CONVERSATION WITH FOUNDING PRINCIPAL - SONYA WRISLEY
"Our classrooms are really the kids’ classrooms. They have the power."
Q. Can you talk about how Design39Campus got its start?
I’ve been in this district for over 20 years and have been pushing to do something like Design39Campus — “out of the box stuff” — the whole time I’ve been here. My superintendent gave me latitude to gather a group of five educators together to take a year to collect ideas and imagine the possibilities of what D39C could be. We spent time developing a broad overall vision, while avoiding getting too deep in details. And, then, with this vision, we hired more educators to participate in the actual designing process. Together, we came up with Design39Campus, which opened in August 2014.
Q. What has this freedom to design meant for what Design39Campus looks like and focuses on?
We’ve been able to use the design thinking process to build an adaptive culture. We adjust for the learner. At Design39Campus, we’ve focused on two key areas: 1) creating meaningful learning experiences and 2) reimagining leadership structures.
Our classrooms are really the kids’ classrooms. They have the power. We have over a 1,150 kids. They are broken up into pods with 150 kids and 5 to 6 educators—Learning Experience Designers (LEDs)—each. The whole ethos is about being completely learner-driven, building collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. This means that our LEDs are always asking kids questions: “How do you want to work on/learn this?” “Where do you want to learn today?” “What part of this do you want to learn more about?” Along these lines, we also have what we call “Deep Dives,” where we ask learners for their suggestions of what activities or topics we can really dive into. They are then free to explore and discover, with LEDs—or even volunteers or high school learners—playing the role of facilitator in the background.
To support these learning experiences, we’ve worked hard to flatten our leadership structures—empowering all of the staff to take ownership of the campus and our path forward. All staff went through Adaptive Schools training when we began, and we’re constantly coming together to keep the big picture in mind. Adaptive Schools training helps us emphasize collaboration for our day-to-day work. For example, every morning, our pod teams come together for an hour to get down in the weeds about what they’re doing, the rationale for it… everything. Because of that consistent time together, we have time to plan and create some really innovative stuff.
We also do a lot of additional professional development work. We’ve made trips to big tech companies—HP, Microsoft, Sony, Intuit, Broadcom—and asked them what skills they’ll need in their employees 10 years from now. We know that these are the kinds of jobs our kids will be graduating into. Even though most of us, as educators, have not been in the business world, we need to know what it’s like to prepare our students for that world.
We think of our new terms…as a shared language, and it’s an important part of getting everyone on the same page and changing the entire community’s mindset.
Q. It’s great to hear you talk about “LEDs” and “Deep Dives,” what does this change in vocabulary mean for you?
I once heard someone say, “In order to change what we do, we have to change the way we speak.” We think of our new terms/vocabulary as a shared language, and it’s an important part of getting everyone on the same page and changing the entire community’s mindset (see Parent Glossary). It challenges all of our assumptions. You can hear the shift in how we think about learners and learning in the new words. We know that, if we can get everyone on board with this shared language, it will become much easier to create buy-in for what we’re doing.
Another advantage of developing your own language is that you get to make distinctions and definitions. So, when we say that our school is based on “design thinking” and “collaboration,” those words and phrases are no longer abstract. We’ve defined them, and our community knows what we mean when we say them. Without that, people slip back into the old ways of thinking (and talking), and we’ve lost them. But, if we can get them thinking in our terms, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.
Q. It is clear that the community’s support and buy-in is essential for you. What has it been like engaging everyone in this new way of thinking?
Well, first and foremost, the kids love it! They are definitely not in need of any convincing. But, it has certainly been a process to engage and connect with parents and community members. We know it’s vital to have their support, so we make it a priority. Parents want their kids to come here, and even still, they don’t quite understand what we’re doing all the time. So, we try to do things like developing the shared language and hosting public tours for visitors and parents. We also have a really robust FAQ section and our glossary on our website. There are difficulties, though, absolutely.
First off, our learners have a neighborhood school, and we’re a school of optional enrollment, so that leads to confusion. First year, we had 840 kids and had 2,000 students apply. And, out of that 840, we had 55 children leave. This is mainly because the parents wanted grades and competition or they weren’t sure what to make of what we do at Design39Campus. All that is to say that even with all the prep and outreach work, not everyone is comfortable with it.
But the hardest, most emotional work for us is the people who don’t understand us. The best thing we can do is take the Apple approach of “here’s what we offer” rather than PC approach of “here’s why we’re better.” So, we try not to compare ourselves.
Q. Are there others in the district who are supportive and interested in the work?
We’re slowly getting there. Several of the 39 schools in the district are actively involved with us. When educators from those other schools come for observation days, they get really excited. Superintendent, John Collins, has been a huge support throughout—we couldn’t have done this work without him. He asked us to “change the way we do school,” and we’re trying our best to do that.
The thing that makes me the most proud is watching our learners grow in their self-autonomy. Because of what we do, our kids don’t just ask about the who, what, and where, but they ask about the why.
Q. Were your educators originally part of the district?
A large majority of our staff are from within our district. We have a handful of educators from the outside, but the others are actually transfers from other schools in the district who really wanted to be doing something different. Our hiring process is a fun process. We do a presentation about the school and expectations for it, spelling out our vision and generating interest from like-minded educators. Then we have group interviews, with all candidates coming in at the same time, split into tables of 4 or 5. This is designed to test their teamwork, innovation, and ability to think about things differently. Those who rise to the top are called back for an interview. It’s been so fun to build a staff from the ground up.
Q. Of all the great and innovative things happening at Design39Cam;pus, what makes you proudest?
The thing that makes me most proud is watching our learners grow in their self-autonomy. Because of what we do, our kids don’t just ask about the who, what, and where, but they ask about the why. We’ve given our learners a lot more responsibility and autonomy over their education, and they’re going for it. They’re taking responsibility. They’re learning that ideas often fail—and more than once, in many cases—before they get to fly. Because of the flexibility of our design, learners are connecting globally and learning in ways that are centered far outside the classroom. It’s thrilling.
-- Sonya Wrisley retired from Poway Unified in 2015.
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