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Starting From Scratch: A Public School Built on Dreams of Students and Parents

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District public schools have a bad reputation for being static and slow to change. But a public school district near San Diego is proving that collaboration between motivated teachers, engaged parents ready for a change and progressive leaders can lead to a dramatically different way of approaching public education.


Poway Unified School District's student population is steadily growing as families move into new housing developments popping up nearby. The boom has created a unique opportunity for the district to open a school showcasing innovative thinking and practice. “We thought, this gives us a chance to open a school where people can select,” said John Collins, superintendent of Poway Unified School District. “It will be nobody’s home school; it will be a school people can apply to.”

All last year five teachers and two administrators researched school models, drew on business practices and used design thinking principles to combine the most inspiring practices into a new school. They even brought their ideas before the community several times to get feedback.

“The really unique thing about the school is the fact that it really involved parents, asking them to help design what the school would be like,” Collins said. Community members were excited to discuss the principles of a strong learning experience and supportive of the effort to create a model and a school building that reflect those values.


“They wanted students to really like and enjoy school,” said Megan Power, one of the five teachers who designed the school. They wanted school to be a place where students could explore their passions and fall in love with learning. Things like specific content areas and test scores rarely came up. “Once we gave parents a voice -- the chance to talk about what they wanted out of school -- they just took off with it.” Power said. “It really opened up that there were other possibilities.”

The team also asked students what they wanted out of school. “They wanted a lot of projects,” Power said. “They wanted meaningful, purposeful work. They didn’t want to be limited. And if they needed help they didn't want to feel like they weren't as good as other children.”

Taking all this feedback into account, along with their research, the Design 39 Campus team created a school that will be physically very different from other schools in their district and run on a unique schedule. The preK-8 school opens on Aug. 20 with 858 students through sixth grade. More than double that number applied. Over the next four to five years the school will grow into seventh and eighth grades and plans to eventually serve 1,400 students.


The school will be split into age pods: pre-kindergarten through first grade together, second and third grade grouped, fourth, fifth and sixth together and seventh and eighth grade in a pod. Several teachers will be responsible for each pod, each with an area of expertise, but not limited to teaching only that subject. Pods share common spaces designed to fit whatever learning is taking place at that time. They each have a “makery,” a space with a concrete floor that can get messy and is filled with fun materials like clay, woodworking tools and electronics. Pods will also have a “collaboratory,” an open space designed for group work.

Despite the non-traditional setup, students will still have a standard homeroom teacher who follows them as they move from grade to grade. “The main goal of homeroom time is relationship-building, checking in with students, seeing how things are going,” Power said. Homeroom will be by grade level, but after that initial check-in at the start of the day students will be grouped in various ways within their pod -- sometimes by interest, other times by ability.


The school day at Design 39 Campus starts with an hour of teacher collaboration before students arrive. Increasingly, schools are recognizing that teachers learn best from colleagues and that preparation time needs to be built into their schedules. The founders of Design 39 Campus find this especially important because teachers at the school work together closely to facilitate a large group of students who each may be working on different things each day.

For the next several hours students will break into pods and have what Power calls “integrated learning time.” That could mean putting students to work on an in-depth project that extends through the whole time. Teachers can pull small groups to work on specific skills in a more focused way, or help guide students through their projects. “The morning is going to vary, depending on the needs of the students and what the pod is working on,” Power said.

An animal project Power did with kindergartners at her old school demonstrates the way she is thinking about this time. Students selected and researched an endangered animal. Then they wrote public service announcements, often backed with music to try and convince other students to take action to save their animals. Students then made a pitch to the whole school on behalf of their chosen animal; the student body voted on the most effective PSA.

The class then decided to raise money for the winning animal -- the Javan rhino -- to donate to the World Wildlife Fund. Students decided to make and sell trail mix: they researched recipes, measured quantities, bagged their product and made a marketing plan. “We learned money through them selling the trail mix,” Power said.

Students even drafted a letter to the Wildlife Fund suggesting how the money could best be used to protect Javan rhinos, based on their research. Power says students liked the project because it was based in the real world, had purpose and engaged them about something for which they cared deeply. It also demonstrates the approach the school will be taking toward technology. “We were using our devices all the time, but it was just a piece of the project,” Power said.

The school is embracing the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement -- easier to do in a district with only around 14 percent of its students on free and reduced lunch -- but will also have devices that students who don't own any can use for the whole year, at home and at school. Power emphasized technology use isn’t about the software or apps for this school; it's about offering students up-to-date learning tools. “You can show your learning through creating a video, or a cartoon, or creating a physical poster,” Power said. It’s up to the student.

At lunchtime all students from a grade level will have the break together. The team made this decision based on an IDEO study finding that lunch is an important social touchstone for students to hang out with their friends. Even though there will be two pods of each grade span, they’ll get to meet up for lunch.

