Bold is the goal in rethinking New York City high schools

XQ+NYC design teams assembled to rethink what high school can look like in their city. Here's what it was like to be in the room of innovators.

By Nicole Smith

As part of XQ’s commitment to sharing what we’re learning with the field as we partner with schools and communities across the country to rethink high school, we’re working with local journalists and storytellers for a series of blogs about our work. Meet Nicole Lavonne Smith. She’s a former teacher and current restorative justice practitioner and trainer who lives in Brooklyn. Nicole attended XQ + NYC Design Days. Design Days give participating teams an opportunity to dive deeply into the work of redesign by exploring big questions about what students need from their high schools and how they can create bold visions for redesigned schools committed to making those visions a reality. We hope you’ll enjoy Nicole’s summary of this Design Day, and that it will inspire you to get involved in NYC or your own community.

“Everyone [here] is a winner. This is not a competition; it’s a challenge,” XQ’s Nicole Campbell reassured the roomful of folks assembled in Long Island University’s multi-use space, previously the renowned Paramount Theater. From 1928-1962, the live performance venue was Brooklyn’s home to jazz and rock n’ roll and hosted greats like Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Chuck Berry.

The Paramount’s performers were unmatched in their craft, and one could imagine that while climbing to their successes, they were likely scrutinized for decisions they made along the way. We now know that they were displaying the stuff that legends are made of. It felt entirely appropriate that on January 12, 2020, 18 of the 46 Imagine NYC school teams were gathered in this space, soaking up remnants of these performers’ boldness, and ready to ignite their own.    

It was a Sunday, the day of rest, except nobody here was resting. The room was full of school designers: students, teachers, administrators, parents, community partners—all designers. Educators aren’t often invited into the world of design, but at XQ they’re not only welcomed but honored as valued design thinkers. According to XQ, “a designer is anyone who has agency to make a decision, however small, that will impact a group of people or the environment. Every decision we make has an impact on equity.” For these designers, their schools, hallways, and streets are their runways. This season, and everyone to follow it, is all about what’s innovative and bold!

Committed to supporting this challenge, and in attendance in all design days, were members of NYC’s Department of Education, whose partnership is authentically helping to drive the mission of emboldening school designers to think divergently. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza encouraged designers to “let go of all of the things that you thought school was,” and “dream big” with the goal of reimagining school from the perspective of students. 

What rethinking high schools in New York City looks and feels like

As described in Sir Ken Robinson’s animated Changing Education Paradigms, in aesthetic experience[s], the senses are operating at their peak while one is present in the moment, excited about the current experience, and fully alive. Robinson laments that both past and current systems of education anesthetize students rather than “waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.” Fortunately, this Sunday, everyone’s senses were fully stimulated.  

Heard was laughter and agreement in the moments when the day’s facilitator motivated teams, directing the transitions between activities and reflections. Applause filled the room in response to the heartfelt words of DOE Intern and Brooklyn College Academy senior, Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, who cautioned, “equity is not just a buzzword…students are not tokens; they are your equals.” The youth were fully present, standing in their capacity and power to lead, challenge, and teach. 

Seen throughout the room was real-time collaboration. A key point in the day involved revised mission drafting, where one team outlined their plan to flatten hierarchy; for students, alumni and staff to co-create a representative, reflective, culturally competent and expansive experience; and to inspire liberation. Team Harlem School for Restorative Justice agreed that students thrive in a community that is trauma-informed, exploratory, inclusive, interest-based, and individualized. Their mission reflected four pillars: restorative justice (connected), culturally responsive education (represented), mental health (supported), and outside classroom experience (inspired). Team Walkabout Bronx High School’s mission detailed a structurally anti-racist, experiential community honoring real-world experience, and individual and cultural identity through the co-construction of curriculum and governance. 

Tasted and smelled was a flavorful Latin and Caribbean-inspired lunch. Received as no small gesture, and meaningfully representative of the cultural impact of food, the pasteles were such a hit that the students (who were served first) ate them all, leaving the adults to commune over the crumbs. “School lunch should be the lunch we just had!” a student declared at the next invitation to express herself via microphone. She went on to share her feeling that the lack of care in school food options directly correlates to how much (or how little) students are valued.

Touched were our hearts, filled with the magnitude of what we were setting out to accomplish, and hope for the futures of our students. It was only eighteen minutes into the morning before tears of pride welled in the room at the passion behind Sokhnadiarra’s introductory words. Palpable was the inspiration of the greats who had blessed this space before us, and the energy of the risk-takers and designers in the room on this day. 

A pathway towards more equitable schools in New York City

As the world surely knows, New York City invented hip hop. The chopped cheese. The call “yerrrrrrr!”. Fashion Week. And cynicism (as one XQ leader and Brooklyn native jokes). It’s in our DNA to innovate.  

“I had never seen a segregated school system…until I got to New York,” a student shared with his design team. 

One thing NY did not invent is segregated schools. But in 2020, as NYC neighborhoods become increasingly diverse, this largest of public school systems in the nation is also the most segregated by race and class. In the quest for equity, we consider how the boldest of design plans will address this phenomenon.  

XQ Co-founder and CEO, Russlynn Ali believes, “high schools are the next frontier in the fight for educational equity. They are the fulcrum for driving improvement and closing gaps across the system, from the lower grades to higher education.”

XQ’s philosophy in thinking about equity was visible on posters throughout the room:

  • Class disparities in education are the result of inequities, not the result of cultures or race.
  • The inalienable right to equitable educational opportunity includes the right to high expectations, higher-order pedagogies, and engaging curricula. 
  • Equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s identity (racial background, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability) no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one will fare. 
  • Equity + design is working to address the root causes of inequities, not just their manifestation. This includes the elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural messages that reinforce differential outcomes by identity.

In design day 2, participants delved with an increased focus into how inequities and the systems underlying them show up in our schools, and how our design processes can confront them with urgent intentionality. 

Despite all that was accomplished, this and every design day will inevitably feel inadequate in terms of time. Fortunately, just as meaningful (and if not more) will be the time carved out by teams themselves to challenge ideas of school as we have known it. And serving as a reminder for the direction our boldness should be steered in, Chancellor Carranza asserts, “you have permission to blow [this] up.”

Interested in learning more, or joining and building a team for the next cohort of schools? Email [email protected] for more information, and keep an eye on this page for the application and latest developments. 

Or, join us!

  • Information Session hosted by New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm
  • Thursday, February 27, 2020
  • 6:00 PM
  • IS 230- 73 10 34th Avenue, Jackson Heights
  • Call to Register: 718-803-6373