'Next Gen' high schools, run by ex-Education Dept. official, to become reality

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A former bureaucrat wants to get communities more involved in creating their own high schools.

Russlynn Ali, a former assistant secretary of civil rights in President Barack Obama’s Department of Education, is overseeing XQ: The Super School Project, which is calling for entrepreneurs, tech whizzes, educators, engineers, activists, architects, scientists and other professionals to put their heads together and redesign high schools for the 21st century.

“The education conversation has been mired in finger-pointing and a lot of wonks and bureaucrats – I was one, too,” Ali said in an interview with EdScoop. “We are all reminded of the most organic stakeholders in this, the neighborhood folks who send their kids to school. These folks have been out of the education conversation for too long.”

The goal of the project was to get 400 concept submissions from teams by February. To date, Ali said she has received more than 1,300 submissions from 7,000 people across the country who formed teams to develop these new schools.

Ali said she wanted to build five schools, but after the overwhelming response, she now says she envisions more.

The venture is the first major undertaking by the Emerson Collective, a philanthropy run by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. She is putting up $50 million to back the creation of the new schools.

“The system was created for the work force we needed 100 years ago,” Powell Jobs told the New York Times in September. “Things are not working the way we want it to be working. We’ve seen a lot of incremental changes over the last several years, but we’re saying, ‘Start from scratch.’ ”

Ali and Powell Jobs have known each other for more than a decade, and they appeared together, along with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, at the White House Next Gen High School Summit in November.

Federal officials announced at the summit that $375 million would be allocated to create “next generation” high schools that promote personalized learning, maker programs and STEM initiatives. Millions of dollars would also go to expand Advanced Placement computer science classes.

Ali said she wants to see states and municipalities change the state of high schools, which have largely been overlooked in the national education reform debate in favor of a focus on earlier grades.

“A lot of attention is on early learning, and that is really important,” Ali said. But, she added, “Where we have really not done the hard work in the country is around high schools. 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.”

The teams are currently laying out their visions for what they want their schools to look like. About five to 10 teams selected to receive funding and move on to the next round, likely in the fall, will develop the infrastructure needed to support the school.

“We’re excited to see some of the ideas begin to emerge,” said Ali, adding that she is fielding plans that would overhaul classroom structure and curriculum. She said she has also received several STEM and STEAM proposals, focusing on science, technology, engineering, math and, in some cases, the arts.

High schools, she said, have become outdated, and “were designed and built for a system and economy that is long past.”

“We moved from a switchboard to a smartphone,” Ali said. “Every other aspect of our world has transformed dramatically, and schools, especially high schools, have not. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is outpacing us.”

Reach the reporter at corinne.lestch@edscoop.com or follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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