One Good Question with Anna Hall: Can you break up with your best ideas?

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Education Equity / One Good Question / School Design

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

Our field collectively is investing in new school development and in the engines that can generate new designs for school.  Those two things sometimes happen simultaneously, and sometimes run on parallel tracks.  In the new school development work, there are districts and cities around the country that have invested very heavily in opening new schools to change the paradigm for what high schools could be — NY, DC, and NOLA come to mind.   Deeply embedded in that investment is a commitment to equity and choice – as a system we are committed to creating great opportunities for young people and ensuring that they and their families have a range of choices for where they want to go.  That’s urgent, exciting work.

But in addition to offering more great high schools, we know that we also need to make sure that we have evolved high schools – with designs that advance as quickly as the world we live in. It’s important to acknowledge that creating a truly world class system of 21st century-ready schools will require a multitude of design solutions – or models.  It’s inspiring to be able to work simultaneously in new school design efforts that focus on that challenge.

 

Why does equity matter in school design?

Learning is part of becoming a fully formed, socially- and culturally-engaged human.  We all have a right to do it, and our society has a responsibility to create those learning opportunities.  All kids should have a chance to go to a great school, designed to support them and give them opportunities to shine.  I came to teaching, in fact, because in my 20s I worked for a child welfare agency whose stated chief academic goal for the young people in its care was that they achieve their GED.  I was deeply disturbed by the inequity and unfairness of that premise – by the idea that our system would organize around such low expectations for young people who had already navigated so much trauma and struggle in their lives.  I knew kids could do more, given the right opportunity and support. I joined the NYC Teaching Fellows, and have been an educator and a school designer ever since, because I believe we can and must create better systems, better schools, better choices and supports for young people and their families.

When working with educators on school redesign, how do you narrate the new design process for them?

It depends.  If you’re working with a team attempting to open a new school but not a new model, that’s an easier soup to dive into because things seem known.  You’re taking the core of someone else’s practice and building a design around it.    We recently published a collection of some of the questions and experiences from the design process that our partners have found most relevant and helpful – but to sum up here, we’ve found that the real challenge for completely new model design is actually reframing the task at hand – understanding that you are trying to create a custom-built school that maps to and builds upon your specific students’ ambitions, dreams, strengths, and needs, not just curating a set of great ideas that could be engaging to any group of kids.  And we recognize that “design” is work that school leaders and their teams may engage as part of the process of creating a new concept for a school – but that it continues in perpetuity after the school opens, as part of a robust iteration cycle.

“Stop for a second.  Look at the young people in your schools. Consider what path those young people need to get to where they want to go.  Then build.”

Step 1: Breaking up

If you accept the premise that schools should be built uniquely to serve the students in them, then new school model design requires designers to begin the work without a preconception of what their school will be. In this context, designers don’t have to be married to a certain schedule, or course sequence, or bells, lunch, etc. Instead, we encourage them to launch their design work by developing a deep understanding of the students and families their school will serve, and build from there.  This “frame-breaking” work can be challenging, but it can also be really creative and fun.  It lets us think about how to organize school around what our kids need.

Step 2: Wow!  We have inspired the most beautiful design! 

Often, design teams come up with inspiring, innovative design concepts that look great on paper.  But the act of translating the design into systems that work for faculty and all of the families and young people is often when folks hit the second wall. Again, we encourage design teams to look at their designs through the lens of student needs and assets, and prioritize based on local context and realities.

Step 3: Oh Crap! 

This is often how teams react when they have to decide how to actually bring their designs to life.  They have to answer many questions: In which order will we create and roll out each design element? Which people do we try to hire and recruit who will be willing to do this?  What is the enrollment pattern around our school and its ecosystem? How do we both navigate logistics and protect our model?   It’s an intellectual puzzle—arranging the pieces and putting everything in place. It can be a messy exercise.

Step 4: Euphoria

When schools open for the first time, and through the first few weeks, team often feel like they’re walking on air: “We made a thing! A real thing! People are here! Children are here!  They’re doing things that look like school.  It’s amazing!!!!!” It is really a lovely moment, while it lasts.

Step 5: Breaking up (again)

Shortly thereafter, things start to break or not work.  The ideas that were awesome might not fit because a team couldn’t predict what their students would need or want or respond well to, or what might not work in practice.  We help our partners navigate that first wave of struggle: my original ideas were not perfect, so what’s the path forward? How do you break up with the parts of your idea that just don’t fit your current reality? How do you deal with that emotionally?  Then, practically speaking, because you have young people in the space and adults who are trying to do their job well— how do you make shifts strategically, without causing too much disruption and stress?  Consistency is important – how do you maintain a baseline of quality for your kids that you can sustain, whatever your changes?

 

I love that students are your starting and ending point!  How much do students participate in this process?

Our position is that we want students to participate fully and as much as possible in the process. When we started this work, our first school partners already knew which communities their new schools would serve and where their feeder schools were.  This was a great opportunity, which meant teams wouldn’t have to design in abstract – they could solve for specific challenges.  So as we developed our process, we saw that student knowledge as an asset and designed a process that capitalizes on that information.

Given that, as I mentioned before, we believe that every school design team needs to start with a deep immersion in the process of understanding the community and families and students that the new school will serve.  Instead of starting with an academic model, we encourage designers to spend time talking to families and kids.  What are their ambitions, dreams, hopes, skills & knowledge?  What do they hope the school will be?  We pair that process with qualitative and quantitative data exploration. Brainstorming sessions with families and kids from the feeder schools can also be valuable. Some schools go beyond and have students as full members of the design team and/or the launch team.  That involvement varies depending on each school’s constraints.

anna-hall-headshot-2Anna’s One Good Question:

The thing I’m always trying to figure out when looking at new school design is: Does this new design create opportunities for kids or does this design prove/support an idea?

We’ve got to continuously ask this of ourselves when designing schools. And we’ve got to be careful not to be too rigid in school design.  It’s pretty straightforward to read a book about a strong school model, or to visit and observe one – and then to distill the model’s concept or “rules”, and commit to executing the idea with precision and perfection. But that approach can be limiting. We need to always be willing to analyze which parts of any given school model will work for our kids, which don’t, and which we need to change.

About Anna

Anna Hall is Senior Director of Springpoint: Partners in School Design. Anna is a seasoned educator with experience developing and leading a range of institutional, state, and national initiatives.  As a founding teacher of a highly successful small New York City public high school, she collaborated to design and build an innovative and rigorous secondary program for students in the South Bronx – and then, as principal, she led the school’s expansion and redesigned its academic programs.  Prior to teaching, Anna spent nearly a decade working as a writer, researcher, and project manager in a range of policy, politics, and technology firms.

Anna holds a B.A. from the South Carolina Honors College at the University of South Carolina, and an M.S. in teaching from Fordham University.  She is a graduate of both the New York City Teaching Fellows Program and the New York City Leadership Academy.

Download a copy of Springpoint’s School Design Guide here.

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The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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