When the School Belongs to the Students

This school belongs to students. How? This educator shares how her high school gives students a myriad of ways to express themselves and grow academically.

By Angela Daniel

One of the four operational principles at PSI High is “PSI High belongs to students.” When we wrote it, we meant it. Each and every printer, building supply, book in the library, and learning goal are part of our student-centered environment. But we are always seeking ways for our students to have even more agency over their learning experiences.

PSI High is an awesome place that gives students a myriad of ways to express themselves and grow academically. That’s probably not the first time you’ve heard a description like that about a school, but we can prove it at PSI High, where students are making “smart mirrors” for defense contractors, upending decades-old marketing campaigns for established businesses, and designing educational feeders for zoo animals.

Collaborative Teams, Individual Projects

Industry and corporate partners come to our facility to speak to the students about a problem their business is encountering for these “partner projects.” Interested students apply to work on collaborative teams with peers to address the business’s issue and eventually pitch their solution to the business’s decision-makers.

Additionally, students work on an individual project that connects to something that inspires them. Right now, they’re working on diverse concepts that run the gamut from hydrogen-powered motors and red-tide solutions to anime in schools and the cultural impact of the doughnut. Both partner and individual projects incorporate student-chosen learning goals, and the students can demonstrate mastery of their chosen standards at any point along their process.

Student-Led Skill Sessions

Even with all of these incredible choices, it turns out a much simpler project may end up making the most significant impact on our students’ permanent achievement. At PSI High we call this a student-led skill session.

When one particular student came to PSI High, she was a happy kid who liked hanging out with her friends. She showed up to class and tried to engage, but her experiences in previous schools had led her to develop a low opinion of her own abilities. She largely kept her head down and tried to fade into the background whenever possible.

Communicating in New Ways

Teachers posted a sign-up sheet for anyone who had a skill they’d like to share with the group — nothing too formal, just sharing whatever the student thought might be helpful. About a month into the opportunity, a friend talked this student into creating a session to demonstrate her American Sign Language skills. She signed up but was pretty sure no one would come. She prepared a basic lesson and learned a new song that she thought her friends might enjoy. Then, she showed up to the location she had chosen for her session, and she waited. Within the first five minutes, the room was packed. Over half of the students in the program were interested in what she was going to say.

She did an amazing job engaging her friends in sign language and teaching them the importance of communicating in new ways, especially if it has the effect of including a person who typically does not feel included.

Since that first session, she has already followed up with a more detailed session that was also well attended and reviewed.

This would be a worthy story if it were solely one of a girl finding her voice in a new program among new friends, but it’s not — it’s much bigger.

This same student has begun taking more intellectual risks in her classes. She’s advocated for her needs by asking questions, asking for assistance, and expressing healthy boundaries for herself. This particular student narrates her abilities differently now. She is someone who can do things. And she is valuable.

PSI High is a very cool place that connects kids to industries and people who prove that they, the students, can do or become anything they can imagine in the future. This is just a small opportunity, but it’s where they figure out that they’re already something pretty spectacular.

Learn more about Florida’s XQ Super School PSI High School here.