XQ Super School Project taps Crosstown High to reinvent what education looks like for the future

On a journey to rethink high school. That sums up the shared vision of the XQ Super School Project and Crosstown High.

It’s an idea with influential supporters like Lauren Powell Jobs, chairperson of XQ’s board of directors and president of Emerson Collective, and Russlynn Ali, CEO of XQ and former assistant secretary of civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education. The initiative has with celebrity colloborators like MC Hammer and Yo-Yo Ma, and it's found roots in Memphis.

“This XQ thing – they have a big vision,” stated Ginger Spickler, project director for Crosstown High.

The needs and direction of our society have changed drastically in the past century especially with the advent of technology. But American high schools have remained the same. The XQ Super School Project is designed to rethink America’s high schools.

Related: "Crosstown High School driving to be a 21st century model"

In 1892, a group of ten private school presidents got together to rethink what school should be for the 20th century. They came out with the Carnegie Units, desks in straight rows, mandatory school through age 16 – and it improved education in America.

But it was designed for an industrial model to prepare children for the workforce and for a few to go on to college.

“We are in a different age, a different era. Children need to learn differently. They need to be problem solvers and collaborators," said Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High. "So, the things we’ve taught without question for over 120 years are irrelevant. We need to make a shift if we are going to be competitive in the 21st century."

Crosstown High and XQ work with students, teachers and community leaders to mine ideas for the 21st century high school.

As a part of XQ Super Schools, award recipients are working together to develop innovative ways of teaching and curriculum in hopes of preparing students for the future.

In 2016, members of the Memphis community coalesced to start the work to discover, design and develop what they thought a 21st century high school would look like for the XQ Super School Project contest. The school made it to the round of 50 finalists but learned they missed the mark in the fall of last year.

However, through the process, a vision was created and Crosstown High was born. The XQ team pushed forward to shape what a high school of the future looks like, keeping to the principles set forth in the XQ application.

XQ awarded Crosstown High's independent progress with a $2.5 million grant, which will cover teacher training and professional development.

“When we first started down the XQ application path, I never thought in a million years we would win anything from it. I thought the application process itself would be so valuable in terms of helping us move in a different direction. That was the main reason for doing it,” said Spickler.

During that process, the XQ team worked through three phases.

During the discovery phase, team members interviewed hundreds of students, as well as educators, youth develops and members of the business community. They also spent hours online researching successful learning methods.

This was followed by a design phase, where prototypes were created and focus-tested with local youths.

Finally, came the development phase of the application. The XQ team along with stakeholders got to work on the school design and charter application writing, as well as public strategy and community engagement.
“The basic pieces in the XQ application are going to be the foundation of the school,” Spickler added.
The school will welcome its first class of 125 freshmen in 2018. The lower level of the school is completed at Crosstown Concourse, but the classrooms and auditorium are still under construction. The school has a separate entrance and elevator system in the building.

Overall visions are one thing, but when you’re talking about a school of the 21st century, curriculum should figure prominently in the discussion.

Chris Terrill, far right, and other Crosstown High board members cut the ribbon to Midtown's new high school.

While a lot of details still need hammering out, there is an outline.

“In terms of the curriculum, we have an idea of what we want, but we’re still early in the process so it’s evolving,” said Dr. Chandra Sledge Mathias, principal of Crosstown High.

Like the application process, XP allows charter schools the research what other schools are doing; what works and what doesn’t. If the curriculum reflects early hires, it will likely be different from a typical high school’s.

“Dr. Mathias was hired, in part, due to her experience in project-based learning – one of the key elements for the school,” said Spickler.

What would be an example of a project? And what would be demanded of the student?

A teacher might give bits of data or some foundational information. Then it’s up to the student to go out and explore – it’s very inquiry-based. Then the project is presented to the teacher, who is more of a facilitator.

“Most students won’t have any experience with this model and won’t be ready on day one. But they need to be ready to work into it and be open to becoming a self-directed learner. That’s ultimately what we want – kids who want to be lifelong learners. They are going to have to be to keep up in a 21st century world,” said Spickler.

Another key element of the application was a diverse by design student body.

By state law as a public charter school, Crosstown High is required to hold an application period and then a lottery. So, how do they keep the diversity from swinging one way or the other?

“I think the answer is we have a window that’s open long enough and as applications come in we are able to figure out some information based on those applications to tell if there are under-represented areas of the city,” said Terrill.

Those areas can be targeted with a marketing campaign. If the lottery pool reflects the desired diversity, so should the lottery.

 “One of our primary goals is to a diverse population of students and faculty, and we’re in this diverse building then we have to be true to that and work diligently to fill that applicant base a diverse population,” said Terrill.

The XQ Super School bus rolled into Memphis to welcome Crosstown High to the family.

Applications will be chosen randomly. It is recommended parents make an informed decision about their education model before submitting.

“We want people to look beyond the new building, nice furniture and understand what our program is about. How it’s different than a traditional school. And for some children, that’s going to be exactly what they’ve been looking for. For others, it’s not going to be what they’ve been looking for,” said Terrill.

Part of the schools’ mission is about personalized learning so students can follow their interests, talents, and strengths.

“While they are still getting curricular content, while they are still getting the college prep experience, they will get real world experience that typically, most people don’t get until after they graduate college,” said Dr. Mathias.

On Aug 24, an event was held to celebrate Crosstown High’s designation as a super school. The XQ Super School bus was there, along with food trucks, a photo booth and information booths. Live music was provided by Royal Studios’ artists Boo Mitchell and Al Kapone.

According to Terrill, being part of XQ is really about the partnership. It’s being able to connect with the other schools around the country.

Conferences will be held two to three times per year so schools can gauge their progress against other XQ schools. Spickler and Terrill attended one in Boston in July.

“While we’re there, in walks MC Hammer and he hung out with us for two days – he’s an XQ board member. YoYo Ma joined us. The next day Ginger ended up at a table with Lauren Power Jobs. It was just surreal,” said Terrill.

On Sept. 8, there is a XQ Super School event that will broadcast live across every major network from 7 to 8 p.m. It is produced to start questioning and rethinking of high school. The star-studded event will feature celebrities like Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Common and Jennifer Hudson.

“Chandra and I are going out for that event along with representatives from the other 17 schools,” said Terrill.

“It’s to our city’s best interest that we share the things that are working for students – that gets them engaged and better prepared – that we share those things,” said Spickler. “We want this grant to be for the benefit of not just Crosstown but for the city.”

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