Design Lab School Pointing the Way In Spite of Long Odds

Design Lab School Pointing the Way In Spite of Long Odds

IMG_0135Last September I reported on my visit to the second-year Design Lab school in inner city Cleveland.   (I urge you to review that post.)  Principal Eric Juli and Design Lab are front and center in the introduction to the book I am writing about my trip last fall because of the long odds and really tough challenges they are facing.  When I visited, Eric showed me around a dilapidated floor in a tired old building full of teachers and students who have been  beaten down by life and a failed educational system.  He told me that, at his school, innovation means “Showing teachers what teaching looks like and students what learning looks like.”  He told me that in four years he would have a line out the door of students hoping to attend and a long list of graduates going on to college.  It seemed a big dream.
Just one year later, Eric reports on some incredible progress.  
We finally got our own space. It’s an old school in the district, but a new building for us. It’s in a residential and safe neighborhood. I haven’t had to be tough with gang members outside the school since we’ve moved. This makes my wife very happy.  The students love the space. They are treating it with pride and pitching in as we paint, organize and make the space our own.
I had to tackle and restrain one student so far this year. The morning after, a group of students came to me. They patted me on the back, and thanked me for restraining the student. My toughest student said, “Thanks for taking care of business Mr. Juli. It’s a new year and a new building. We can’t have any of that behavior here.”
I’m fully staffed for the first time since coming to Cleveland (almost three years ago). No subs, all certified teachers. I even got to hire two Teach for America teachers. I’m teaching them how to teach, but I love their heart and my students feel their passion and the kids are drawn to these new teachers.
We held our first design challenge of the year. In teams, students designed and built balloon powered cars from found objects. It terrified my teachers, especially since we all had to make cars too. The whole school competed in the car races, and it was an incredible moment to see a team of 9th graders defeat all the teachers and the best cars from each grade.
I’ve told my teachers and students we’ll be stopping regular school and doing a design challenge each month. Students won’t be graded traditionally, instead we’ll be using our habits of mind rubric and teaching the students to self assess their own progress. Wow, does that scare my teachers.
You should have seen the design challenge in action. It wasn’t perfect, and we’re not anywhere near what design thinking in action ought to actually look like. But our most disengaged students were locked in, and they loved it. The kids are begging me to hold another soon. It’s positive progress in the right direction.
I think I’m most excited about our plan to ask all our 9th graders in the next few weeks what they want to make in their time at Design Lab. Then the plan is to get them the resources to make and create over the next four years. My students already want to make a bicycle from scratch, a video game, a movie, a guitar, and who knows what else. Four years from now, we’ll be having some sort of an exhibition night to show our students’ self-made creations.

Of course, Eric says, major challenges remain.  It will probably be several years before they have instituted sustainable systems.  But the culture is changing; the students get why they go to school. And if the students and teachers at Design Lab can make this much of a cultural leap in just a year or two, what excuse do the rest of us have?  

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:

Leave A Comment