School Builders Share What It Means to #ReThinkHighSchool in Practice

Rethinking high school is hard work. We asked our school leaders who have gone through the journey to share what they've learned.

By Team XQ

XQ’s mission is to inspire America’s collective creativity to transform our high schools so that every student can succeed—regardless of income, race, gender or zip code. 

Sometimes, that means a group of educators and community members building a brand-new school from scratch. Other times, it means a group of leaders and teachers redesigning an existing school’s approach. Either way, it all starts with people coming together to share ideas and creating a plan to turn those ideas into a reality. 

We wanted to find out what inspired XQ innovators to take up the work of rethinking high school and what keeps them going. So we asked. Who knows? Maybe their answers will help you find your “why” to start doing the same kind of work.  

What inspired you to #ReThinkHigh School? 

Hae-Sin Thomas | Latitude High School:

What we expect of adults to be successful in today’s workplace looks really different than even when I was starting in the workplace 25 years ago. And yet high school hasn’t changed. How is that possible? But this is a country—it’s why my parents immigrated here—that’s supposed to be the land of opportunity, right? So we have the challenge that high school is not actually designed to facilitate great readiness for the world and society today. Well, that’s an opportunity and I think it’s an exciting opportunity for those in education who came here to do that work.

Anissia West | Tulsa Public Schools:

I was facilitating a student engagement event where we had a series of questions around the room. We had 20 students who would go around and respond to the questions. And all the questions were related to the future of their school. While we were doing this activity, a student came up to me and said, “Ms. West, I am not going to stay here.” And I asked her, “Why?” And she said, “I’m not going to let you get my hopes up. I know nothing’s going to change.” That hit really hard. And I thought, that’s why we do what we do. Yes, we got to make this work.

What kind of impact have you seen since the implementation of your school design? 

Ginger Spickler | Crosstown High School:

One of the biggest impacts I’ve seen is what happens when you bring a group of kids together who wouldn’t ordinarily be together. We are a diverse-by-design school and every day when we walk through the halls, I just see kids who I don’t see interacting in any other setting in Memphis and they are laughing together and arguing together and working together. And that’s been a pretty incredible thing to watch.

Alex Campbell | Elizabethton High School:

I had a student. She came and talked to me because she was having a tough time in life. And when she was confiding in me, she said, “Sometimes I don’t even know if I belong in this world anymore.” And that is a very stark realization that sometimes she just doesn’t want to go on. But this was the great part: She said, “The other day, you remember when I was late? My mom went to work and I was there all by myself. I just got back in the bed and said I’m not going to school today. I’m not doing it. But then I realized I had my project. And the project was to help a lady get out of prison who was wrongfully convicted. That woman needs me. She needs me to go to school and do my work so she can get out of prison.” And I thought that’s the power of a real project. She felt she wasn’t doing this even for herself. She was in it because somebody else had a problem and she could help solve it.

Rethinking high school is a big job. What keeps you motivated to do this work?

Stacy Kane | Washington Leadership Academy:

What keeps me optimistic in this work every day is the students themselves—interacting with young people, hearing about their dreams and hopes for the future, and knowing that you have the privilege in potentially helping to support them in getting there is the best work you could possibly do.

Devin Vodicka | Formerly Vista Unified School District:

Education is important in shaping lives. It’s important in shaping communities. It’s important in shaping our future. And if we want to thrive as communities, we want to thrive as a society, if we want to thrive as a species—we need individuals to thrive throughout the course of their formal education.

What advice would you give to people interested in rethinking high school in their community?  

Nikki Wallace | Crosstown High School:

You’ve got to be a dynamic person in order to build that dynamic student. You’ve got to pack in as much or as many different experiences as possible within the school and outside of the school. Make real connections to your home, school, the community. 

Anthony Barela | Formerly Vista High School:

Think about this: Kids make mistakes. How can we help them learn from them to be a better version of themselves, and what can we do to give them the tools to be successful?

Erin Whalen | Da Vinci RISE High School:

When things get hard, jump back into the school. Whether you’re an executive director, a principal, or office manager—when things get hard, get back in the work with kids. I think my staff always knows when I’m having a tough day because they’ll see me at a lunch table with kids. Remember the beauty that is in the building because the paperwork is not appealing. Some of the conversations that you have to have are not appealing. So getting back into the work with kids and just spending a little bit of time with them can remind you that there is no reason to be anything but optimistic—there is no reason to be anything but excited because you’ll hear the students and what they’re bringing to the table, and you remember that the magic that is happening does not stop when days are hard.

Derek Jensen | PSI High:

Every time we come up with something that I think is an elegant, beautiful solution, we try it, and it needs a ton of improvement. And so it’s made me realize every student is different and every student needs a different thing. In order to give every student exactly what they need to be successful, we’re going to have to be very strategic, sophisticated, and personal. And remember, we’re going to fail over and over again before we get it right.

Interested in rethinking high school in your community? Here are some resources to get you started: 

XQ Design Principles | a powerful framework for school design; high-level design specs for transformational change

XQ Learner Goals | aim to develop students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for all that the future has to offer

XQ Knowledge Modules | a mix of cutting-edge academic research and inspiration to help anyone think boldly about both the possibilities and the realities of rethinking high school