Supporters of Crosstown High School are vying to use the proposed selective school in midtown Memphis as the canvas to remake America’s high school in a national contest backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
The board of directors for the Memphis educational endeavor announced Monday that its application is one of 348 to advance to the next round of of the XQ Super School Challenge, which Jobs announced last September, inviting teams to reimagine how high schools can better prepare students for college, workplace and life.
The competition received nearly 700 applications from 45 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico — twice as many as the philanthropic effort expected. Five winners will be announced this August and will receive $10 million each — $2 million annually for five years — to develop new educational approaches.
“Our XQ application was the result of months of hard work by a large and diverse group of volunteers, including young people, parents, educators and many other community members who all have a stake in the future of our city’s public education,” said Michelle McKissack, a member of the proposed school’s board of directors.
Backers want Crosstown High School to be a selective college prep program operated as a contract school in a partnership between Shelby County Schools and Christian Brothers University, which is now part of a new nonprofit group called Crosstown High School Inc. The 500-student school would serve students who perform on or above grade level on state tests. It would open in fall 2017 and operate under an independent governing board.
Shelby County’s school board got its first look in January at the proposed partnership supported by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. Members generally were open to the proposal but expressed concern about the school achieving diversity in a district where at least 65 percent of students come from poor families. The current proposal calls for a student population of at least 35 percent who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Board member Chris Caldwell, who represents the district that would be home to the new school, said the partnership proposal is still under discussion and that he supports efforts such as the XQ campaign that may yield new resources. “I wish them luck,” he said Monday. “Any school that is going to operate within Shelby County Schools that can get these kinds of resources is a great accomplishment.”
Crosstown High would be located in Crosstown Concourse, a former Sears warehouse building undergoing a massive renovation with tenants from mostly educational, healthcare and retail sectors. It would leverage partnerships and resources available through tenants including Church Health Center, Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis Teacher Residency, Crosstown Arts and others.
The proposed school would represent a new direction for the school board, which for years has focused almost exclusively on efforts to improve Memphis’ lowest-performing schools. Hopson has said the district is seeking to increase options for high-quality schools in order to retain or attract students to Shelby County Schools who might otherwise go to a private school.
“This incredibly unique opportunity includes the space of the school itself,” McKissack said of the XQ effort. “Instead of trying to fit such an innovative high school into an existing school building, Crosstown Concourse offers us a blank slate, an open space with no walls to design a physical learning environment that is one-of-a-kind and presents us with limitless possibilities for collaboration, skills development, and learning.”
Schools chosen to advance to the next round of the contest represent 41 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico and must submit their next applications by May 23.
“This next part of the process is really about putting the flesh on the bones and demonstrating how the school would be operational,” said Ginger Spickler, a Memphis parent who created the Memphis School Guide and is a contributor to the application process.
Powell Jobs created the XQ Institute in an effort to bring Silicon Valley thinking to education to fix the biggest problems facing the nation’s high schools. The institute kicked off its work with the national contest.
Common themes that emerged from the first round of applications include a desire to make high schools the center of the community again; a desire to build school designs around involvement of the students themselves; and learning styles that focus on mastery of topic, project collaboration, blended subjects and applications in higher ways.
McKissack said the contest has provided an opportunity to galvanize education stakeholders in Memphis.
“Whether or not we ultimately make it all the way through the XQ Super School Challenge, we have definitely come to better understand the unique opportunity a Crosstown High School affords us,” she said.
Disclosure: Chalkbeat receives support from the Emerson Collective, which launched XQ.
Correction: April 11, 2016: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the competition had received nearly 700 applications from 49 states. The correct number is 45 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.