It was almost exactly two years ago when we first learned about the XQ SuperSchool competition. I remember getting a few messages from friends and former colleagues in the charter school world, who were buzzing about a new player on the education reform block. That organization, the XQ Institute, was putting up at least 50 million dollars to “rethink high school.” In other words, they had an ambitious agenda to transform what we believed could be possible in a high school education. We would just have to convince them that our team and design was worthy of their attention and money.
Of course my friends encouraged me to start a team “on the side.” That meant continuing my job during the day as a district administrator with Santa Ana Unified, and reserving my evenings and weekends to put together an independent proposal for XQ funding. While that invitation was intriguing, I deeply believe that innovation and ambitious thinking are nowhere more needed then within our school districts themselves. It felt deeply hypocritical of me to publicly profess a belief that districts can and should innovate and lead the charge in accelerating student learning while then opting to innovate elsewhere when the opportunity presented itself. Of course I still give myself the freedom to change my mind should evidence strongly suggest it, but I felt strongly (and still do) that districts can carve out a meaningful space for innovation.
In any case, I decided to pitch the idea to my boss, then Deputy Superintendent David Haglund, who gave me the green light to pursue the idea. So we started to host a series of design sessions – with students, administrators, community members – really, whoever wanted to participate. The purpose of the sessions was to elicit participants’ best thinking about the assets and values of our Santa Ana community, as well as get input about the programs and structures that would best meet the learning and developmental needs of our future students. From the very beginning, I had a strong sense that whatever the design, it would need to be a reflection of the history and values of our community. We figured that if we authentically connected with our community, the design for the school would emerge.
And emerge it did.
During a short 3 month period, we met with over 2,000 of our SAUSD high school students around the city. We designed a unique input-gathering process where we showed up with 30 packets of multi-colored tickets at each of our high schools. With the principal’s help, we would identify 30 students who each received a packet of 10 tickets each, and tasked them to share with their friends and acquaintances. These were no ordinary tickets, either. Each color represented a different “type” of student within broad categories – the athlete, the artist, the nerd, the rebel, the model student, etc. We wanted to try to get something of a random sample of students who wanted to be there and were intrigued with the strange invitation. The invitations culminated 2 days later in 200-300 students assembled around tables in the gym, where they used their phones to vote on discussion topics and to give us the feedback and insight we would need to design our Super School.
We held somewhat similar design sessions for both administrative staff and community partners. Using a modified design-thinking protocol, we sent pairs out to interview each other, capture the most important design elements they heard from their partners, and then brainstorm how those design elements would translate into school programs and practices.
After a few of these sessions, some fundamental design principles started to emerge. The school needed to be authentic, giving students opportunities to be “real” with each other and with their teachers. The school needed to feel supportive and safe. The school needed deeper connections to the working world and the people in it. The school needed to be more respectful of student opinions and perspectives. The school needed to do a better job getting our students access to college and other post-secondary opportunities. And of course students wanted better food.
We collected countless pages of input. Often that input was in written format, but we also encouraged participants to sketch whenever it felt appropriate.
I clearly remember the day the circles started showing up. The city of Santa Ana had graciously donated the use of a spectacular room at the top of the Santa Ana Train Station, and we had used the opportunity to invite community partners and organizations to engage in a design session with us. We had a nice cross-section of organizations, from the Bowers Museum to the Santa Ana Business Council to nearby universities. When the session concluded, we spontaneously gathered in a circle to reflect on the experience. Several participants smiled as they unveiled sketches of a school in circular format. A school where kids were talking to one another. A school where kids felt included. A school where community and business partners felt integrated and welcome. A school that wasn’t boxed in by gates and bells.
And that’s the process that gave birth to the idea of Círculos. Over time, several of the participants in these design sessions just kept showing up to discuss and collaborate. Our team came together organically in this way, a mix of district and school staff. Each founding team member brought with him or her a unique set of skills, experiences, and purposes for contributing. For Matt Cruz, the principal at one of our alternative high schools, Círculos became a place to imagine how every student might have powerful, meaningful relationships with caring adults. For Mark McLoughlin, board president of High School, Inc. Círculos represented a way to build upon his ongoing work to more deeply integrate the local business community into the education of the young people of our community. For Madeleine Spencer, a local community advocate, Círculos would be a way to connect young people to the organizations pushing for a more integrated and responsive community. Of course those are just a few of the many people who have brought their best energy and thinking to this initiative.
We submitted our designs and supporting materials at each benchmark of the design year, which stretched almost an entire calendar year. We were thrilled to advance through each stage of judging, making it all the way to the finalist stage as one of the final 50 designs that were still in competition. We even had a visit from a film team from New York that had been contracted with XQ to document the journey of teams around the country. We interpreted this visit as a positive omen that big things might be headed our way. As the final deadline approached, we eagerly anticipated what it might feel like to be chosen for the big prize.
And then we weren’t chosen. It was very difficult to read the letter indicating that we hadn’t been selected as a Super School winner. It felt like somehow we had let our community down. And yet, just as we were working through our disappointment, I sense a new determination to keep pushing and to bring elements of the Círculos design to life.
And so we kept working. We mapped out possible places were we could pilot the flexible learning environments we had envisioned in our design process. We kept up development of our competency-based dashboard. We started experimenting with the circle pedagogy in our team and department meetings. By January, we were in full program development stage, working with a team at Century High School to develop a school-within-a-school we were calling Century Flex that drew heavily on the design concepts of Círculos. We were in the midst of expanding our dependent charter school, Advanced Learning Academy, to open high school grades and to similarly experiment with flexible learning opportunities for our students.
And then, unexpectedly, we got a phone call in May that the film crew wanted to come back to document our progress. You can imagine my mixed emotions. We certainly wanted to celebrate and document the progress we were making, but I was worried that somehow we might be the token “sad team” in the documentary that came so close to victory but then fell short. It makes for good television, but I didn’t necessarily want to set up our team for that. Despite our reservations, however, we agreed to be filmed.
When the film team come out, they spent an hour or so getting footage of us together working on design plans in collaboration with students. At one point, they asked us to go outside to get some footage of us practicing a circle discussion. When we came back inside they had set up a monitor, and told us to gather around for an important message. A few moments later, Laurene Powell Jobs and Russlyn Ali were on the screen, asking us about our work.
Then they told us they wanted to contribute 2.5 million dollars to help us build our Super School.
There were tears, and shouts of joy. Certainly we were (and are) incredibly excited. But what was even more meaningful in many ways was what they shared next. They expressed their appreciation for our perseverance and tenacity as a team, and commented on how, of the many applications they had reviewed over the previous two years, ours stood out for its heart and passion.
And that is really the core of our core values. We deeply want this for our kids and our community. We aspire to rewrite and reimagine what is possible in a high school education. And we’re doing it right here in Santa Ana.