What word comes to mind when you hear San Francisco public schools? If the word is innovative, then you’ve clearly been paying close attention to what’s happening in schools across the City.
Our school staff and students see problems as challenges and work together, using shared processes and tools, to come up with student-centered solutions.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend something we call “pitch night.” More than 100 staff from fifteen schools who went through a design challenge shared their pitches for how they would like to use grant funds to support their innovations.
Schools used the design process to reimagine teaching and learning to increase personalization and real world learning through projects. They used it to build academic collaboration across race and culture and to increase arts education.
Teams told the story of their design journey. I heard about listening sessions, classroom observations and even home visits to gain insights into their students’ experience (something we call empathy work). They shared the insights they gained and the prototypes they designed to test their designs.
All of our design challenges start by asking, “how might we…”.
The Academy-SF at McAteer High School asked “How might we support our African American students to develop a strong sense of belonging & connectedness to our school and each other so that they can successfully access post-secondary options?”
Out of their question and the research that followed, they developed and tested a plan that includes small workshops for students on topics like resume writing and the college application process as well as a retreat for students in the Black Student Union.
Carver Elementary’s process led them to focus on supporting literacy at home. From their discovery process the school learned that students want to choose where, what, or how they read. And community actions need to support student development of “reader” identities, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Carver wants each student to get a bookcase for their home and take a field trip to a bookstore where they can choose books on their own.
I could see in their pitches our staff are committed to a design process — understanding users and their needs and building solutions around that. There was a lot of enthusiasm about the need to do things in a different way and a desire to make changes.
All of the projects shared a few similarities: They were about equity and how we achieve our vision for each and every one of our graduates. Teams demonstrated their ability to collaborate and showed their desire to grow as professionals and work together to solve problems.
Though they had this in common, they had very different approaches to solving their challenges, which is part of what I love about our schools: each one is unique and each one is committed to innovating for even greater student outcomes.
Vincent Matthews is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. He is a guest columnist.