Five Questions for JoEllen Lynch
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Founded in 2013 as part of the Corporation’s Opportunity by Design initiative, Springpoint is a national nonprofit organization that partners with school districts, intermediaries, and charter networks around the country to design and launch new, innovative high schools. We recently sat down with Springpoint’s executive director JoEllen Lynch to talk about the lessons the organization has learned from its work, and about a new guide that provides a roadmap to school design for others looking to do this work.
Designing New School Models
Can you describe Springpoint’s school design process? Who is involved and how do you get them to consider new approaches?
Since 2013, our organization has partnered with school districts, networks, and charter management organizations around the country to design and launch 12 new high schools in six cities. Over the next two years, we will support teams in opening five more. We collaborate closely with school leaders, guiding them through a comprehensive school development process that includes not only design but launch, implementation, and ongoing iteration.
Springpoint leads partners through a structured, student-centered design process that helps them plan, and build capacity through training, coaching, and direct consultative support for local efforts. This process begins with the formation of a design team that includes local stakeholders, including the design leader, governance structure representatives, teachers, students, families, and community organizations.
The design period is marked by three stages of work: understand, design, and build. We believe that at the core of great design is a foundational understanding of the students and community which the school will serve. To that end, we continually coach and train design teams to understand the local needs of young people, as well as their families and communities. Once they’ve reached that understanding, we help them define the priorities that matter most to their students and families and the experiences that the young people and adults will have as members of the school community.
We have learned to walk beside teams and develop a structured scaffold to guide them as they bring their new model concepts to life with careful planning. And, most important, we prepare them for launch and iteration, emphasizing that school design is never done. Our ultimate goal is the design of a school that is built on the strengthened capacity of local resources and solutions, rather than the replication of a single, existing model.
Can you tell us about the publication that Springpoint recently released, which outlines the design process—how do you see this guide advancing the work you’ve done with your partners?
We are excited to release this school design guide to share what we’ve learned and provide a roadmap for others trying to do this work. The guide outlines the three phases of our school design process—understand, design, and build—and includes a curated selection of tools that illustrate the importance of understanding incoming students and designing schools that directly reflect their assets and needs. It is intended as a resource that practitioners, administrators, students, families, and communities engaged in new school design can use to guide their thinking. We want to empower different communities to generate innovative ideas, unique approaches, and strong systems that can give all students the school experiences they deserve.
This guide was informed by our partners and the work we’ve done with them over the past three years. We hope our partners use this guide and its accompanying tools as they continue to iterate on their models, and think about opening new schools. We also see this guide as a contribution to the advancement of the wider school design field, which can help create more schools across the country that our partners can share with and learn from. We believe that a robust school design community will get us closer to our ultimate shared vision of empowering all young people toward a bright, capable future.
This is one important release in a series of artifacts from our work that we have begun to share more broadly. We hope to continue to spread learnings from our work and that of our partners as new schools are designed and as they continuously evolve.
You highlight that community-based school design teams should commit to "redefining the experience of school." What does this mean and why is it important?
It’s almost hackneyed at this point to say that schools as they exist today were built as factories to put young people in and sort them. But it’s true. To be successful now, young people need to get to much higher levels of content and skills. So we must ask ourselves, how do we build schools that enable young people to find their paths and build competencies that will not only help them in engagement and persistence when they get to college, but also in having a successful career and life?
The first step is to recognize that young people live in an ecosystem that consists of school, family, and community. Learning can take place in every part of a student’s day—after school, reading to a younger sibling, advocating for local issues. Schools need to be places that reflect the varied experiences and assets that young people bring, and build competencies that can prepare them for a college-ready future.
We now understand that as adults, we are responsible for helping develop adolescent learning ecosystems that can help shape young people’s relationships to family and community. Schools can be central to that if they are part of a broader community rather than closed institutions. If the walls of the school are porous, there is the acknowledgement and expectation that learning can happen within and outside of the brick and mortar building. We work with teams to create these ecosystems that are designed to help students build a sense of trust, engage with them deeply, convey high expectations for learning, make contributions to their communities, and allow them to participate in the development of their own mastery.
