Anyone have $50 million for a high school?


Two weeks ago, an ERC TREK team and a few of our best friends submitted a lengthy vision to XQ: The Super School Project.

XQ’s goal, according to Laurene Powell Jobs, is to reinvent high schools in a way similar to how her late husband, Steve, reinvented how we listen to music. She’s willing to bankroll five brand new high schools up to $50 million (total) to make it happen.

What’s not to like? A funder familiar with audacious change. A nationwide search for new ideas. A significant pot of gold to give five of those ideas good footing. And a cooperative effort where applicants can talk to one another, even join multiple teams. All for the sake of, finally, possibly, bringing public education out of the 19th century.

A chance for us to explain our dreams
Though we’ve made it to the second round – out of five, we think – I don’t think any of the TREK crew is planning our lives around winning. But, we’ve enjoyed – if that’s the right word for a few hundred hours of discussion and writing – sitting down and sharing what each of us has learned about students, schools, communities, teachers, learning styles, families, and a few other subjects I must be leaving out.

Then, add to that our discussions about education philosophies that have come and gone, those that have stayed, those that should have gone but haven’t, and those that never arrived. One of the joys of our exploration is that our team ranges from the well-seasoned (meaning a bit older) to having a fresher outlook (meaning younger). The team includes public educators, nonprofit experts, university design chairs, community activists, and a couple of cynics, which every group should have. Frankly, if every school put together groups like that, and invited discussions like ours, much of our work would be done. (By the way, if I had had a chance to get Ms. Jobs’ ear, I would have suggested she start with middle schools first. But she didn’t ask my advice.)

What we agreed upon for “our” high school wasn’t particularly radical, given the lives our team members have led (but I suspect Bernie Sanders would say the same). We had questions about the XQ project’s underpinnings, but when all was said and done, we couldn’t say no to something that called out the need for action in a loud voice. ERC’s TREK program is better for us having met and labored together. (Perhaps Ms. Jobs can spare just a million or two to support TREK; we’re not greedy.)

A few highlights from our application
We’ll show you more of the application components over the coming year -guaranteed if you’ve signed on for TREK to work with us in redesigning your school(s)- but we do want to summarize five underlying fundamentals on which we agreed an ERC TREK high school would rest.

  • Education must prepare young people to face a world that will change rapidly throughout their entire lifetimes, requiring them to be flexible and able to solve complex problems.
  • Learning and youth development are inseparable if not indistinguishable. One cannot look at a young person as “merely” a student who arrives at school in the morning and leaves at the end of the day. A TREK school recognizes its responsibility to work deeply with youth to enable them to act in conscious, thoughtful, and responsible ways. 
  • The educational environment must be authentic on every level. Content and assignments must relate to students’ lives. Relationships with the educators must be honest, open, and fair. Activities must include an almost seamless relationship with the community and the institutions, businesses, and organizations that comprise it. 
  • We must incubate and elevate the “active inquiry” that is happening with us or without us. Guided, that “active inquiry” helps youth ask and answer meaningful questions: about themselves, their communities, and their worlds. Their answers can lead to authentic assessment: real-world products, presentations, and events.
  • A TREK learning environment will never again be about rows of students in chairs day after day listening to a teacher lecturing to them, penning all students of the same age together for years, studying the same subject in the same way for pre-allotted chunks of time. Dispatching the old “culture of teaching” in favor of a culture of learning is vital in an ERC TREK school.

Re-imagining high school scares the hell out of some people – we find it energizing and totally possible.

We’ll keep you posted on how the TREK team is doing. If you’d like us to visit your school, though, just give us a shout.

For ERC, and our ERC TREK team,
Larry Myatt