There is no single formula for a great high school—one that’s vibrant, rigorous, equitable, and fully engaging for every student. Take a look at successful high schools around the country, and you’ll see there really is no one best way. Every community is unique, and so are the high schools that serve them and their young people best.
Which is not to say that anything goes when it comes to high school design! Effective high schools have common elements, which research and practice have shown to be important. Responsible school designers keep those elements in mind as they imagine a new school or reimagine an existing one. The elements are building blocks, not a blueprint, for creating a unique and effective school.
At XQ, we’ve summarized those common elements into six core XQ School Design Principles:
- Strong mission and culture
- Meaningful, engaged learning
- Caring, trusting relationships
- Youth voice and choice
- Smart use of time, space, and tech
- Community partnerships
The specifics of how each principle shows up vary tremendously from one school to the next. What matters is that each principle is thoughtfully addressed within the overall school design, carefully integrated with other design components, and intentionally cultivated during the implementation process.
How to apply the XQ School Design Principles to high school redesign
At XQ, we believe that every community can and must transform its high schools, so all students are fully prepared for the future. Most high schools need to change dramatically, and even the best high schools should do far better.
We’re not the only ones who see the need and feel a sense of urgency. Everywhere we’ve worked—during the XQ Super School Challenge and more recently in Rhode Island and New York City—we’ve seen a hunger to do this work that far exceeded our expectations. Where we thought we’d see a handful of prospective design teams stepping up, we saw dozens; where we expected dozens, we saw hundreds.
To help teams do this important but difficult work, we offer a suite of materials:
- XQ Knowledge Modules spell out the process of school design or redesign
- XQ Learner Goals focus on what students will gain during their high school years and who they’ll be when they graduate
- XQ School Design Principles help teams define the fundamental elements of their new or redesigned school
Teams use the XQ Design Principles to explore not just what their school will do, but how—and how the pieces fit together. For example, a team may ask themselves, How will our school ensure that every student experiences engaged, meaningful learning? Their answer might involve internships with local businesses and nonprofit organizations. The team would then use the principles to probe further questions.
How will our students exercise voice and choice in their internship assignments? How will we cultivate the right community partnerships to make sure every internship is challenging, exciting, and substantive? How will we leverage internships to help every student build a network of caring, trusting relationships, inside the school and in the community? How will we use time, space, and tech creatively to integrate internship experiences into each student’s overall program? And, more broadly, how will internship experiences enhance the overall mission and culture of our school?
Throughout this questioning process, teams use the XQ Knowledge Modules to explore ideas, research possible solutions, analyze data, listen to young people, and zero in on answers that will work well for them. The XQ Learner Goals help them stay focused on how their answers will bring their school closer to its ultimate purpose: supporting all students to learn and grow into well-rounded, fully prepared graduates.
In other words, the design principles help teams push themselves to be both disciplined and imaginative—to put new ideas on the table without losing sight of the essential components of what they need to accomplish. The point is to achieve a school design, and the beginnings of an implementation plan, that’s holistic, inspiring, intentionally equitable, and bold.
XQ School Design Principles are guidelines—not directives—for high school redesign
Again, it’s important to emphasize that the design principles are not prescriptive. They point teams in the right direction, based on what’s known about effective high schools, but they are not directive. The internship example is just that: an example. Some teams will decide to incorporate internships, others will not—but all will come away from the design process with a clear set of strategies for engaged, meaningful learning.
Because of this, every XQ school is unique. As a community of schools, the XQ schools are full of variety, new ideas, and inspiring proof points that others can learn from. The XQ schools are small, large, and somewhere in between, serving urban, rural, and suburban communities in different regions of the country.
Some teams created schools from scratch, while others are redesigning their existing schools. Some schools are organized around a theme (such as coastal erosion), or a particular student population (such as homeless or disconnected students), or a distinctive instructional strategy (such as project-based learning). And the number of discrete strategies they are putting into practice is beyond counting.
What they have in common is deep mindfulness of the essential dimensions of a forward-looking, equitable high school—one that does justice to the young people it serves and to the fast-moving world they will graduate into. In all their variation, XQ schools are pushing the boundaries of what high school can be—and should be—for American students. In a very real sense, they’re inventing the future.
Add your school to our series on high school redesign
Sharing lessons from the XQ schools is a goal we take seriously. Over the next few months, we’ll delve deeper into each of the six XQ School Design Principles. Look for special issues of our Give Me Five newsletter on each principle and blogs from XQ and guest contributors that drill down on examples. We’d love to hear how your school is putting these principles to work. Fill out our guest contributor form if you’re interested in sharing your examples.