Students Share What It’s Like to Learn in an Innovative High School

These three students come from three innovative schools that put students at the center. Here’s what it’s like to attend these schools.

By Team XQ

XQ schools and partnerships exist in big cities and small towns, in urban areas and rural regions, from coast to coast, and in between. There’s so much to learn from what makes them alike and different. We wanted to know what it’s like to be a student at a school that’s “rethinking high school,” so we invited three students to share their experiences. We learned that when schools truly commit to rethinking the way they do things, students do a lot more than just show up to class: they participate in how their classes are structured, they give input as to how they learn best, and they continuously prepare for a future that’s authored by them.

Let’s hear from Vera, DeAnthony, and Grace to find out more.

  • Vera, Crosstown High, Memphis, TN: About me? I’m 16 and I’m a sophomore here at Crosstown High School. I get to be the top of the top because we don’t have anyone older. I’m really involved in the theater program that we have here at Crosstown. 
  • DeAnthony, Purdue Polytechnic High School, Indianapolis, IN: My name is DeAnthony. I’m a junior at Purdue Polytechnic High School. I’ve been there for all three years. I’m really into the art side of things. So like poetry, music, singing, creative writing, all that type of jazz.
  • Grace, Iowa BIG, Cedar Rapids, IA: I’m a senior at Iowa BIG. I also attend Linn-Mar, a high school that’s a ten-minute drive from BIG.

XQ: What led to you enrolling in your school? 

Vera: So my parents actually were friends with Ginger [Spickler], who was one of the people who helped us get the XQ grant. My parents are really good friends with her. And so when I was in like the fifth grade, I believe, they started having meetings on strategizing and things like that. So my parents had been heavily involved in wanting to get me in this school and make it the best that it can be, not only for me but for my peers. So, yeah, it’s just been a very long time coming and now we’re here.

DeAnthony: Initially, I was going to attend Riverside or Herring, which are two more art-focused schools here in Indiana. But I did eventually decide to go to Purdue because, initially, I was more interested in mechanical engineering. Then I  took my first project on mechanical engineering and I was like, “Yikes, I cannot do this. I’m very bad at this.” But I didn’t give up on it. I just realized there are other things that I’m more passionate about.

Purdue is really good at helping you realize your strengths and weaknesses and helping you to build upon your weaknesses, not just acknowledge them as weaknesses and say, “Well I can’t do anything about it.” They keep helping you and pushing you to at least try and get better at the things that you think you’re not so good at.

XQ: Do students have an opportunity to have a say in how they’re taught at your school?

Vera: It’s such a big privilege that sometimes I feel me and some other people who have been involved as long as I have take it for granted. But it’s becoming more and more evident with us adding the freshmen class that we actually do have a say in the things that happen because we get to pass on our past experiences to them. And we get to give feedback to our teachers and our administrators on what’s working, what’s not working, what we need from them, what they need from us. And it’s really good that we’re able to express these things in an open environment where we don’t feel held back because it gives us the opportunity to have a good bond with the people in charge. It makes it so that we can come to them for the things that are happening and anything that isn’t working.

Grace: I can choose what I’m passionate about, and I don’t have to sit through things that I know that I’m only doing just so I can graduate with my class, or get a good grade. I can pick and choose, and work with people that I wouldn’t work with on a normal basis from different schools. I think it’s really important to have that experience, that real-world experience of working with people that you’ve never really worked with before.

XQ: From your perspective, what’s different about your school?

Vera: We still do have to do standardized testing and things like that. And we have to follow the state standards. But we all are given the opportunity to go at our own pace. So if I’m understanding something but someone else’s not understanding something, I have the option of helping them as a peer tutor. Everything’s open for discussion: what we do and what we don’t do and how we approach it. It gives us the opportunity to pick our projects as long as it has this standard in it, and you master this competency within it. It’s good to have that flexibility because it gives us the opportunity to have an open mind and actually take in the information in a way that’s best for us to understand. And it’s not just the usual one-step textbook type of teaching.

Grace: Iowa BIG is just an interesting experience that you can’t really get with your normal classes at school. It was really important for me that I had variety in the things that I get to do and experience, and having that conversation with my peers about their experiences at traditional school, versus going to BIG, made me really proud that we’re able to have this experience to learn different ways than you just do on a normal basis.

XQ: Has being part of a new school model come with any obstacles you’ve had to navigate?

Vera: Well, I personally—and I know a lot of other people struggle with leading their own learning—it’s hard sometimes to stay on task. Our teachers trust us so much that they’re like, “Okay, we’re going to give you this and now you need to go do it without asking us any questions.” And it’s difficult to stay on task and to actually do it without asking questions. It can get frustrating because they know you can do it, but you don’t know you can do it. It forces you to learn more about yourself and learn what’s best for me and ask myself what environments do I learn best in. Leading your own learning—that’s very difficult.

DeAnthony: I’m not going to lie, it’s been challenging dealing with all the twists and turns and exciting changes that we’ve been dealing with. But after the first year, you kind of get used to it. Obviously, some things kind of throw you back like, “Wait, we’re using a different website this year for our curriculum?” And then it’s like, “Oh, okay, well it’s not that bad.”

