Crosstown High School driving to be a 21st century model

When the doors open on what will likely be a hot, summer day in Memphis, Crosstown High ninth-graders won’t be walking into a “traditional” high school.

Being billed as “high school for the 21st century,” the new charter school in Midtown will kick off its inaugural class next year. In August 2018, 125 ninth-graders will comprise the incoming students. The school will eventually serve 500 youth, grades 9-12.

Through an innovative curriculum, Crosstown High hopes to prepare students for what lies ahead. Students will receive personalized learning plans, as well as project-based educational opportunities.

The school is the united vision parents, students, educators and stakeholders in the community.

Ginger Spickler, an early organizer and visionary for Crosstown High, spearheaded a team of volunteers starting in 2015 - talking to hundreds of Memphians - parents, educators, employers, and especially students - about what young people need out of high school today.

“I was lucky enough to convince an incredibly dedicated and talented group of community volunteers to participate in a deep community engagement process. This is truly a community-generated vision for how students should be learning in the 21st century,” said Spickler,

Over the next year, their involvement will continue as more details about the school emerge. As the first day of school draws near, member of the Board of Directors and staff plan to continue consulting with the community about what is needed in an innovative new high school.

Spickler says they will continue to listen deeply to the community, as well as research the best practice of schools throughout the country, who are already leading the way toward more student-centered learning.

“We'll also be working to hire a staff that is incredibly mission-aligned. And, of course, we'll be reaching out into the community to share this vision of a different kind of high school experience to Memphis families. We are aiming for a uniquely diverse student body and will be working hard to make sure our reach is broad,” said Spickler.

Crosstown High will be in proximity to an active ecosystem of entrepreneurship and leadership. Students will have the opportunity to learn from a range of mentors.

The approach of engaging students in real-life work necessitates a change in the expectation in the teachers they plan to hire and the partnerships they form.

Local youth development organizations - BRIDGES, Cloud 901 and story booth – stand up as inspiration to form curriculum and culture.

A look the recent success of the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy is also fueling demand for schools like Crosstown High. A smaller student-body equals smaller class sizes. Thus, more one-on-one learning opportunities are available.

Like STEAM, there will also be an innovative curriculum. It will be centered around project-based learning. As the school was being conceptualized, the thoughts of students and teachers throughout the school system were gauged. Surveys were conducted. Soon, a picture began to take shape.

Students wanted to see real-world connections to the curriculum. They want to apply what they learn; to put their knowledge to work for the good of the community.

 “The location of Crosstown affords us an opportunity to weave challenging, real-life opportunities into the daily lives of our students.  Through a curriculum that intertwines content across traditional subjects and focuses on substantial and important student-led projects we believe that we can connect at a high level with our students.  Additionally, we believe that our students can make substantial contributions to our community,” said Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High.

To achieve this, the school will partner with fellow tenants of the Crosstown Concourse. For instance, a student could cover writing and science bases through a wellness campaign for Church Health.

“Crosstown was designed to be a vertical urban village.  A great school is an exceedingly important component of any healthy community. Therefore, Crosstown makes sense from a community standpoint,” said Terrill.

The school will benefit from partnerships they are developing in the building. With almost 3000 people living or working in the Concourse, opportunities for partnerships and internships are endless.

Each tenant understands the Crosstown mantra of "Better together" and is ready and willing to carry that mission into their interactions with the students.

Along with the curriculum there will be a personalized learning plan for each student. This will help them develop a path to understanding core concepts in math, science and English that suits their individual needs.

“In a typical school environment a textbook defines the bulk of content and students proceed at whatever pace the teacher or district has set.  Very little attention is given to the idea that students learn at different paces and come in with different skill sets,” said Terrill.

In a personalized, competency based model, students progress - with guidance - at their own pace and master content before moving on.

“Understanding content is important, but in a personalized plan, students are given options to show that they have mastered the key concepts,” said Terrill.

The students will also learn in the fashion they are best geared toward. It could be through teacher instruction, online learning or peer tutoring.

Progress will be tracked through advisors and technology.

There will also be two-week elective courses, generally in areas of particular interest for the student. These brief stints will allow kids to pursue areas of passion - like art, music or sports, for example.

Crosstown High will also meet the same requirements as other public schools. English, math, science and social studies will comprise the core curriculum.

As a charter school, they are required by law to assess students with the same state tests that traditional public schools administer. 

However, throughout Terrill’s career, he says his approach has been low key in terms of testing.  He believes in building a curriculum that is rich and relevant to students, implement that curriculum, and then students are naturally prepared to do well. 

“We will not be a school that crams content in the weeks leading up to the test.  We will not hype the test.  Our students will do well because we have authentically prepared them for excellence in life,” said Terrill.

The concept of Crosstown High was driven, partly, as the result of a grant application. A group of Memphians, led by Spickler, organized to design an “educational experience.” The goal of the project was to create “agile and flexible learners” for a future growing continuously more fluid. Five winners would receive $10 million each to realize their project.

“The vision for Crosstown High came about through the process of applying for a large grant from the XQ Super School Project, an X Prize-type design contest that challenged us to rethink high school for the next generation of students,” said Spickler.

After being named a finalist, they didn't make the cut in 2016. A vision for Crosstown High came out in the wash, though.

A diverse, wide-ranging student body that is reflective of the community will be sought. Students will be culled from throughout Memphis. No school will be the recipient of a lopsided exodus as names are drawn.

The application process will begin in September. Students will be prioritized via lottery system. Prospective students will be notified about enrollment for the 2018-19 year in the months ahead.

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