From Super Schools to Super Districts: Introducing DC+XQ in the District of Columbia

In 2015, XQ invited communities across the nation to dream big about rethinking high schools and…

By Jeanie Lee

In 2015, XQ invited communities across the nation to dream big about rethinking high schools and then selected an initial group of grant recipients. We’ve since partnered with Tulsa Public Schools, the New York City Department of Education and the Rhode Island Department of Education to prepare all their graduates for college, meaningful careers, and the future.

Partnering to Reimagine High Schools in Our Nation’s Capital

Now we’re thrilled about our first ever districtwide collaboration with District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Together we’ve launched DC+XQ, a multi-year, community-driven partnership to rethink what high schools can be for all students and come together to make those visions a reality. By giving the DC community the time, space, and support to step back and reflect on  what’s working and what’s not, and then offering tools, coaching, funding, and professional development, the DC community will create sustainable change for today’s high schoolers—and the future. Doing this in our nation’s capital will set a bold example for what high schools can and should be.

Like all of our work, DC+XQ is a participatory process. We provide teams made up of educators, family, students and community members the resources, the time and space outside of their daily operations to dream boldly. DC+XQ is not about telling schools to replicate a specific school model, it’s about facilitating school communities to indentify their most pressing problem and their boldest solutions through a rigorous design process. We leverage our six years working with schools to share lessons from other regions and expertly facilitate meaningful conversations and planning. We’ve built experiences like the Education Opportunity Audit (EOA) that help school teams better understand disparities within their own school and barriers to equity. We know that it takes an entire community to create radically diferent expereinces and outcomes for students, so we’re connecting schools with people who have ideas and passion for high schools but who don’t always have a seat at the table. Most importantly, we know that young people need to be at the center of any school redesign and often have the most valuable insight, so we’ve ensured opportunities for student leadership at each stage of the journey.

DC+XQ isn’t about fixing something wrong: it’s about bringing the best and boldest visions to life in every one of DC’s eight wards. This is about flipping conventional school design on its head: starting with youth at the center, building a community-centric mission and vision, and then wrapping everything else around that strong core. Together. 

Nothing is off limits. Whether it’s rethinking the timing of the school day, shifting the yearly academic calendar, adding or removing programs or courses, or something else entirely that we can’t even dream up, DC+XQ supports local high schools to ensure all students—including those furthest from opportunity—are prepared to succeed. 

The need to rethink education has never been more urgent. “Every industry from phones to automobiles has been revolutionized to meet the needs of now. High schools are no different,” explained Jeanie Lee, XQ’s head of partnership expansion. “DC+XQ is about putting our 21st century learners at the center, and redesigning their school experience to match the rapidly evolving demands of today and tomorrow.”

DC+XQ Hits the Ground Running—with Data

Work behind the scenes started in November and December 2021, with research and conversations to understand DC’s high schools and their talents, dreams, and roadblocks. After reviewing 2,500 student transcripts from 21 DCPS high schools and hosting focus groups with 500 students during the EOA, XQ shared key takeaways with school teams. One attendee reflected: “It was truly an amazing opportunity. I enjoyed all of it. Diving into the data of my school was extremely eye-opening, and we have been in a mode of problem-solving to foster a sense of connectedness as well as ways to ensure we include student voice.”

The next step was to engage those who care deeply about and are invested in public education, whether they’re a parent of a student, an employer, a community organizer, or an engaged voter. We made almost 15,000 phone calls extending an open invitation to join DC+XQ. We hosted virtual and in-person information sessions in February and March, where we introduced this partnership and invited everyone to join a design team.

Design teams are where the magic happens. Here team members learn about the science of adolescent development, the tenets of human-centered design, and the importance of deep community engagement. They receive coaching from expert facilitators at XQ, DCPS, and other organizations as they launch a student-centered, equity-driven school design process to define their biggest challenges, empathize with stakeholders, and ideate around the best and boldest solutions. 

Ten of the nineteen eligible schools raised their hands to start the redesign process immediately. Since then, all ten have participated in monthly design workshops averaging around 100 participants each. Most notably, they all understood the neccessity of centering the voices of young people: every single team included at least two student participants. Facilitators offered practical tools to generate creative ideas, tap into the diversity of the community, and build projects that can sustain over the long haul, regardless of any staff or leadership turnover.

Learning from Super Schools to Dream Even Bigger

Just this past week, teams boarded buses, trains, and planes to visit other schools and get inspired. Some visited Washington Leadership Academy—an XQ school right here in DC—while others traveled to get an inside look at Brooklyn STEAM, Grand Rapids Public Museum School, Crosstown High, or Purdue Polytechnic

By experiencing schools creating innovative learning experiences, inspiration visits help school design teams understand the journey of high school transformation and expand what they think is possible. For instance, on the inspiration visit to Brooklyn STEAM, DC’s Design Teams were inspired  by the centrality of student voice in the school. “What was palpable at Brooklyn STEAM was student agency, the ownership of their own learning,” explained a member of the design team. “It was incredible to witness what happens when young people feel a true sense of belonging at school, with the adults in the building, and peers.”

If selected after applying, the first cohort of schools will spend the 2022-2023 school year polishing and testing out their ideas before fully implementing them in the following year. 

Schools that are not selected to be part of the first cohort of redesign schools will remain on a cultivation track, continuing to refine ideas to launch their journey in a subsequent year. Over the next five years, each DCPS high school community will determine for themselves when the time is right to kick off their redesign journey. 

Stay tuned for updates as DC+XQ participants illustrate what is possible when you ignite an entire community and city. You can sign up for monthly dispatches from DC+XQ here and check out the full design journey for what’s ahead!