Super School

In a national competition, the two-year-old Delaware Design Lab is one of 10 schools that have been awarded $10 million each over the next five years

Sometimes dreams don’t work out as planned.

And sometimes real life can turn out better than anyone could have imagined.

Just ask Cristina Alvarez and Martin Rayala, cofounders of the Delaware Design Lab High School.
Alvarez, a former principal of Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture and Design, turned up in Delaware in the fall of 2012, with the dream of creating a new school in downtown Wilmington. She had teamed with Rayala, a veteran educator and consultant, to write her proposal and, on the recommendation of a friend, recruited Matt Urban, president of Mobius New Media, a graphics and design firm with offices in the Grand Opera House, to head its board of directors.

The State Board of Education approved Design Lab’s charter application in early 2013, but the school opening was delayed until the fall of 2015. Alvarez was unable to find a suitable downtown Wilmington site and wound up settling in Christiana, in a building in the Faith City Church complex that had previously been used by another charter, the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security. It started with 233 students, about half of them African-American, in grades 9 and 10. With 11th grade added this year, enrollment is now pushing 300, Rayala says.

But Alvarez and Rayala won’t be surprised to see the demand for seats soar by the Jan. 11 deadline for choice and charter applications for the 2017-18 school year.

After all, who wouldn’t want their child to attend a school that had just won a $10 million grant in a national competition to create a next-generation “super school”?

That’s right—$10 million, a cool $2 million a year for the next five years. Considering that the school’s budget is currently $4.2 million, having the ability to tap into another $2 million gives Design Lab the potential to do more—a lot more.

“It’s a huge amount of money, and we were shocked to get it,” Alvarez says.

Re-Imagining the American High School

The money is coming from XQ: The Super School Project, funded by the Emerson Collective, an education and immigration advocacy group run by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers. XQ put out a call for proposals that would re-imagine the American high school for the 21st century, and Design Lab submitted one based on its academic plan.

The competition was fierce. More than 1,400 schools expressed interest in the competition, 700 applied, and that number was whittled down to 350, then 50 semifinalists and ultimately the 10 winners.

Other winners in the competition included charter schools and traditional public schools with plans to focus on high-needs students, academically successful self-directed students, homeless students and one that would operate out of a museum.

“It’s not like anything else we have in our state. The award validates that we brought an innovative model to Delaware,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

Massett, however, offers a cautionary note. “It’s still a second- year school. Infusing money into a school does not make it perfect. I hope nobody thinks they’re not going to have challenges. Every school has challenges. But now they have a cushion to have a failure here or there.”

The next steps for Design Lab, Alvarez says, are to prove that the model works and to create opportunities to replicate the model in other settings—one of the key objectives of charter schools.

Cristina Alvarez (in red) and the Delaware Design Lab team receiving the XQ Super School award for educational innovation and excellence from famed rapper MC Hammer. (Photo courtesy of The Design Lab High School)
Cristina Alvarez (in red) and the Delaware Design Lab team receiving the XQ Super School award for educational innovation and excellence from famed rapper MC Hammer. (Photo courtesy of The Design Lab High School)

Core Educational Philosophy

At the core of the school’s educational philosophy is a concept called “design thinking,” which, Rayala explains, means “taking the ideas and processes that designers use to solve a problem, learning those processes and applying them to any aspect of your life.”

Design Lab students take the same subjects that other high school students do—English/language arts, math, science, social studies, foreign language—but they learn the material differently.

Teachers don’t stand in front of the class and lecture, and students don’t memorize facts.

Instead, teachers present a problem and students use the design process to find a solution. First, they discover, examining the issue to ensure they are attempting to solve the right problem. Then they visualize, considering all the possible solutions. Next comes prototype, testing the most promising solutions. Then they present, describing their idea or solution in a clear and compelling way to their teacher and the rest of the class—much like the presenters at TED talks or entrepreneurial hopefuls on the Shark Tank television series.

“In traditional education, the teacher is the holder of the information, the all-knowing person,” Alvarez says. But today, she says, “we’re living in a world where kids have access to information through their phones. Technological development has pointed us toward realizing that schools must change their learning model away from the teacher as the source of all information and power into something else … into students taking more control of their learning.”

Students entering Design Lab aren’t always ready for this new approach, Alvarez says, because “traditional schools are based on socialization and compliance and they spend a lot of time taking the curiosity of a child and tamping it down for them to fit this model.”

The Design Lab staff encourages curiosity. The freshman social studies class, for example, doesn’t include traditional civics lessons. It’s called “regional planning,” and students start out by learning about New Castle County and all of Delaware, its culture, geography, economics and politics. “Students have to reach out into the community, to discover what mayors do, what urban planners do,” Alvarez says.

Students do a lot of their work as teams, not only as partners but also in critiquing each other’s work—developing skills that Rayala says will be essential within a 21st-century workforce.

“Businesses are decentralizing, working toward smaller units, so workers have to be more nimble, more problem-solving, more able to take on new challenges,” he says. “We all have to be creative. We all have to wear many hats.”

Design Lab doesn’t plan to pour its $10 million into a new building or into expanding its staff, Alvarez and Rayala say. Doing so, they explain, would defeat the purpose of the grant because it’s easy to make a model succeed when you equip it with more personnel and lots of bells and whistles.

“Our mindset is not going to be ‘how do we spend $10 million?’ It’s how we use the $10 million as leverage to get the money we really need,” Rayala says.

Design Lab students, he says, will see some improvements in the short term—things like another counselor a semester ahead of schedule and improvements in the science labs.

Over the next few years, the money will make it possible for the school to add more teachers than it would have on its regular budget, but the school’s leaders have no intention of building a staff that would have to be cut significantly when the grant money runs out.

Alvarez and Rayala anticipate using some of the prize as matching funds should they seek corporate or foundation grants to make long-term improvements, whether it’s for buying new computers or working toward construction of a new building for when their current lease at Faith City expires after the 2019-20 school year.

And some of the money will be used for testing new ways of putting “design thinking” to work, whether it be through more use of computers, getting students outside the classroom and into the community more often, or changing the way teachers and students interact.

New Partnerships

The outcomes of those learning experiments will help Design Lab leaders package a model curriculum and instructional process that it can replicate in Delaware and elsewhere in the country.

They won’t be doing it alone, Rayala says, because the award increases the probability of developing new partnerships to drive the school forward. “With $10 million and the validation of internationally known people, we can go to the business community and to universities and say ‘pay attention to what we’re doing.’”

No matter how Design Lab evolves, its development won’t go unnoticed.

In 2014 and 2015, when the school was recruiting its first students, “we didn’t have a campus, we had nothing you could touch, feel or see,” Urban says.

In January, Alvarez and Rayala won’t be surprised if they wind up with more applicants than available seats and have to use a lottery to determine which students will be admitted.

“We’ve gone from under the radar to way above the radar,” Urban says.