The afternoon is what Power calls “deep dive time.” These are project that could last three, six or 12 weeks depending on the age group. “The idea is coming from the students and we form the course around the students,” Power said. This time might be spent on an independent study project or, if several students are interested in the same topic, they might all work together. The idea is to give students a chance to really dig into something they love.

Power expects at the beginning younger students might need help identifying their passions, so staff are prepared to expose them to lots of different ideas including videomaking, cartooning, even engineering. This time will also give students the opportunity to explore interests like music and art that have disappeared from many public schools.

To help students identify their passion areas, the last hour of the day will be all about exposure to different topics. Then, if a student finds something he loves, he can explore it in detail during the deep dive time. This hour of the day alternates with the Design 39 Campus version of physical education.

Called "Minds in Motion," PE at this school sounds chaotic. More than a dozen teachers will conduct an array of activities from scooter hockey to cross-country running, yoga to competitive games. “We really want to give them a chance to have fun with being active, leading a healthy lifestyle,” Power said. When designing the school day, Power and her co-founders were careful to put PE at the end of the day in response to student feedback that they hated having a rotating period that sometimes fell in the morning. No student wants to sit all day feeling sweaty and stinky.


All this self-directed, project-based learning might seem chaotic to teachers used to covering a specific set of standards in one topic area or grade level. Despite the bells and whistles of a new school, Design 39 Campus will have to prove itself on the same tests as other California public schools and will need to make sure it is covering the skills laid out in the Common Core State Standards.

Rendering of Design 39 Campus/PUSD
Rendering of Design 39 Campus/PUSD

To help teachers and parents track how well students are mastering these skills, the school’s team is working with the Norwegian ed-tech company, itslearning, to track and manage student data. The company had some of the features the school wanted, but more importantly its staff was excited to work with the founding teachers to create customized software that fit their quasi-competency-based model.

Skills will be displayed on progress bars and teachers can customize the standards to fit the projects they’ve assigned. For example, if a project requires collaboration and communication, there could be progress bars for those skills under a project, based on grade level. It’s like a fully customizable map of skills, where teachers have control over what is measured and how, but the software keeps an easy-to-read record of what teachers input that parents, students and teachers can easily access.


Design 39 Campus has a uniquely flat leadership model. Most decisions are made by teachers at the pod level, and while there is one person on the founding team with principal credentials, the staff doesn't call her that. They don’t actually have a name for her yet.

“She’s the one who’s out there keeping the school moving in a forward way,” Power said. But teachers can all make purchasing decisions, and each pod decides what professional development it needs and how it should be delivered.

“We’re trying to give them the most power for decision-making,” Power said. Some things that will be emphasized are self-reflection, sharing learnings with the whole school and positive observation with an eye toward improvement. The school also has a governing board made up of district teachers, community members and students. The board evaluates and gives advice on long term ideas.


“The hope is that with the success of this school, not only our parents but our teachers will be demanding this, too,” said Superintendent Collins, who fully supports the new school. He understands that change can be hard for both communities and teachers, but hopes some of the ideas being tried at Design 39 Campus will penetrate other schools, too.


“It’s a little harder to make those changes in high school because the need to conform to what universities and colleges want is there,” Collins said. But the new school is next to the high school and plans to use high school students as teaching assistants. Both Power and Collins said some ideas might start to penetrate the high school through proximity, and Common Core is demanding more in-depth study of topics anyway.

“We see a responsibility to offer multiple pathways for kids,” Collins said. He wants high schools to have more specialized programs that incorporate more real-life experience, like internships.

One reason Poway has been able to take such an innovative approach to building a new district school is its positive relationship with the teachers association. “They’re willing to take this leap with us and try something new and different, so we’re not hampered by having to argue with the teachers union about it looking and maybe being different for teachers,” Collins said.

He attributes this to a 10-year  transition the district has been making toward interest-based negotiating. Instead of focusing on their positions, both management and union leadership focus on their interests. “We realized we had the same interests,” Collins said. “When you realize you have common, shared interests it makes it easier to try new and different things together.”

The transformation didn’t happen overnight and it took awhile to use the model for really sticky issues like salaries and health benefits, but over time the district and union leadership have built up a shared trust that has allowed them to push the envelope on teaching practices.


“It will look like a campus where every child is engaged and where every student can express to you what they’re doing, owning their own learning, and their own goals,” Collins said. He’s hoping that ownership of learning will translate to good scores on the new Smarter Balanced Assessments California is using, but he said the district is also developing its own tools to measure things like engagement and college and career readiness skills like collaboration and critical thinking.


"We're getting rid of students sitting there feeling like learning is happening to them,” Power said. “We’re moving to really meaningful learning where students are asking the questions and care about their learning and their progress, even as young as 4 years old.” Success will also be measured by how many ideas are taken up in other district schools and whether parents continue to apply for limited spots.

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