Guest Post: What Does it Mean to Redesign a School?

October 10, 2017

Guest post by Yetta Lewis, CEO and co-founder of Gestalt Community Schools

A little more than a year ago, I started out on a journey to reimagine schools. I joined nine other teams of educators from across the country for a 10-month program, the New Schools + Transcend Collaborative. Most of us had never met, but we had one important thing in common: each team — whether representing a district or a charter network — had achieved some level of success with students who have been traditionally underserved, and knew that we and our kids were capable of even more. We agreed to come together and learn from and with each other. We wanted to see if we could possibly push the boundaries of our thinking and dream up a model that might work even better than what we’d been doing. Today, the story of that journey is being released in a new report, The Collaborative: What We Learned From Bringing Educators Together to Reimagine School.

Our teams came from different parts of the country, represented varying governance structures and were serving students in different grades. And, if we were honest…though many of our students realized academic excellence, we had all failed some of them. We knew what was probable if we continued on our current trajectories of “doing school.” We all wanted what was possible. And, that’s what brought us together.

Let me tell you about my personal journey. I am the CEO and co-founder of Gestalt Community Schools, birthed from a community development corporation in the Hickory Hill neighborhood of Memphis, TN. We founded our first school in 2008, the year of “the great recession,” and also the year a tornado ripped through the community and left it in shambles. Sadly, Hickory Hill had been suffering for some time with shuttered businesses, bankruptcies and foreclosures, and these events were just the latest challenges hurled their way. So, we decided to create a school model that would be the catalyst for the change and rebirth in the community. The name “gestalt” means unified whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s because it really isn’t about how things work next to each other. It’s about how they intersect and work together.

Like others in the Collaborative, our first school was considered an early success. In our first year, the Wall Street Journal featured us, and within three years, we were the highest performing school in Tennessee. And, we continued on. We had much to be proud of, although we still had room to do even more. Then in 2016, we were invited to join the Collaborative, a program for strong districts and charter networks designed to accelerate the exploration, learning and reimagination of new school models.

Transcend and NewSchools created the Collaborative to bring participants through a learning journey where we could explore the frontiers of learning science, dig deeply into the intersection of identity and design, visit provocative new school models and learning spaces, and identify the demands of the 21st century.    

Our cohort came together three times throughout the year to visit schools and learning spaces, hear from expert learning scientists and designers, and collaborate with one another through the community we had built. In our home communities, we created design teams comprised of key stakeholders from our community. We interviewed students, families and community members to understand their hopes and dreams for themselves, their children and the future. We all took these experiences, interviews and research, and created a vision for a school that would serve our particular communities.

For Gestalt, that meant we could not just focus on academics. We had to deeply know each child, understanding their holistic strengths, needs and dreams – ultimately to help them find their life’s purpose. Through the Collaborative, we were able to articulate this vision and design a set of experiences we believe will help our students realize their purpose. Our new school model will take a more expanded definition of student success. It strives to develop critical and creative thinkers, lifelong, self-directed learners, community collaborators, and personal historians.Learning happens inside and outside the classroom, with scholars engaging in rigorous, interdisciplinary challenges, which focus on an issue present in their own community. And, family members and community partners are present throughout a scholar’s schooling experience.  

On behalf of the 2016-2017 Collaborative cohort, I am excited to share this new report, which summarizes our experience last year and the things we learned. I made new friends, learned so much, and left inspired and with real momentum to dream even bigger on behalf of the students I love. Starting this year, we are designing, building and piloting key aspects of the school model design that we created while in the Collaborative. I hope you will also find this report useful.

Members of the Transcend + NewSchools Collaborative:

  • Camino Nuevo Charter Academy
  • Citizens of the World
  • DC Public Schools
  • Excel Academy Charter Schools
  • Gestalt Community Schools
  • Hiawatha Academies
  • KIPP Houston
  • Spring Branch Independent School District
  • Tulsa Public Schools
  • Yes Prep Public Schools