D.C. charter school wins $10 million from XQ Institute to expand tech, virtual reality

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A District of Columbia charter school that was created with generous grants just got a new infusion of cash to expand its technology and virtual reality programs.

Washington Leadership Academy, which opened in August and serves mostly minority students, was one of 10 school around the country to receive $10 million each from XQ: The Super School Project, a competitive funding program started by Laurene Powell Jobs.

The grant competition, which is also overseen by former U.S. Department of Education official Russlyn Ali, was launched earlier this year in an effort to create and replicate “next generation” high schools that could prepare students for the workforce of the future.

Seth Andrew, who most recently led edtech policy at the White House for about three years, is a co-founder of the school along with Stacy Kane. Both have a clear vision for the school that they want to take to a new level with the new funds.

“One of the first things we’re working on is creating virtual reality content that will be for our students, and free to students around the country,” Andrew said in an interview. “It will really transport our kids to a whole other environment.”

Andrew said the first step is to build a virtual chemistry lab, where students and teachers explore science through virtual headsets, and then offer it for free to other students around the country. Students already use Google Cardboard as well as the Oculus Rift and HTC VIVE virtual reality systems.

They are also learning how to code, make drones, and, eventually, they will create their own virtual reality systems, said Andrew, who also founded a network of charter schools in New York and D.C. called Democracy Prep.

“They’re going to be designing and programming for the VR, not just [using] other people’s designs,” he said. “We really want them to design their own concept.”

He is currently hiring teachers and technologists to help scale the programs.

Washington Leadership Academy opened with 104 freshmen, and is expected to increase to about 400 students over the next several years. The school, which has made computer science classes mandatory all four years, was developed and designed after winning a Breakthrough Schools regional grant competition from CityBridge Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to redesigning education.

The grant allows school visionaries to “dream big and really push the envelope on what school could look like if we removed some of the constraints we’ve lived with for so long,” said Executive Director Mieka Wick. “We give them time, space, money and coaching to bring new models to life.”

Wick said outside organizations like CityBridge are taking on a more important role in funding schools with progressive visions and unconventional methods of teaching, especially as city and state budgets are more strapped.

“We know what we have today is not working for many kids,” she said. “We have to create new designs and new models so we can better serve all kids.”

Ali and Powell Jobs, who is the widow of Steve Jobs, originally said they would hand out five $10 million prizes, but doubled the figure after receiving applications from 700 teams of nearly 10,000 people.

Ali told EdScoop in January that the focus was on high schools to try to catch older students up with their peers in the rest of the world.

“Where we have really not done the hard work in the country is around high schools,” she said. “I think, for a very long time, high school felt too late [to fix]. But we know high school is not too late for dramatic intellectual brain growth and knowledge acquisition.”

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