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Design Lab charter school moves forward with new leadership

Delaware Public Media

With a dispute with the school’s founders apparently resolved, the new leadership at the Delaware Design Lab High School has secured state approval for its request to downsize its authorized enrollment is moving ahead with its $10 million effort to create a 21st century “super school.”

“We’re moving forward,” says Melissa Siwiec, who joined the charter school’ staff late last summer to manage the XQ Super School Project grant.

Siwiec, who has also had a hand in overseeing the school’s academics while a new principal is recruited, is part of a new leadership team that includes Rebecca Collins, former vice chairman of the board of directors, as interim executive director, and Damien Burke as director of college and career readiness. The three-year-old school will hold its first commencement exercises on June 1. Half of the 48 seniors have been accepted at four-year colleges and at least 25 percent have secured jobs, Burke said.

Design Lab, housed in the Faith City Church complex near the Christiana Mall, became embroiled in controversy in early 2017, just month after being chosen as one of 10 organizations nationwide to receive a $10 million XQ grant to develop a prototype for an innovative high school.  

Following a change in the composition of the school’s board of directors, Cristina Alvarez, the school’s founder and CEO, and Martin Rayala, the cofounder, left the organization. The board claimed Alvarez resigned “voluntarily” but she said she left “under duress.” Alvarez and Rayala were the key figures in developing the proposal that won the $10 million prize, payable in five annual $2 million installments from the XQ Institute, whose board chair is Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs. Despite the success of Alvarez and Rayala in winning the grant, some members of the board were not satisfied with their day-to-day management of the school, whose enrollment had failed to meet the enrollment specifications spelled out in its original charter application.

At the root of the dispute is what the school’s 2016-17 annual report to the state describes as “a disputed liability of $768,081,” money that Alvarez claimed was owed to a limited-liability company she she created, Design-Lab Schools LLC, that provided management services to the school before her resignation.

Collins and Siwiec would not comment on the matter, and Alvarez could not be reached for comment, but Rayala did say that he and Alvarez have signed nondisclosure agreements, so he is not permitted to disclose how the dispute over the funds has been resolved.

The school obtained relief from persistent enrollment concerns last month when the State Board of Education approved a “major modification” to its charter, setting enrollment projections for the school at 350 students per year. The original charter, prepared by Alvarez before she had found a site for the school, called for enrollments of 450 students for the current school year, 550 for 2018-19 and 600 thereafter. This year’s enrollment, 298 students, is the largest in the school’s three-year history. The state has the power to revoke a school’s charter if it does not reach 80 percent of its enrollment projection.

As of May 1, the school was completing processing of applications that would put 2018-19 enrollment at just over 280 students, meeting the 80 percent requirement, Siwiec said.

“We asked for the reduction not because we’re having trouble recruiting, but because we could not fit 600 students here,” she said. To accommodate that many students, the school would have had to acquire at least six modular classrooms.

“We’re really focusing on the space we have, what we need to be in compliance with the Department of Education and providing the greatest educational experience we can,” she said.

Design Lab’s approach to learning continues to follow the “design thinking” rubric touted by Alvarez and Rayala, Siwiec said. It involves following the processes designers use to solve problems and applying them within an academic setting. Design Lab students take the same core subjects that other high school students do – English/language arts, math, science, social studies, as well as state developed career pathways in computer science and, starting next year, architectural engineering. The school has also developed its own pathway programs in entrepreneurship, design and media. But the learning approach used at Design Lab differs from most high schools.

Instead of teachers lecturing and students memorizing facts, teachers present a problem and students use the design process to find a solution. First, they discover, examining the issue to ensure they are attempting to solve the right problem. Then they visualize, considering all the possible solutions. Next comes prototype, testing the most promising solutions. Then they present, describing their idea or solution in a clear and compelling way to their teacher and the rest of the class – much like the presenters at TED talks or entrepreneurial hopefuls on the Shark Tank television series.

Those same procedures come into play as the school staff resolves management issues and as students, staff and parents participating in the XQ project work on super school prototypes, Siwiec said. Those activities will ramp up this summer, with teachers participating in professional development workshops focused on design thinking and more than 50 parents volunteering to work on the XQ project.

Details on where the super school project is headed remain fuzzy. “This has been a prototyping year,” Siwiec says. “We’ve been prototyping, empathizing. We’ve got to get the voices of parents, students and teachers [on what they’d like the ideal high school to have], and when we’ve got alignment, we’ll create the goals.”

Nevertheless, several developments at the school this year hint at what the components of a super school might include. Most notable among them is the prospect of multiple academic experiences occurring off campus.

For example, seven Design Lab students are participating this spring in Dual School, an experimental multi-school entrepreneurial program based at 1313 Innovation in downtown Wilmington that incorporates project-based learning and design thinking.

Another 25 students are taking dual-enrollment entrepreneurship and design classes on the University of Delaware campus. “It’s not just the content. It’s failing that first college test and seeing that you can rebound. It’s sitting side by side with older students, and dealing with people from different backgrounds,” Burke said.

In addition, two freshmen have been selected to participate in the Give Something Back Foundation program, which provides four years of mentoring followed by enrollment at the University of Delaware with the opportunity to graduate debt-free.

Design Lab students also participate in Upward Bound summer programs, designed to prepare high school students from low-income families for college, and two juniors will be participating in the Delaware Youth Leadership Network mentoring program next year, Burke said.

“We want every one of our students to have an out-of-school partnership experience,” he said.

Academic performance at Design Lab has been inconsistent, with students generally showing more improvement in the school’s second year than in the first, not surprising for a new school taking students from multiple districts and with significant representation of low-income families (40 percent in 2016-17) and having special education needs (25 percent).

“We have kids who have struggled academically, emotionally and socially. Our biggest challenge is kids in grades 9 and 10 who are not at grade level in math. Some don’t have the fundamentals, and they’re placed in classrooms with kids with a wide range of skills,” Burke said.

While the school is committed to seeing its students achieve at higher levels, Siwiec and Burke note that the development of a new high school model is more important to Design Lab than adhering to traditional instructional approaches.

“The focus is on making sure our academics are improving,” Siwiec said, “but we’re actively trying to tear apart things that aren’t going right.”

Unlike other charter schools that offer tutoring or additional classes in basic subjects to support students who are below grade level, Design Lab has committed to using design thinking to prepare students for life after high school, and the outcomes might not always be measured in statewide assessments or scores on college entrance exams.

“You can’t use a standardized test to measure ambition,” Siwiec says.

And, she says, as work on the super school project continues, Design Lab will continue to evolve.

“We’re doing some creative things,” she says. “In five years, we’re not going to look anything like we look now.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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