Designing a Public School from scratch
The offer was too tempting to pass up: a paid year off from teaching to help establish a new Public School with the purpose of “changing the way we do school.” The sabbatical promised Tom Downs, a 26-year teaching veteran, and the other applicants the chance to construct the Public School of their dreams, working alongside educators who shared a dedication to innovation.
Five teachers, including Downs, were chosen to be part of a task force that will build Poway Unified School District’s 39th school, Design 39 Campus, from the ground up, using lessons learned from other schools across the country, advice from industry leaders, and input from a diverse group of residents.
Architects took it from there, designing and erecting a structure that matched the teaching and learning that educators and parents hoped to foster inside: glass walls to promote openness and transparency, flexible seating and writable surfaces to encourage student and colleague collaboration, and easy-to-move furniture to allow the space to adapt over time. It was no easy task to open the school in 2014. School administrators decided early on that Design 39 Campus would be a K–8 public school, not a charter, which forced the task group to work within district limits.
“This table took almost six months of development, and had to call three times a week to acquire approval.” Downs said this while leaning against one of the school’s whiteboard tables, which are currently being utilized to encourage kids to collaborate, take chances, and share their ideas. However, he stressed the importance of perseverance. “It’s impossible to overstate how much the school’s structure begins to affect what happens within.”
How to design Public School from scratch?
The foremost thing is to ground up, student-driven grassroots. As students scurry or dawdle to their first courses of the day, early morning sunshine shines through patchwork panes of blue and orange glass covering the walls of Design 39, casting a rainbow-like reflection on the sidewalk. Some people talk to their pals while carrying heavy instruments, passing a basketball around, or showing off their latest creative piece. Others are alone in the corridor, immersed in an iPad app or game.
“The incredible amount of trust present on our campus is one of the first aspects a new replacement would notice,” said Stacey Lamb, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. “Students walk everywhere we trust them to get to where they need to go from the earliest ages.”
Newcomers will also notice the school’s naming conventions: Design 39 is referred to as a campus rather than a school; teachers are referred to as learning experience designers (LEDs); the front office is referred to as the Welcome Center; classrooms are referred to as studios, and the library is referred to as the Loft.
There is also no principal’s office, which is unsurprising: Principal Joe Erperling breezes about the school, reinforcing a flat leadership system that encourages teachers to make their judgments and address problems on their own. A memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union permits and encourages instructors who co-teach grades and work regularly with teams of their grade-level peers to use the dedicated time to collaborate with colleagues instead of the typical morning prep period. Special interests are encouraged for both students and faculty.
Maker labs, a music program in which kids learn to read and produce their music, and Minds in Motion, a novel kind of physical education in which students develop their activities, are among the options. Explorations are four- to six-week electives that students design and vote on. They delve deep into students’ and professors’ passions, such as photography or foreign languages. Bret Fitzpatrick, a middle school teacher, explained that “the majority of what happens on campus is grassroots, ground-up, and student-driven.
How do families feel at home?
When the school first opened, the promise of an innovative, student-centered education immediately drew families to the neighborhood, luring them in with strong jobs at tech companies like HP, Sony, and Broadcom as well as good schools. Many of them are now overloaded. Maria Simpson recalls feeling hopeful during the school’s early meetings before the bulldozers even began ground; she applied through Design 39’s lottery system to acquire spaces for her two sons, who now both attend.
While her children “thrive” at Design 39, she admits that the change from a regular public school to Design 39 with its emphasis on 21st-century learning wasn’t always easy for other families, according to Simpson, who serves on the Parent Collaborative, a joint PTA and fundraising group. Approximately 100 families had departed the school before the conclusion of its first year.
There is no nighttime homework in elementary school; instead, pupils are free to read a book or engage in academically connected activities of their choice. Students are often divided into smaller, mixed-grade groups based on their skills and weaknesses. Rather than assigning traditional letter grades or scores, teachers assess students’ skills and competencies. For many families, it was a lot to take in.
To allay parents’ concerns, the school began holding monthly Parent Workshops, during which parents and caregivers visit classrooms to see what their children are learning and how to support that learning at home. Parents addressed digital citizenship in a recent session, which was part of a series aimed at teaching parents how to assist their children to become both content creators and consumers online.
How to let them find their ways?
According to fourth-grade teacher Shshawna Rader, understanding how to explain the major learning taking place at Design 39 to adults whose “anchor is still a traditional score” is an important part of the relationship-building process. While creating a Shark Tank business pitch, budgeting for a school field trip, or constructing a water purification device may appear “fun,” these standards-aligned courses encourage kids to be problem solvers and critical thinkers who are prepared to live and work in a globalized world, she says.
Others appear to be taking note, as the school has received praise on a local and even national level. Design 39 Campus outperformed all other district schools in terms of school atmosphere and student well-being metrics in 2017, and the middle school was named as the district’s top performer in 2018. The Design 39 model was named an example by the US Department of Education in the same year. While parents and staff watched with bated breath to see how their first graduating class fared in high school this year, it appears they had no cause for concern.
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According to the high school principal, Design 39’s entering freshmen performed academically on par with their peers and outperformed them in areas such as creativity, teamwork, and leadership. The news served as a timely reminder for instructors, who, according to Rader, are still learning when to take a step forward and when to take a step back to allow students to direct their education.
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