High School Redesign: How to Apply the XQ School Design Principles

Want to change high school? Use XQ's suite of materials to explore what high schools can be—and should be—for American students.

By Mary Ryerse

There is no single formula for great high schools that are vibrant, rigorous, equitable, and fully engaging for every student. Take a look at successful high schools around the country, and you’ll see that every community is unique, and so are the high schools that serve them and their young people best. 

This is not to say that anything goes when it comes to high school design or redesign! High school redesign is an imaginative but rigorous process for reimagining the entire high school experience—not piece by piece, but overall. It begins when committed educators, students, and community partners come together as a team to rethink how their school can best serve its learners. 

The Process of High School Redesign 

To ground their work, the school design or redesign team listens carefully to young people, learns about gaps and inequities in their existing school, and absorbs up-to-date findings about the science of learning. They explore the demands their graduates will face by talking with colleges, employers, and local leaders. They gather ideas from people across the community—because high school redesign needs to be a community-led process. For inspiration, they visit innovative schools, programs, and cultural institutions.

Based on everything they’ve learned, the team works together to express a distinctive and inspiring school concept—a vision for their school that’s right for their students and community. From there, they craft the specific elements of their school model and detail the practical steps involved in bringing their vision to life, getting expert advice and technical assistance along the way.

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. These elements are building blocks, not a blueprint, for creating a unique and effective school.  

At XQ, we call these common elements the XQ Design Principles

The application of each principle varies 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.

XQ School Design Principles are guidelines—not directives—for high school redesign

At XQ, we believe that every community can and must transform its high schools so that 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—most recently in our partnership with DCPS—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 In A Box leads you on a process of high school design or redesign
  • XQ Learner Outcomes focus on what students will gain during their high school years and who they’ll be when they graduate
  • XQ 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. Below, we’ve gathered examples from XQ schools to show what it looks like for school teams to put the Design Principles into action for their specific community.

Meaningful, Engaged Learning

A team may start with the question: How will our school ensure that every student experiences engaged, meaningful learning where students actively participate in making connections between subjects, solving real problems, and growing as learners? This question opens the door to considering all aspects of learning, from curriculum, to assessment, to student agency. 

Círculos, an XQ school in Santa Ana, CA, shows how a commitment to meaningful, engaged learning can show up in every part of a school’s design. All students start the day in circles, where they share their goals, successes, and setbacks. This ritual engages student voice and prepares students to take ownership of their learning according to their own goals. School leaders further ensure meaningful learning by implementing a competency-based system, where students progress through content based on mastery, rather than time spent in seats. 
[Deep Dive into Meaningful, Engaged Learning]

Youth Voice and Choice

When youth voice and choice is present in a school, students have the power to share their perspectives and take an active role in their own learning. Design teams might ask, how can we make student input an integral part of the high school redesign process? And how can we build opportunities into the school model for students to make meaningful choices about what, how, and when they learn?

At Purdue Polytechnic High School, an XQ school in Indianapolis, IN, this looks like letting students decide which projects they’d like to work on within the school’s overall project-based learning design. Learning at PPHS is organized into six interdisciplinary project cycles where students tackle real-world challenges posed by industry partners. Students get to exercise choice by opting into the project that most aligns with their passion, and within each project, they get a high degree of autonomy in terms of their role and contribution to the group. 

[Deep Dive into Youth Voice and Choice]

Community Partnerships

The community partnerships design principle asks teams to consider how they can expand their conception of where school happens to include opportunities for students out in the community. Design teams might ask, how can community partnerships help our students expand their real-world experiences and interests? How can we design these partnerships to meet our goals for academic rigor?

Community partnerships play a central role at Latitude High School in Oakland, CA. Recognizing the wealth of learning resources present in the Bay area, school founders designed the school to make their community their classroom. Now, community partnerships are a core part of learning: from class projects designed around community challenges, to regular visits to local businesses, to internship opportunities for all students. 

Importantly, this is a reciprocal relationship. As community partners can help make learning deeper for students, high schools can also play a role in the economic growth of a community
[Deep Dive into Community Partnerships]

Caring, Trusting Relationships

The design of a school has a major impact on the kinds of relationships students will be able to form, with adults and with each other. Design teams can ask, how can we maximize opportunities for students to form caring, trusting relationships where they feel seen, known, and valued? How can we ensure that each student has at least one primary adult connection at school? 

Leaders at Da Vinci RISE High, an XQ school in Los Angeles, CA, incorporated caring, trusting relationships into their high school redesign by creating positions and programs explicitly around relationships. For example, each student has access to a specialized academic coach who goes with them to core classes to ensure they get the support they need. Students also participate in community-building circles twice a week. Da Vinci RISE serves students facing instability in their lives outside of school—homelessness, foster care, or incarceration—so these relationships provide critical support and stability. 

[Deep Dive into Caring, Trusting Relationships]

Smart Use of Time, Space, and Tech

This design principle challenges teams to think on a structural level about how they can innovate time, space, and technology to better support learning. Disrupting traditional ideas of when, where, and how school takes place can transform opportunities for students.

The design team behind Grand Rapids Public Museum School took the challenge of rethinking space to heart when they chose the location for their newly designed high school. The community leaders, youth, and business owners who originally designed the school wanted to create an environment that empowered students to learn about their community and revitalize downtown Grand Rapids. To do so, they designed a school that’s physically located in a community space: the Grand Rapids Public Museum and archives.

[Deep Dive into Smart Use of Time, Space, and Tech]

Strong Mission and Culture

Throughout every step of the design process, the principle of strong mission and culture invites teams to ask: what are our core values and principles? How do those values and principles show up in every aspect of the school, to the benefit of students?

At Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, TN, school leaders, teachers, and students worked to create a mission and culture that could unite the community in common purpose. With input from students, school staff came up with a mission that is clear, concise, and actionable: to “build a culture for learners to think and to act as changemakers” by creating a “21st-century learning environment where everyone is held accountable, reaches for excellence, embraces community, displays resilience, and values integrity.” Students then took things one step further, designing a school culture wall with visual representations of the school’s values and history. Now, all projects, classes, and initiatives at the school are designed with this overall mission in mind.

As these examples all illustrate, 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.

Throughout this process of design, teams can also 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 can help teams 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. Through using these resources, schools can achieve a school design, and the beginnings of an implementation plan that’s holistic, inspiring, intentionally equitable, and bold. 

[Deep Dive into Strong Mission and Culture]

XQ Design Principles Are Guidelines—Not Directives—for High School Redesign

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. 

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. 

Tell us how you are rethinking high school

Sharing lessons from the XQ schools is a goal we take seriously. We’d love to hear how your school is putting these principles to work. Tag us on social @XQAmerica or use #RethinkHighSchool to join the conversation.