Can $10 Million Build the Ideal High School?

A private group pours money into an effort to build the high schools “of the future.”

Students attend classes at Brooklyn LAB school Submitted photo

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—If kids designed high schools, the classrooms would be full of computer screens, books, games and holograms — and there would be no tests. Or at least that was the ideal world imagined by a group of Brooklyn middle schoolers this year.

Their dreams might be closer to coming true after their middle school, Brooklyn LAB, won $10 million to design a new high school on Wednesday.

The school is one of 10 winners of the XQ: The Super School Project competition and will be awarded $10 million from the XQ Institute, an initiative designed to encourage schools to invent new ways to update and redesign America’s high schools, which it argues “remain frozen in time.”

The Hechinger Report visited Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School in January to hear students present their ideas for a new high school of their dreams. School leaders wanted to include their input as they plan the opening of a new high school in 2017 (check out the story here).

Related: (Opinion) Throw the cookie cutters away: Remaking high schools for the 21st century

Since opening in 2014, Brooklyn LAB has embraced the idea of “personalized learning,” a trend in schools intended to tailor learning to students’ individual needs and interests. The school offers a science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum, along with extracurricular activities such as robotics, coding and art. Students spend at least two hours each day meeting one-on-one with tutors, and hours on individualized computerized lessons.

Brooklyn LAB is planning to use the money to develop programs they say will provide real-world learning experiences for students. According to Eric Tucker, executive director of Brooklyn LAB, it’s difficult for many students to access the opportunities offered by the city’s many museums, universities or companies offering internships.

“Even public and free resources aren’t fully enjoyed by all members of our community, and we believe that it’s critical that schools be a durable, public institution that provides a channel to connect communities and learners to that broader ecosystem,” Tucker said.

Tucker also said that the school has plans to expand Brooklyn LAB’s existing three-year teacher training and residency program to the new high school. He says their goals are to recruit a faculty that reflects the diversity of the community and develop a well-trained teacher workforce to serve the Brooklyn LAB schools.

Brooklyn LAB (which receives funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report) currently operates two middle schools and according to the school’s admissions policies, aims to attract students from the surrounding area. According to data from the 2014-15 school year, nearly half of enrolled students were eligible for free lunch and about a quarter of the student body has special needs.

Summit Elevate, a new member of the Summit Public Schools charter network scheduled to open in Oakland, California, in the fall of 2018, was also one of the 10 schools awarded a $10 million prize. Summit is perhaps best known for its high-tech approach to personalized learning: customized computer software (developed with the help of Facebook) that tracks students’ progress and stores projects, curriculums, mentoring materials and assessments.

But when The Hechinger Report visited several Summit schools earlier this year, few teachers cited the technology when explaining what made their schools unique. Rather, it was the strong relationships between students and teachers that led to a more flexible—and ultimately, a more personalized—learning environment (you can read that story here).

Related: A virtual tour of blended-learning schools, so others can see how it’s done

XQ is led by a former U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlyn Ali, and the board is chaired by Laurene Powell Jobs.

The other eight winners of the $10 million prizes include: Furr Institute for Innovative Thinking (Houston), Design-Lab High (Newark, Delaware), New Harmony High (Venice, Louisiana), Powderhouse Studios (Somerville, Massachusetts), Grand Rapids Public Museum High School (Grand Rapids, Michigan), Washington Leadership Academy (Washington, D.C.), RISE High (Los Angeles) and Vista Challenge High School (San Diego, California).

The XQ Institute also awarded three smaller “ReThink” awards. The Bartleby School (Elizabethton, Tennessee) will receive $200,000, along with a $1,000 scholarship for each student who participated in designing the project. Iowa BIG (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) and Seminole County Public Schools (Sanford, Florida) will each receive $1 million to fund their projects.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Jamie Martines

Jamie Martines is a reporting intern covering blended learning. She earned her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2016, and holds a bachelor’s degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Before attending Columbia, Jamie spent two years teaching English to seventh and eighth graders at a rural public school in southwest China.