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VOL. 131 | NO. 123 | Tuesday, June 21, 2016

XQ Super Schools Reform Effort Looks at Memphis

By Bill Dries

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On a dry erase board by the National Civil Rights Museum, a new education reform group in town last week asked citizens to fill in the blanks about their high school experience with a sentence that began, “I thought high school would be…”

One person thought it would be hard, but was actually “too easy.”

Another thought high school would be “engaging” but it was actually “just paperwork.”

The XQ Super School project was in Memphis last week gathering public input specifically on reforms of the high school model of education. The Crosstown High project is a semifinalist for one of five $10 million grants XQ will award later this year.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The XQ Super School Project effort is touring the country in a high-tech school bus. XQ is a relatively recent education reform group that is getting attention for the five grants of $10 million each it is to make later this year to groups forming new types of high schools.

The still-forming Crosstown High School plan is among the semifinalists for a grant.

Sasha Ostern, who is part of the XQ team manning the bus, said the group wants to move public high schools away from long-standing ideas about education being strictly focused on subjects.

“The thing that we’ve heard across the tour that has been pretty consistent is that students are looking for project-based learning opportunities,” he said. “I think students want to learn. They want to learn in a practical way and not necessarily the old lecture format.”

The input wasn’t just from those who walked into the bus over the course of three very hot days in the South Main district. There were some roundtable discussions XQ set up that included Crosstown High organizers and parents in general.

Memphis has been a hotbed of education reform efforts since the move to merge Shelby County’s two public school systems began in 2011.

XQ has a high-profile supporter, Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs.

Another social media icon has been a large presence in local reforms, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded Shelby County Schools’ teacher effectiveness and evaluation efforts that began before the merger with the old Memphis City Schools system.

Millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation were awarded because of the detailed “Teacher Effectiveness Initiative” proposal submitted by MCS during the tenure of schools superintendent Kriner Cash.

In an annual letter this month, Gates foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann wrote that “our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards.”

“We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators – particularly teachers – but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning,” the letter continued. “The mission of improving education in America is both vast and complicated and the Gates Foundation doesn’t have all the answers.”

Ostern said the roundtable discussions XQ held last week in Memphis tapped into the reform efforts and reaction to it.

“Education is really woven into the DNA of the community,” he said, citing the large number of people employed by Shelby County Schools, the largest of seven public school systems in the county. “There is a lot of energy in the community about redesigning and reconfiguring high schools. We’ve seen some of the highest numbers of people coming out here in Memphis for the bus tours so far.”

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