Grace: I think it’s important to know that you don’t have to do BIG if you’re bad at traditional school. It’s not a situation where you didn’t succeed in one area, so you have to go to a different school. I think it can work for all learning styles. I really like traditional school, but I knew that there was something better. So I would say, don’t knock it until you try it. I guess, make sure to keep your options open.

XQ: What kind of projects are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

Vera: My group just finished a sex-ed policy that contradicts the only one that Tennessee currently has. We wrote a comprehensive one that’s based on the curriculum that they use in California and in Sweden. Our original plan was to write an 18-week curriculum that we can implement in our school. But then we were like, “Oh, we can’t do that because we’re under state standards and it’s against the law to teach anything other than abstinence.”

This is something that we didn’t want to completely scratch, so we were like, “What can we do to move forward with it?” We’re going to start a social media campaign sometime soon to get our name out there. We’re going to talk to the local politicians and organizations to get it up and out and start a petition before we present it to our board of education.

DeAnthony: Right. So I’ll give you an example of how it all comes together. So last year were still in Foundation—Foundation students work on specific design challenges and design projects in correlation with our school partner for each cycle at our school. So for example, we were partnered with a company called Corteva and we had the challenge to figure out how we would support a future world with 9.5 billion people living on it. We have this document, to help us plan for our project the research phase, the interviewing people phase, and it’s a huge document that we have to go through and submit every cycle as evidence that we did the entire project and that we understood each step in the project.

And the teacher would ask for our feedback at the end of every cycle. You know, “What can we change about this document? How can we help more so that you can understand what’s going on in the project? What can we do to improve?” And then at the same time, we’re learning public speaking because we were pitching our idea to companies, to teachers, all these higher-ups that work to give us feedback as to what we can do to improve our communication, collaboration, innovation, and all that good stuff.

XQ: How do you think the school has changed your mindset? 

Vera: They really push us to do more, to think outside of the box. And so when we originally did come to a roadblock with our sex-ed project, we were like, “Well what are we going to do? Maybe we need to do a whole new project, do we need to scratch this entire idea?” And so we sat down with our English teacher and she was like, “What can you do to overcome this obstacle?” And our final thought was we will just rewrite the policy and present it to them. And so hopefully it goes through, which it may or may not.

DeAnthony: I think going to Purdue has really changed my learning overall because of the projects I’m involved in. Music is one of my passions. That’s what I love to do. Music, singing… it gets me in the career-thinking mindset. It helps me realize that math and English and stuff like that can be applied to a career in music. Because you know you have to learn how to take care of numbers. It just helps you see the bigger picture of education and how higher education can lead to a more successful career.

Grace: I think the most beneficial part about BIG is the fact that we go to both BIG and normal schools. Just knowing the fact that, even if I don’t have important work that’s due at a certain time, I could still be working on other things that could benefit my group. Also, personal skills like managing, team-building, and accountability. Things that I wouldn’t normally do on a normal basis, but I can take those things back to my normal schools. And things that you learn at school, like working on a time limit for testing and standards. Prioritizing what you need to learn at certain different times. 

XQ: How do you think your school is preparing you for college, career, and beyond?

Vera: We do a lot of developing of our soft skills in school. So, not only do we work on academic stuff, but we do a lot of conflict resolution and we have peer resolution, which is when our honor counsel actually sits down with us and there are no adults in the room. It’s an opportunity to work out problems with just kids. Stuff like that helps us learn how to talk to each other and resolve conflict.

For some of our projects, we partner with businesses in the Crosstown Concourse and in the community. That helps us with talking to adults and making bridges and things like that. So they’re really preparing us to move out into the world as progressive adults who are educated in not only math, but in science and literature and history—teaching us to figure out how we can be sufficient members of society.

DeAnthony: I think our college coordinator is doing a great job at helping us prep for these big college exams. Like the SAT and ACT. We’re currently doing a few homeroom activities where we work on our resumes. We started building our college portfolios early on and we have an online system to manage all of that. They also have a class on how to better your profile… in that class, our teachers help students better represent themselves as academic scholars.

PPHS has also worked with Purdue University to get us into their summer programs. So this summer we will have the option to take a one week course or a four-week course at Purdue. We will be in the dorms going to college classes with other college students and that experience will offer us, I believe, up to four college hours.

Grace: I think adaptability is super important, and that’s something that you learn a lot at BIG when things don’t go exactly how you want it to be, or you’re placed in a situation where you don’t necessarily have all the control that you usually have in day-to-day situations. I think it’s really important to know that you can be adaptable, and just be willing to do whatever is needed to get the job done, and to be successful.

The words and shared thoughts of these students attests to the singular importance of providing young learners a platform to voice their opinions wherever it is that they learn. Further, it aligns with the positivity that’s generated when schools commit to fostering a community that puts strong mission and culture in the driver’s seat. When schools and educators invest in the potential of students—not only as thinkers but as people with their own unique perspectives—and really hear them, amazing things happen. 

A special thanks to Vera, DeAnthony, and Grace!

If you know a student with a story to tell about their high school experience, tell us about it using #ReThinkHighSchool on social media or consider signing up as an XQ blog contributor.