Cook, the Wake County school system’s assistant superintendent for academics, praises the program for giving students a perspective they might not get at their home schools.
“One thing that really intrigued us is the opportunity that kids have to work with students from other schools,” said Cook.
Wake’s director of career and technical education, Jo Anne Honeycutt, applauds the program for the way it aligns with district goals by giving “students a way to practice skills and project management.”
An Expanding Initiative
In the future, the founders hope to align the program even more closely with schools through District C classes that will be taught by teachers. An independent school in the county has already started offering this course after two of its teachers completed training through the program.
So far, 21 businesses or organizations have agreed to provide District C with problems for students to solve. Some of the business partners offer internships to students who have completed the program, and one student has been hired for a paid position.
Raleigh was the first municipality to sign on. Local leaders wanted to know how best to help residents get home safely after exiting a bus and implemented some of the students’ suggestions.
“Our young people in no time at all are going to be in the leadership positions that we hold today,” said Veronica Creech, the head of economic development and innovation for the city. “We want our residents, our young people, to feel very welcomed in the civic-engagement process, and we want our leaders to have the benefit of that good thinking.”
The city has since become a financial backer of District C, providing the organization with a grant to support its work. The program is funded through a mix of grants and donations, corporate sponsors, fees from schools that send their teachers to the program’s coaching institute, and workshop and speaking fees from those who invite the founders to speak.
Christopher Gergen is the founding partner of HQ Raleigh, a co-working space where all of District C’s events are held, and the CEO of Forward Cities, a national learning collaborative.
He said the program provides the type of experience that students need to succeed in today’s economy. “It’s really thinking about how do we encourage young people to embrace the entrepreneurial mindset and have both the mindset and the skill set necessary to be able to navigate this complex world and to be able to be effective problem-solvers that have the ability to put these ideas into action in a collaborative context,” said Gergen.
The program has shifted how Angell sees her future. She’s trying to figure out what she wants to do within environmental science but knows it will be somehow related to solving the world’s problems.
“District C sparked a love of problem-solving in me,” said Angell. “Whatever career I choose, I’m definitely going to take that with me.”
Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2019 edition of Education Week as Students Learn ‘Soft Skills’ Solving Work-World Problems