Designing a Public School From Scratch
On a mission to reimagine traditional schooling, a K–8 school in San Diego puts teachers and students at the center.
The offer sounded too good to pass up—a paid year off from teaching to create a new public school with a mission to “change the way we do school.” To 26-year teaching veteran Tom Downs and the others who applied, the sabbatical promised the opportunity to build the school they had always dreamed of, working alongside educators who shared a commitment to innovation.
“I don’t know if I would have lasted much longer as a teacher if I stayed doing the same thing I was doing,” Downs reflected. “I need to feel like I’m doing something new, that I’m pushing to make some kind of difference.”
Five teachers, including Downs, were accepted to be part of the task force to create Poway Unified School District’s 39th school, Design 39 Campus, from the ground up—using insights from schools around the nation, guidance from industry leaders, and input from a myriad of local residents.
“We started involving the community straightaway,” explained Downs of the design-thinking approach the group used to gather insight and ideas from all stakeholders. In forums parents, educators, and businesses from Poway—a suburban area about 30 minutes northeast of San Diego—answered fill-in-the-blank questions like: “If school were a place where…? Then we would need teachers who…? Students who…? Parents who…?” The questions pushed everyone to dream big.
Architects took it from there, designing and then erecting a building to match the teaching and learning that educators and parents hoped to foster inside: glass walls to facilitate openness and transparency; flexible seating and writable surfaces to encourage student and colleague collaboration; and easy-to-move furniture to allow adaptability of the space over time.
Opening the school in 2014 was no easy endeavor. Early on, school leaders decided that Design 39 Campus would be a K–8 public school, not a charter, which challenged the task force to work within district constraints.
“This table here took over six months of work, sometimes three times a week on the phone to get approval—I’m not even kidding,” Downs said, placing his hand on one of the school’s whiteboard tables, now used to encourage students to work together, take risks, and share their ideas. But that persistence was critical, he said. “I can’t emphasize enough how much the structure of the school itself starts to dictate what happens inside.”
‘Grassroots, Ground-up, Student-Driven’
Early morning sunlight filters through patchwork panes of blue and orange glass covering the walls of Design 39, casting a rainbow-like reflection across the sidewalk as students scurry—or dawdle—to their first classes of the day. Some chitchat with friends as they lug heavy instruments, pass around a basketball, or share their latest art project. Others sit in the hallway alone, engrossed in an iPad app or game.
“One of the first details a new substitute will notice is the tremendous amount of trust evident on our campus,” said Stacey Lamb, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. “Students walk everywhere—from the youngest ages, we trust they will move to where they need to be.”
Newcomers also quickly note the school’s nomenclature: Design 39 is known as a campus, not a school; teachers are called learning experience designers (LEDs); the front office is the Welcome Center; classrooms are studios; and the library is the Loft.
Design 39 Campus
Enrollment1011 | Public, Suburban
Per Pupil Expenditures$11495 State • $10208 District
Free / Reduced Lunch11%
“In order to make the break from traditional education and as a daily reminder of reimagining school, we renamed everything on campus,” explained Lamb.
Not surprisingly, there is no principal’s office either: Principal Joe Erperling circulates breezily through the school to reinforce a flat leadership structure in which teachers are encouraged to make their own decisions and resolve problems independently. Instead of the traditional morning prep period, a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union allows and urges teachers—who co-teach grades and work regularly with teams of their grade-level peers—to use dedicated time to collaborate with colleagues.
Both students and staff are also encouraged to pursue special interests.
There are maker labs, a music program in which students learn how to read and compose their own music, and Minds in Motion—a new version of PE that has students design their activities. Explorations, which are four- to six-week electives conceived of and voted on by students, take a deep dive into students’ and teachers’ passions, like photography or foreign languages.
“The majority of what happens on our campus is grassroots, ground-up, and student-driven,” said Bret Fitzpatrick, a middle school teacher.
Making Families Feel at Home
When the school launched, the promise of an innovative, student-centered education quickly attracted families who had moved in droves to the area, lured by good jobs at tech corporations like HP, Sony, and Broadcom—and by good schools, many of which are now overcrowded.
