High School Reform

How high school would be different if students could design it

At a kid-designed high school, more technology and dancing in the halls, less testing

The day would start later and end earlier. Testing and school uniforms would be banned. There would be dancing in the hallways. And – some changes adults might get behind, too – there’d be more art, more projects and more computers.

“I want a school where the kids can choose what they want to do,” said Elias Leon, 13, a sixth-grader at Brooklyn Lab Charter School, a public school that draws students from across the city to a building a few blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge.

Opened in 2014, the school is already focused on individualized learning. Students spend a significant portion of the day working on computerized lessons tailored to them and meeting one-on-one with tutors. But kids there want to take it a step further.

As the charter school gears up to add more grades, sixth and seventh-graders were given homework over the winter holidays to design their own high school. They took on the assignment with enthusiasm (underscored by the fact that although many called for banning tests, none mentioned banning homework on vacation).

Related: What happens when instead of suspensions, kids talk out their mistakes?

One afternoon this January, students gathered to present their ideas to the school’s principals and a group of outside advisors. Sixth-grader Arvo Lebeck outlined his plans for the Academy of Everything in a PowerPoint. “Our worst enemy is boredom,” says the mission statement, and he promised educational games, physical activities, music and “a huge variety of books” to keep it away.

Ke’Asia Smith, creator of the Dreamer’s Academy, said her school would do away with standardized exams: “We think we should take tests, but different from what we have today.” At Hanuman Chu’s school, pencils and paper would be replaced with computers – “and nothing else,” he said.

These creative ideas resonated with Erin Mote, who is the co-founder of Lab, along with her husband, Eric Tucker. She said their own student-centered design prompted them to get kids’ feedback as they expand, along with the uniquely competitive environment in New York City’s public schools. “You can go anywhere in the city for high school,” Mote said. “Thinking about our scholars as our users or as our consumers, and really understanding what are they looking for in a high school is important.”

“They all want personal hover boards to get them to class, or express elevators Willy Wonka-style, but we are also get interesting feedback from students,” she added. “A lot of our seventh-graders are talking about how can they get a jump on college, now that we’ve narrated the language of possibilities around college and they’ve had a chance to visit some colleges. They’re asking serious questions about how they’re going to do it.”

Elias Leon’s concept for a school included both the serious concerns about the future and the whimsy woven through many of the student designs. He wants to be a coder when he grows up and created a video demonstrating the highlights of his new “futuristic” school, where all assignments would be done on computer and anyone is welcome. “It should be a school where bad kids, smart kids and average kids can go to and have the same opportunity,” he said.

The assignment took him a long time – hours he could have spent hanging out with friends, or sleeping in. But, he said, “I felt like this was more important.”

“I was passionate about it,” he added. “You could think and use your ideas, and be creative.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Sarah Garland

Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for… See Archive