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California school empowers students to be creative, self-directed

A set schedule for the semester is a thing of the past at Design Tech High School in this suburban San Francisco community.

Teachers create a new plan every week, based on the students’ progress in class. But the day’s work isn’t a top-down mandate. Students decide for themselves how to spend certain segments of their day.

“It’s that balance of giving them ownership, asking them to be self-directed,” said Ken Montgomery, the executive director of the brand new school. “It’s a pretty big philosophical shift for 14-year-olds.”

Nicknamed, the charter school opened this fall with a freshman class in a wing of a traditional high school about 15 miles south of San Francisco. It plans to eventually enroll 500 students, with about 150 students per grade, in a larger space.

At the innovative school, teachers blend technology with in-person instruction, and students can sign up for online courses for subjects that aren’t offered in the school. Some classes are project-based and require research in the surrounding community.

The weekly remix of class schedules allows teachers to pull aside students who don’t grasp the material and challenge those who are ready to progress. Each day also includes blocks of time in which students can make choices based on their priorities and interests.

This freedom creates tension. What a teenager wants to do does not always jibe with what he needs to do. Teachers guide students who go too far astray, but they let students wrestle with it first.

Lorenzo Maimone, 14, helped build a website on which students can find the links they need for school. It isn’t perfect, he said, but it works better than toggling through a long list of bookmarks. He could spend more school time on it, but he knows he has other responsibilities.

“I do think it’s a double-edged sword, to be honest,” Maimone said. “You have to be mindful and self-disciplined. If I don’t do something now, I have to find time later.”

Students here are challenged to solve real-world problems. To do so, they are taught to use a design-thinking process created at Stanford University, with an emphasis on collaboration, empathy and communication skills. And they must explain and defend what they learn in front of their peers, parents and teachers.

The teenagers are also trusted to make choices as a group. They plan for assemblies, for instance, and must agree on what to do and how to pay for it.

Ashley Phan and Julia Wang were part of a team responsible for a Halloween assembly. Their first idea, a whipped cream fight, delivered on the goals of “fun” and “affordable.” They created a proposal for the school leader, who has final say. His concern: extensive cleanup time. The students scrapped the whipped cream and went with a candy toss instead.

“Our voices are heard,” Wang said. “What we do has an impact on other people here.”

The constant reinvention of the school day creates logistical challenges, including scheduling and record-keeping. Although schools can buy computer systems to manage these tasks, leaders at Design Tech said none of the ready-made products fit snugly with their plans for teaching and learning. Instead, an office manager works with teachers to coordinate everyone’s schedules. It’s a herculean task.

A few teachers at the school are now helping test a possible solution to the problem, using a prototype of a web-based tool developed by The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit that advocates for blended learning. The nonprofit hopes the tool will smooth the process for schools like Design Tech High School.

“This effort is just beginning, but we are excited about the potential,” Scott Ellis, CEO of The Learning Accelerator, said in an email, “both for Design Tech and for broader innovations that could help districts all across America.”