Why XQ Super School Applications Should Include Opportunity Youth and Personalization

Scott Emerick

The $50 million XQ Super School Project to reimagine and design the next American high school is important and needed on many levels. The most significant potential of the project is to focus innovation directly on, and in deep collaboration with, our nation’s lowest-income learners who most deserve a dramatically different high school experience.

Research from Columbia University indicates that 17%, or 6.7 million, of the 38.9 million 16-24 year-olds in the United States are not in school, working, or in college. There is a growing national movement calling these young people “Opportunity Youth” because of the opportunity they represent for our communities and society; and for the opportunity inherent in each of these young people.

Any authentic effort to build new schools that inspire new possibilities should focus on the young people most dramatically failed by existing school systems. Despite being disconnected from school and work, Opportunity Youth have exactly the types of insights, experiences, resiliency, and intelligence needed to fundamentally redesign new high schools that works for all learners.

I hope that any team submitting a proposal for the XQ challenge will include the ideas of young people who previously left high school without a diploma. The best way to ensure that new school designs avoid the shortcomings of our existing system is to include the voice of young people with the most intimate knowledge of, and personal experience attending, flawed schools. These young leaders call for  placing student voice at the center of reform efforts. They also believe in dispelling the myth of the average student () that failed them ( in comprehensive high schools.

There are increasingly more national networks of young leaders who previously left high school but found new ways to make positive changes in postsecondary, career, and community leadership pathways. If you need help connecting with these young leaders, please reach out to YouthBuild USA , The Corps Network, Gateway to College, Opportunity Nation, or Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, among others.

In addition to the voice of Opportunity Youth informing XQ applications, I hope at least one of the winning XQ applications is designed to enroll and empower Opportunity Youth. When XQ applications, or any other school, organize themselves around meaningful relationships that help adults authentically respond to the voice of low-income young leaders, teaching and learning becomes more personalized and more responsive to students’ career interests, community connections, and range of learning differences.

New schools for Opportunity Youth, and other low-income learners, will include robust career and technical training pathways that respond to both labor market demands and the interests and passions of young people. When young people are fully engaged in real work on job sites, internships, and apprenticeship learning, they are solving authentic problems, asking questions, and organizing their thinking in ways that matter for career and postsecondary pathways. The strongest learning pathways for Opportunity Youth will include a comprehensive mix of youth development, academic rigor, soft-skills training, technical training, and on-the-job training with employer partners.

The foundational premise of any successful school redesign effort should start by empowering young leaders themselves and responding to their variety of learning differences within highly supportive learning environments. I expect that some XQ applications will name governance structures and/or content areas of focus, like STEM, as the foundational organizing principles for proposed schools. While these areas of focus can prove helpful and there are certainly many promising charter schools and promising content-themed high schools, the most important element to organize school redesign around will always be learners themselves.

I hope winning XQ applications will name specific communities of learners around whom (and with) to drive their respective school designs. Schools that place Opportunity Youth at the center of learning, school reform, and community change have the power to create transformational change. The most powerful way to reimagine schools is by authentically empowering young leaders with the resiliency to fix the learning models that have not been working for them and their peers.  

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Scott Emerick is Senior VP of Education, Career, & Service Pathways at YouthBuild USA. Follow Scott on Twitter, @Scott_Emerick.

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