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Five Lessons from a School Design Leader

The Center for Collaborative Education is partnering with Springpoint and Chelsea Public Schools to bring Chelsea Opportunity Academy to life with support from the Barr Foundation through the Engage New England initiative. Chelsea Opportunity Academy aims to better serve students in Chelsea through a new student-centered school model that helps students develop life skills for success after high school. In this blog post from Springpoint, Ron Schmidt, design lead and principal of Chelsea Opportunity Academy, tells the story of the school through five lessons he learned in the process of new school design.

Be careful about how much you think you know.

Ron found that as new designers dive into the process of designing new school models, there is not only a lot to learn, but a lot to unlearn as well. The process challenged some of Ron’s notions about school, including things he had firmly believed were good ideas.  A mindset shift—paired with a structured design process, customized coaching and support, and exposure to new ideas and national best practices—can make room for inventive thinking and act as fertile ground for insightful innovation.

Be careful what you think you know about students.

Ron shared that, through his team’s design process, he recognized more clearly than ever that students cannot be minimized to data points. Designing a new school model pushed him to see students as whole humans with circumstances and considerations that might affect their school experience. The initial phase of school design—what we call the Understand phase—is devoted to understanding the students a school will serve. As Ron and his team gathered information through focus groups and surveys, they made sure to ask their own current and former students about their experiences in school and why some of them chose to leave school. This specifically helped challenge Ron’s own assumptions, allowing him to gain an authentic understanding of his students, their realities, their challenges, and their ambitions.

Chelsea Opportunity Academy

The design team at Chelsea Opportunity Academy. Photo courtesy of Springpoint.

There’s much to learn from what others are doing.

Springpoint regularly organizes learning tours, in which partners have an opportunity to see innovation in action. These multi-day events include school visits, structured debrief time, and facilitated working sessions. Ron shared that, as a seasoned educator, he initially went into these visits with a fair amount of skepticism. However, in partnership with his team and Springpoint, he ultimately engaged in an open and thoughtful way, guided by curiosity and unbounded by assumptions. As a result, he learned a lot from these learning tours and from the students and educators that graciously invited us into their schools. Ron specifically found deep value in observing the practices, strategies, and ideas of the schools we visited. He and his team were able to explore innovative approaches to doing school differently and witness unique practices, such as how educators tracked data, highlighted student voice, and provided student-driven learning opportunities. It wasn’t just a single school that proved useful to him and his team—it was seeing multiple schools and having many conversations with students and teachers that helped his team to form new ideas and find inspiration.

Don’t try to do this work alone.

Despite a preference for working independently, Ron found the deep value in working closely with a wider community of learners, educators, and designers. He cited the “relentless support” of the Engage New England network and the partner organizations that have supported his team’s design work over the past year. This community’s support and shared knowledge were invaluable in challenging his thinking and holding him accountable to process and quality.

Constantly ask how the design work will meet the needs of students.

Student-centered design must truly serve as the basis for all design decisions. Ron challenged the new school designers at the launch event to really ask what student-centered means to them and others in their organizations. Through their process, Ron and his team learned how to build relationships and culture through the lens of what students need. He left these excited new designers with simple question they should consistently ask themselves as a way to guide their work: How is what we’re doing meeting the needs of our students?

This article originally appeared on Springpoint's blog.

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