Innovation On the Front Lines: Design Lab School Must Reframe the Meaning of School

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Innovation On the Front Lines: Design Lab School Must Reframe the Meaning of School

On this journey I wanted to visit a wide range of schools to find out what innovation means across the board.  This post will be different from all the rest in many ways.  At the start you will be depressed that education can still look like this in America.  Don’t dare stop reading. The definition of success in the short term will probably sound very different from yours, but the people, place, and potential of the Design Lab School in the inner city of Cleveland has an upside that few of us could even pretend to imagine.

I will paint some of the picture of what Design Lab is today and what it can be, but I can’t tell the story that principal Eric Juli can.  I have uploaded raw interview video I shot with Eric so he can tell you himself.  In a few minutes you are going to agree with me that Eric is an outstanding educator and leader who could work at any school of his choosing, public or private.  He chose the steep mountain, and I have no doubt he is going to conquer it.  I have no real idea how, but it is going to happen, and soon.  He is an extraordinary educational innovator.

Design Lab School is an identified “new and innovative” high school in the Cleveland public school system.  It is not a charter, but it has some special latitude.  They have 240 students; 98% African American; most on free or reduced lunch.  Many are working 2-4 grades below level when they arrive as 9th graders. It is in a really rough neighborhood and shares a building with another, larger high school.  It is a choice school, so some students travel 1.5 hours each day on the bus to get there, but it is very new, so it does not have a waiting list to get in.  Yet.  In Cleveland publics as a whole, 47% of African American males graduate high school; last year Design Lab graduated almost 90%.  They are across the street from Community College, and Eric has created a partnership for his students to take robotics and engineering classes there.  More on that later. Here is the reality of Design Lab.

The doors open at 7:30. Everyone passes through a metal detector.  Free breakfast is served. Two girls walk in yelling at each other, follow-on to a fight the previous afternoon. Eric and a security guard defuse it for now. A 10th grader nods to Eric; she sits up most of the night with her mother who is on oxygen at home, feeds her younger siblings, does the laundry, and gets to bed around 4:30 AM. About half of the teachers lock their doors in class. The computers in the back of the classrooms are ancient and most don’t work.  An 11th grader walks up to me, a stranger, smiles, sticks out his hand and introduces himself.  I ask him why he goes to school here.  “I like school”.  By mid-morning students are lined up outside Eric’s office, sent by teachers who don’t want them in their class.  Eric sends them back; he will not suspend students except in extreme cases. He says the students need more time in school, not less.  His teachers are slowly learning.  A hungry pregnant girl stops by and Eric gives her a fruit bar.  A boy stops by, not wearing the required khaki pants and Eric gives him a pair. Eric can see and defuse an angry student in seconds, and does this most of the day. A substitute teacher tries to get a class to take their seats; they ignore him. Part of the culture is to ignore subs; last year Eric started the year with all subs; when subs come learning stops.  That is going to change.

Eric Juli is as bright an educator as you will find anywhere.  He could lead a for-profit company or a school district, or he could teach in any classroom. He is passionate about changing the cycle of poverty through education, so has chosen to make his career in the toughest places.  He walks the halls, talks to every teacher, talks to all the students, knows who slept where last night and when they had their last meal.  Last night was Open House; of 240 students, 35 parents came; that is a record for the school.  Eric is going to recruit the heck out of incoming 9th graders.  His older students are used to high school the way it is; he is going to change the culture from the 9th grade up. He is meeting with pastors and parents.  He wants his teachers to call parents on the phone and meet them in their homes or at a church.

I asked Eric to define success for this year.  “We need to stop doing and start learning”.  His teachers don’t know what that looks like, so he will need to find professional growth opportunities to show them.  His students don’t know what that looks like.  School has always been a place where you do worksheets and there is a cultural accommodation between teachers and students that sets a low bar and everyone gets by.  He has a few teachers who know how to teach, and a few who are eager to learn.  He needs to fill his ranks with these folks and that is going to take some time.  Nothing is going to stand in his way.  He has support from the top levels of the district office; they are the ones who hired him and believe in the innovative schools program.  To everyone else at the district he is a self-described pain in the ass who constantly bugs them for any edge he can get.

I will shut up now and let you hear from Eric:


I talked to one of Eric’s really bright teachers.  She just wants someone to come in and help her be a better teacher.  She gets what Eric is talking about in terms of changing how learning happens, but she has never seen it, and she wants to see it.  She repeats what Eric said: they are stuck with handing out worksheets that may or may not be completed. They are stuck in lower order skills.  She passed a girl who failed her class year on points because the 14 year old had a baby that year and did not need to be a failure in school. The girls is doing better this year and working hard.

We walked across the street, left the block walls and tired halls and visited two classes that Eric has arranged with Community College.  One is a beginning robotics class, students bent over benches putting together their first remote-controlled cars, fiddling with pieces and asking questions.  Eric said it is just like turning a switch when the students leave that place they associate with tedious, normal school life and come over here.  The fights and harsh words disappear.  They focus on the teacher. They engage.  They are actively participating in learning, and much of it is because they have inadvertently discarded their image of what school is.  We walk down the hall and go into a rocketry class.  The instructor is lecturing on Pascal and the force equations that govern a simple hydraulic system.  I can tell Eric is quietly fuming.  Maybe four students of 20 are engaged.  Last week the same group was in a lab and ALL of them were engaged.  The teacher needs to understand that these kids don’t need to understand Pascal; they need to re-wire their relationship to learning, and that happens when they are up and active.  They need to mess with stuff and build it.  They have never been asked to design or build anything, and that has to change.

The challenge for Eric is to “build a scaffold for teachers and kids that completely redefines school”.  Eric says he spends his day putting out the wrong fires and trying to light the right ones.  The potential return is enormous.  Already his current 10th graders are engaging better than the 11th graders because he started making real change last year.  This year’s freshmen are noticeably more engaged than last year’s. He is changing the culture.  He won’t succeed with every student, but with most.  The art teacher is going to develop a course that combines elements of design and art so students will integrate some math in their projects, and the projects will be student-determined, something unheard of in the past.  Another teacher I interviewed said she wants to “attend to the needs of each individual child” an unknowing quote right out of the mission of every great independent school in the country.  The leaders at Lab Design want the exact same thing for their students, yet they have virtually no resources other than their determination, and virtually no history other than what they are creating.

My money is on Eric and his team.  There are precedents with other new and innovative schools in Cleveland.  It takes a few years, but parents and students realize that something special is happening, which leads to increased admissions demand, to students who REALLY want to be at that school each day.  With bigger student demand Eric is going to move to a new building that looks more like a business or a design space.  He will bring in the teachers he needs.  They will start their own basketball team and cheer squad.  It will take five years, and during that time Eric and his school are going to be massively innovating the whole time.  It won’t look like innovation at most of your schools, but, man, are we going to be proud of what he does!

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By | 2012-09-26T10:52:34+00:00 September 26th, 2012|Innovation in Education, Uncategorized|4 Comments

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  1. Steve Kuptz September 27, 2012 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    Hi Grant…I’m enjoying the journey with you. Keep up the great work!! Steve Kuptz, CFO/COO Santa Fe Christian Schools (I graduated the year after you from Stanford :-)). One obvious challenge we have here in CA is meeting the A through G requirements of the UC system which in essence forces us to “silo” our curriculum to meet those requirements. I assume other states are facing these same pressures. It would be interesting to hear how innovative schools are breaking out of these “silos” to design curriculum which addresses the requirements but enables the exciting innovation which you are experiencing on your journey.

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