A Dream Come True - The Opening of Two Student-Designed Schools

At the Student Experience Lab, we believe the key to transforming education is to understand the experience of those who know most about it: students. Student voice plays a key role in our development of new educational models.

Last year, we dared to ask the question, “What if we put students in the driver's seat of designing their own school?”  This question led us to facilitate a 6-month design process for six 9th-to-12th grade Providence students, who began by designing their dream school, and then worked with local educators and community members to turn that design into two new schools!

We are proud to announce that as of last week, the two schools, 360 High School and Evolutions High School, have officially opened.  We couldn’t be more excited to see the students’ designs take shape. Last week  we were able to visit 360 High School on their opening day. We shadowed school leader Kerry Tuttlebee, hung out in classrooms, met some students, and felt the energy and excitement of their first day of school.

Kerry and her team have been working hard to get the new school up and running.  I had the opportunity to help set up on the weekend before 360 High School opened.  Teachers, staff, and community members all joined to help prepare by moving out single-student desks in favor of larger community tables, smart boards, and Chrome Book carts.  We put up motivational quotes on the wall and added rugs to classrooms to make them more comfortable. Tasked with moving school desks and chairs around, it was interesting to see how teachers think about setting up their classrooms to provide students with collaborative work spaces and different types of workstations.

We got to speak with Chris Audette, the humanities learning facilitator.  He was one of the educators who worked with the student design team to create the school.  When asked how it felt to see the school, Chris replied, “To see this come from an idea on sticky notes, to a real school with students lighting it up, is amazing!”    

Based on the design values that the students came up with, Kerry and her team have been hard at work to create an environment that allows for strong teacher-student relationships, personalized learning, and the inclusion of student voice in school decision-making.  Kerry told us, “Getting the time together to start an adult learning community this summer was really important, before bringing the students into the fold.  I think because we’ve bonded and built trust and had fun together too, we’re bringing that sense to the students already.”  When we came to visit Kerry and her team, it was clear how much collaboration was taking place among teachers and staff to put students first.  We saw teachers working together to create a welcoming environment for students, accommodate students with special needs, and foster a fun and supportive learning experience in the classroom by switching up teachers and activities to make classes more varied.  

From what we saw, the first day of school for students was more about team-building and less about curriculum. We saw teachers as facilitators helping to build relationships between students.  Although shy at first (coming from traditional schools, this was likely a very new experience), students really opened up to the activities. The roars of laughter we heard and jumps of excitement we saw were testament to the fact that students were having fun while getting to know their peers and teachers.  Sissy, one of the student designers had also come to 360 High School’s first day of school and upon seeing students on their first day of school told us,

“Seeing it now is very exciting because there are actual students in the classes!  Teachers are playing music — it seems very laid-back and relaxed, and the kids don’t seem stressed out.  They are in a good environment.  I’m really happy that it doesn’t have that pressure on the first day of school.  It’s a rewarding feeling, knowing that kids are going to want to come to school, and a place where they feel comfortable being.”  

To start, the school has a freshman class of over 90 students.  A new class will be added every year until the school offers 9th through 12th grades.  Kerry and her team will continue to grow 360 High School by including stakeholders and end users in the iteration process.  When asked about the future of the school, Kerry told us, "Feels like we’re just beginning all over again, in a great way, because we want to bring the best of that design process to our current students and staff and the community and families especially who were not involved in that process so the school will continue to improve and we’ll continue to bring in the best of ideas to make it better! But definitely there is a moment where I pause and say ‘wow, the dream is coming to life!' ”

Seeing our work come to life has been nothing short of magical.  We are honored to have everyone at 360 High School — staff, teachers, students, families, and community members — working so hard to bring a student-designed school to Rhode Island.

Click here to view a video about the design process and outcomes.

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