Never stop learning. Design the future.
Discover Crosstown High, a student-centered school created by the community for the community. Here, every student experiences project-based learning across all subjects. The school’s multidisciplinary projects and partnerships with neighboring Memphis organizations are at the forefront, giving students access to real-world learning where everyone benefits and everyone grows.
Crosstown’s journey began when Memphis parent Ginger Spickler saw a billboard advertising the XQ Super School Challenge. She invited teachers, parents, students, local architects, writers, and business owners to join a design team that grew to 69 people. They gathered input from more than 200 students who shared how they often felt unheard in school. Crosstown’s stakeholders desired more dynamic and engaging learning experiences for their students, and they craved a racially diverse school to reverse the tide of de facto segregation in Memphis.
Their brightly-lit, lively school opened in 2018 inside Crosstown Concourse. The building is a ten-story, 1 million-square-foot Memphis landmark that’s been redeveloped with more than 40 businesses, nonprofits, health facilities, and civic groups. Crosstown High’s commitment to being “diverse-by-design” means it recruits students from across Memphis. The public charter school graduated its first class in 2022 and serves about 480 students in grades 9-12.
“At Crosstown High, our voices are truly heard. Our faculty and administration do all that they can to make sure we are able to exercise our student voice. This has made myself and my peers so much more open to having productive discussions not only with our peers but also in professional settings.”
Class of 2022
“There are a lot of community partnerships right here inside of this vertical urban village. We can make real-world connections with kids at a higher rate than a traditional high school would because of the proximity to a lot of really dynamic organizations.”
Design Principles in Action
Learn how Crosstown applies these XQ Design Principles to sustain student success
Strong mission and culture
Crosstown’s mission embodies equity through its diverse by design model, and by believing in the academic, cognitive, and social growth of all learners through its student-centered approach. The school solicits and incorporates diverse stakeholder voices into its work on the mission, alignment, goal setting, and model iteration.
Meaningful, engaged learning
Educators are empowered to teach students through authentic projects that connect them deeply with their community. Through project-based learning (PBL), teachers guide students toward building proficiency in the standards and core competencies to help them succeed academically and socially. Students gain a comprehensive understanding of their learning as teachers empower them to take ownership of it and gain agency. “The schools where students buzz with interest and where educators are fulfilled by their work are also the schools where students thrive academically,” said Nikki Wallace, Crosstown’s biology teacher, science department chair, and DEI advisor.
Caring, trusting relationships
Crosstown has consistent structures for learners to connect and build strong relationships with adults and peers. Through restorative justice practices, students and teachers build a culture of trust and belonging. The school dedicates its onboarding and professional development time so educators can strengthen their skill sets for improving the lives of young learners.
Youth voice and choice
Crosstown students explore their interests and their passions and are offered a range of learning pathways that cater to their interests. Frequent and regular advisory periods help students form their identities and help to build postsecondary goals with a cohort of fellow learners. At Crosstown, students choose their own projects and present their learning through two annual learning presentations for the school community.
Smart use of time, space, and tech
Crosstown High’s location within the Crosstown Concourse means students also have access to dozens of local businesses and organizations—the entire site supports students in learning about their local community’s diversity, culture, history, and economics. Through their flexible classroom spaces, Crosstown provides room for innovative practices to become the norm. Different subject classes come together in special “base camp” rooms for students to work on a projects so teachers are flexible in organizing both students and instruction. Many projects involve going off-site, and a special multi-grade level course builds a dynamic cohort of learners through a semester-long project—providing teachers the opportunity to work with many more students within the school.
Crosstown’s multidisciplinary projects and partnerships with neighboring organizations, including but not limited to those co-located in the Crosstown Concourse, give students access to real-world learning where everyone benefits and everyone grows. Local institutions such as the Refugee Empowerment Program, the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, and the University of Tennessee work with students to create authentic learning experiences that connect them deeply with their community. Past projects in which students collaborated with their community included: designing a sensory walk for children with a local elementary school; researching and developing a plan with faculty at the University of Tennessee’s College of Nursing to help Crosstown’s executive director lower his cholesterol; examining racial disparities in Memphis’s cancer rates and treatment outcomes through a partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and designing a young voter registration campaign in Memphis to empower civic engagement.