Parent Maria Simpson remembers the sense of hope she felt attending the early meetings about the school before bulldozers even broke ground; she applied through Design 39’s lottery system to get spots for her two sons, who both now attend.
While she says her children “thrive” at the school, the shift from a traditional public school to Design 39—with its emphasis on 21st-century learning— wasn’t necessarily a smooth transition for all families, said Simpson, who sits on the Parent Collaborative, a joint PTA and fundraising entity. By the end of the school’s inaugural year, roughly 100 families left.
“During the first year, I remember thinking, ‘Did we do the right thing for our kids in coming here?’ I was confused by the terminology, the homework policy, the lack of progress reports,” explained Christine Paik, a parent and the district’s communications director.
In elementary school, there is no nightly homework; students are encouraged to read a book or engage in academically aligned activities of choice instead. Grades are paired, and students are frequently broken into smaller, mixed-grade groups depending on their strengths and weaknesses. Teachers assess student skills and competencies, rather than assign traditional letter grades or scores.
It was a lot for many families to process.
To ease parents’ worries, the school launched regular Parent Workshops, during which parents and caregivers visit classrooms to experience what their kids are learning and how to support that learning at home. In a recent session, parents discussed digital citizenship, part of a series designed to teach parents how to help their children become both content creators and consumers online.
“Staff recognized the challenges and have improved their school-to-home communication since,” says Paik. “Recently, I was asked to speak for a staff appreciation event, and as I reflected on the change I’ve seen in my children, I knew we did the right thing in coming here.”
Let Them Navigate the Way
According to fourth-grade teacher Shshawna Rader, a big part of the relationship-building involves learning how to communicate the significant learning taking place at Design 39 to adults whose “anchor is still a traditional score.” While developing a Shark Tank business pitch, budgeting a school field trip, or designing a water purification device could seem just “fun,” she says, these standards-aligned lessons teach students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers, equipped to live and work in a globalized world.
It seems others are taking notice too, as the school has been lauded at the local and even national levels. In 2017, Design 39 Campus surpassed all other district schools on school climate and student well-being indicators, and in 2018, the middle school was ranked as the highest performing in the district. In that same year, the Design 39 model was recognized as an exemplar by the U.S. Department of Education.
While parents and staff waited with bated breath to see how their first graduating class would fare in high school this year, it seems they had little to worry about. According to the high school principal, Design 39’s entering freshman performed at the same level academically, and reportedly outshone their peers in areas like creativity, collaboration, and leadership.
The news came as a good reminder for teachers, who Rader says are continuing to learn when to step forward and when to step back to let students direct their own education.
“At previous schools, I’d have my lesson plan, my monthly plan, my textbook that told me, ‘You’ll be done by October,’” Rader said. “Here, we understand that every child learns at a different pace. We let them take the wheel, but help them navigate the way.”
Schools That Work
Design 39 Campus
Several years ago, school leaders in Poway Unified School District put out an open call to educators to “change the way we do school.” Inspired by the directive, a team of teachers worked with administrators, parents, and area residents to create a brand-new school—the district’s 39th—hashing out everything from pedagogies and bylaws to architecture and furniture. Design 39 Campus, a K–8 public schoolwith an emphasis on design thinking, collaboration, and personalized learningopened in 2014.
Currently serving 1,011 students in Poway, a suburban community about 30 minutes outside San Diego,Design 39 is committed to putting students and teachers at the center of everything the school does. With the backing of a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union, teachers forgo their morning prep period for dedicated time each day to collaborate with colleagues.
Grades are paired—e.g., second and third graders learn together—and students are frequently broken into smaller, mixed-grade groups depending on their strengths and weaknesses, which helps teachers tailor instruction and support each child’s academic growth.
Both students and staff are encouraged to pursue special interests through a myriad of enrichment offerings and electives. And parents are regularly brought into the school to support their children’s learning.
The school building—funded through a local property tax—fosters Design 39’s key practices.Glass walls facilitate openness and transparency; flexible seating and writable surfaces encourage student and colleague collaboration; and easy-to-move furniture allows adaptability of the space over time.
- Ranked as the highest performing middle school in its district in 2018.
- Surpassed the district on every key indicator of school climate and student well-being in 2017.
- Presented school model and design as an exemplar to the U.S. Department of Education in 2018.