Somerville’s innovative new school plan garners a $10 million grant
A local nonprofit working with the Somerville Public Schools came up with a proposal that might seem off the wall: a year-round high school that feels more like a research and design studio where students pursue long-term projects in areas of interest to them.
There would be no grade levels or a set sequence of courses in math, science, and English. Instead, students would learn material in theme-based symposiums, internships, and hands-on projects that could delve into biomechanics or computational art.
This unconventional thinking of what a high school could look like in the 21st century landed Somerville and the nonprofit Sprout & Co. a $10 million grant Wednesday in a much-hyped national competition that drew hundreds of proposals from around the country.
The new high school, which is expected to open in the next year or two, will be called Somerville Powderhouse Studios and could serve as a national model for Boston and other school systems looking to redesign their high schools.
Somerville’s proposal was one of 10 winning bids in the Super School Project, sponsored by XQ, an education nonprofit in Oakland, Calif., which is giving $10 million to each recipient.
“We are thrilled they saw something in Somerville Powderhouse that spoke to them,” Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper said. “I hope we can incubate some really great ideas.”
XQ launched last year with the goal of transforming high schools. The organization likes to say that over the last 100 years high schools have remained frozen in time in an ever-changing society in which “we’ve gone from the Model T to the Tesla, from the typewriter to the touchscreen, from the switchboard to the smartphone.”
That sentiment builds upon a long-held belief among many education policy makers and politicians that high schools need a makeover. In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh last year kicked off an effort to overhaul the city’s high schools, soliciting ideas on how to make programs more interesting so that fewer students drop out.
“Generally, high schools have been hard to change,” said Russlynn Ali, chief executive officer at XQ. “Virtually every high school in the country looks the same. . . . Systems have been entrenched.”
Ali said she hopes the winning proposals can show what is possible when school systems dream big. She said XQ liked how Somerville was “busting through the notions of traditional grades and classes,” and how it plans to meet students where they are and take them where they need to be.
Super School Project winners hailed from across the country. Furr High School in Houston is focusing on hands-on projects in environmental and nutritional sciences, while also establishing a culture committed to restorative justice practices. New Harmony High School in Venice, La., will take to a barge to explore coastal erosion in a “floating classroom.” And Grand Rapids Public Museum High School in Michigan will tap 250,000 cultural and historical artifacts for a river restoration project.
Powderhouse Studio, which has produced an introductory video, will enroll about 200 students and use a shuttered school building on Broadway, which will also house small businesses and artist space.
Each team of students will be equipped with a project manager, a curriculum developer, and a social worker.
The idea for Powderhouse Studios began several years ago. Sprout & Co. had been working on special programs with Somerville schools that encouraged students to dive deeply in big topics.
Impressed, Mayor Joseph Curtatone approached the nonprofit about starting up its own high school, believing it could be an ideal setting for students who didn’t fit the traditional high school.
“They were just inspiring by the learning environment they were cultivating,” Curtatone said. “I think the demand will be overwhelming.”
Officials stressed the new school would not take resources away from Somerville High School.
Designers of the school acknowledge the idea is unusual. After talking to parents about the proposal over the past year, they decided the high school would start enrolling students who would be entering the eighth grade.
“People feel more open to experimenting during the middle school years because they often consider middle school to be a wash,” said Alec Resnick, cofounder and future principal of Powderhouse Studios.
He added that “the school is a bigger sandbox of what we had been doing” at Sprout & Co.
Skipper said many folks can be initially skeptical about new approaches. When she opened TechBoston Academy nearly 15 years ago, she said, she received pushback on giving every student a laptop, arguing the students would lose or misuse the equipment.
But she said that students embraced the laptops, and that the devices have become a standard in many classrooms nationwide.
“Sometimes it takes innovation to give people a glimpse of what education can be,” she said.