XQ Resources in Action
Crosstown High integrates the XQ Learner Outcomes and Competencies to better prepare students to thrive in today’s complex and rapidly changing world. Instead of measuring student performance with seat time and test scores alone, educators can support students across different skill sets: academic knowledge, cognitive and social-emotional capacities, and real-world skills such as networking and financial literacy.
In spring 2022, 122 students graduated from Crosstown High, representing the school’s first graduating class since it launched as an XQ school in 2018-19. Among their accomplishments, the Class of 2022 had
- A significantly higher graduation rate than the surrounding district and state (95 percent versus 80 and 90 percent).
- Better results on several standardized tests compared to their local, statewide, and national counterparts. Crosstown’s 2022 cohort also met ACT college-ready benchmarks in all four subject areas—English, math, science, and social studies—at significantly higher rates than their counterparts nationally. And 68 percent met the ACT’s college-ready benchmark in English, compared with 57 percent statewide and 53 percent nationally). That’s notable because 98 percent of Crosstown’s graduates took the exam compared with only about one in three nationally.
- The Tennessee Department of Education annually reports another ACT statistic: the percentage of graduates achieving an ACT Composite Score of 21 or higher. Almost half of Crosstown’s class of 2022 graduates (48.7 percent) achieved an ACT Composite Score of 21+, more than triple the 15.6 percent among Shelby County’s 2022 graduates and higher than Tennessee’s 2022 rate of 35 percent. Tennessee also breaks out this statistic for two student subgroups: students from low-income families and a combined category dubbed “Black/Hispanic/Native American.” For those groups as well, Crosstown’s graduates outperformed their counterparts, both in the surrounding region and statewide.
- However, Crosstown’s class of 2022 didn’t perform as well on the 2021 Tennessee U.S. history exam in 11th grade, falling below county and state proficiency rates among all groups. Leaders think this relates to participation rates on the test. Only about two-thirds of Crosstown’s 11th graders took the 11th-grade history exam. The rest took a separate college-level course—Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History—and took the AP exam. Crosstown’s leaders made a change when they saw the data. Starting in the 2022-23 year, their students stopped taking the state’s U.S. history exam. Instead, they took the AP U.S. History course to promote broader and more equitable access to college-level content.
- Even before this change, Crosstown already provided greater AP access than typical American high schools. Nearly three in five members of the class of 2022 (58 percent) took at least one AP exam, including 44 percent of Black and 73 percent of white graduates. That level of AP participation greatly exceeds national numbers, both overall and for student subgroups. According to the College Board, only 35 percent of the nation’s 2022 graduating class took one or more AP exams.
- Nonetheless, Crosstown leaders weren’t satisfied and wanted greater participation in AP tests. They have adopted a proactive, equity-based approach to AP access, in part based on what they learned from the class of 2022 cohort. As noted above, for the 2022–23 school year, all 10th and 11th graders enrolled in AP U.S. History. Starting with the class of 2024, all students will take AP U.S. History in 10th grade, followed by AP World History in 11th grade.
- Crosstown’s leaders and teachers also want to increase the pass rates on AP exams—especially for students of color—but not by limiting access only to the highest-performing students, as many high schools do. By expanding AP enrollment, “we knew we were going to have lower exam passing rates at first, but there is a lot of research showing benefits to students exposed to college-level AP material, including for students who don’t pass the exams,” explained Chris Terrill, Crosstown’s executive director. “Our goal isn’t to boast a super high pass rate but to expose all students to a college-level curriculum.”
- Following national trends, fewer Crosstown class of 2022 graduates achieved a score of 3 or higher on the AP tests. (A score of 3 is considered “passing” because it’s the minimum for a student to earn college credit from many institutions of higher education.) Nationally, 21.6 percent of 2022 high school graduates passed at least one AP exam and 14 percent of Tennessee’s high school grads. At Crosstown, 30 percent of 2022 graduates did so, with large differences between groups. But nearly half of Crosstown’s white graduates passed an AP exam compared with about one in seven Black graduates.
- Crosstown hopes to change this dynamic by remaining committed to its innovative learning model as it expands access to AP courses. Its educators decided the solution wasn’t to lean heavily on lectures, note-taking, and exam prep, which is how many high schools teach AP courses. Instead, they redesigned AP U.S. History to be more like Crosstown’s other courses: inquiry-driven and project-based, supplemented with goal-setting sessions and practice tests. Crosstown aims to achieve AP’s benefits for college access and success while fostering the development of the XQ Learner Outcomes, which the school formally adopted in September 2022.