That’s why we say that any school design process should start with a deep understanding of the incoming students—their needs, experiences, assets, and dreams for the future. Systems, instructional practices, school culture, and all design elements should serve the young people in the school. The process of getting there is invention. More often than not, this means that school designers need to create a school that has never existed anywhere else before. This is a new charge for high schools.
Positive Youth Development is a core focus of your design work. Why is it important and what does that look like in action (at a school, in a classroom)?
Positive youth development is a theoretical framework that draws on learning from both adolescent development theory and systems thinking. Young people need the right balance of autonomy and supports to accomplish the two essential tasks of adolescence: identity formation and the building of competencies that help them meet their needs successfully. The implementation of that theory recognizes that young people have these needs but also draws on their assets to provide experiences where they can develop mastery in academics, health, relationships, and other areas.
Too often, youth development is perceived as an “add on” to the essential academics and operations of a school. From our perspective youth development is the scaffold upon which all of those elements are built. It is an approach to doing school that needs to be reflected at the core of the school’s structure—in each classroom, each interaction, each activity. This ranges from a keen eye on how the student experiences entering the building and is welcomed as part of the school day to a deep integration of voice and choice in the curriculum development. Schools that are competent in youth development seek to consistently build on the strengths and assets of their students and families. Students may have a voice in the school leadership team, curriculum committees, teacher hiring, and iteration processes as schools continue to develop. These practices, if supported both financially and structurally, are vital to academic achievement and the whole development of a young person.
Springpoint believes that an understanding of adolescents and their needs is a baseline for a successful school model. Young people will develop whether we as adults are ready for it or not, regardless of whether the school creates these positive practices. We need to ask key questions. How do they develop? Are they healthy? Do they feel they have a voice that is primary in the school? Are they part of a community that can support them academically as well as socially and are they understood and brought back in when things go wrong? Schools need to be learning environments that ensure that students feel safe, are heard and part of decision making, that they are supported, challenged, and recognized when they are successful. These are part of the opportunities that schools can provide to young people to guide them towards college, life, and career success.
You’ve been involved in decades’ worth of efforts to “rethink” school. What is the biggest challenge in doing this work? What do you think the biggest learnings have been, and what open questions remain?
First and always primary is relationship building. When a support organization meets new partners, both sides can have perceptions or expectations that must be voiced and discussed. It is the mutual building of the design process, and all of the challenges it presents, that helps us to work through as partners on a journey focused on young people. Relationship building is too often assumed and not directly cultivated in these processes. The ideas and strengths of the community that is designing a new school model are as important as the knowledge and expertise that we bring to the process. Beginning there sets the stage for what we expect the school community to also understand—that mutual respect and a caring environment is the responsibility of all members of the school community and its partners.
Second, invention is a challenge. This work should, at its very core, be about invention. We’re often asked to redesign and move or strengthen pieces within schools. But invention is an opportunity to completely rethink what school is for young people. It pushes us to find new ways to articulate needs and develop solutions. Our process starts with teams understanding who their students are and who they want to be at the end of high school. With those two points very clear, we ask them to keep an open mind, and figure out how to get students from one point to the other. Everything is on the table. We encourage teams to look at best practices in other schools and across other disciplines to figure out how to apply them in their contexts. And, we encourage them to think beyond what they know and to listen to the young people they’re going to serve. Students will tell you what they need if you are prepared to really listen.
Another challenge is getting adults to persistently think differently. It is easier to think radically at the beginning of a design process, when you are conceptualizing a school model. This is much harder during implementation when you have to get kids in the building. Often, when schools open and adults encounter unexpected challenges, they revert back to what they know about school. To help leaders and their teams make decisions and iterate, we work with them to use data to continually assess student progress and adjust their model to improve outcomes. As part of this work, we bring in a group of experts—staff, external consultants, other school leaders—to conduct a quality review of each of our partner schools. We do this at the beginning and the end of the school year based on a rubric we developed. It’s a supportive process that includes all stakeholders and sets everyone up to identify areas where support is needed and to work with the district or network to provide it. All of this becomes part of a regular process to guide the smart iteration of the model.
Too many of us believe that design work is done when a school opens. But schools are living ecosystems—students change, teachers change, leaders change and needs change. Successful schools embrace this dynamic nature and set in place consistent rituals to assess, question and iterate.