Designing better schools from the ground up

June 10, 2024
Robert Balfanz

Many high schools in the U.S. aren’t designed for the 21st century. Redesigning them for the future starts with a coalition of teachers, administrators, community members and—importantly—students.

Students from 13 middle and high schools in six states recently traveled to Washington, D.C., for the inaugural National School Redesign Showcase to present ideas on how to make their schools better places. Here, Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools and director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, said that the ideas and thinking they brought underscore the importance of a redesign process that pulls in school-based teams and builds agency, belonging, and connectedness.

What did you set out to do with the National School Redesign Challenge?

For the past seven years, the Everyone Graduates Center has been working on a high school redesign effort. The basic premise is that our high schools were designed for the 20th century and we’re now in the 21st century. Today, everyone has to graduate from high school ready to go on to post-secondary schooling or training, but high schools haven’t had the opportunity to redesign themselves for that new goal.

Our big idea was to democratize the school redesign process. Working with schools in six states including New Mexico and Georgia, we created a process and a structure that started with school-based teams of teachers, administrators, students, and community members. Then we gave the teams access to the evidence base about what works in four areas: how to organize your adults, how to support your students, how to view teaching and learning, and how to create post-secondary pathways. Also, how to build and test a prototype and from that, create a larger design or improvement strategy.

We then invited 15 participating schools to Washington, D.C., to be part of the inaugural National School Redesign Showcase. We wanted students and teachers to bring ideas to educational policymakers on how to better design our schools so everyone’s on a pathway to adult success.

How did you engage with students?

The student teams that came to D.C. presented ideas on how to increase teacher and student agency, belonging, and connectedness. Coming out of the pandemic, it’s very important to have a place where you feel like you have agency, where you feel like you belong, where you feel like you’re connected to one another. We asked them to create a new design, a new practice, and a new structure.

Students already felt a lot of agency doing this work, because they had to create posters and tell us about their process and design. There was one school in New Mexico where the kids shadowed school staff to see what their jobs were, such as spending a day with the front desk clerk or the custodian. That really opened their eyes to everything these people do and how they interact with students. One of the groups from Georgia went and tested their ideas out with a state legislator.

We were struck by the depth of engagement of both the students and teachers. This is a voluntary thing on top of everything else they’re doing, and they did the work, they shadowed and interviewed one another. They met, they thought, they strategized, they prototyped.

What were the key learnings?

We confirmed our hypothesis that we could open up the idea of school redesign and create a process that enabled more people to participate. If we involve students and teachers and find ways for them to be at the forefront of figuring out how to do this better, we get really good ideas. The broader goal is to create supports, policy, and eventually funding for this sort of redesign work. Schools need to be redesigned, and it’s best if that’s done from the ground up.