Innovation, Empowerment and Positive Change in San Diego Schools

Kauffman Feature Image

By Emily Liebtag

San Diego has been on our list of innovative cities to visit for some time, and a recent trip to see local schools confirmed our expectations. The educational ecosystem in San Diego is rich with innovative school options for families and students.

We heard incredible stories of change, empowerment and innovation from the leaders, teachers and students we spoke with. In this blog we will highlight keywords, photos and quotes from the four schools we had the pleasure of visiting on this trip.

Thrive Public Schools. Thrive is a network of four charter schools (two elementary, one middle and one high school), and is planning to grow. Blended, project-based learning is at the core of learning Thrive, but they also really focus on personalizing instruction for students.

Their leader, Dr. Assisi, believes students still need time spent on the skills that they will need in order to be successful collaborating with peers on projects. When you visit students and teachers at Thrive, it is clear that there is an abundance of joy for learning and attention to who each student is as a person.


  • Learn to Learn, Do and Be
  • Joy
  • Empowerment
  • Project-based
  • Responsive Classroom
  • Community Culture
  • Teacher Development and Support


“We like to think about the rose, the bud and the thorn. What’s going really well in my practice (the rose). What needs to be nurtured and supported, but is on it’s way to being a rose (the bud)? What isn’t going as well and an area you need help with (the thorn)?”

“It isn’t about human doing, it’s about human being. Every kid needs to be seen, known and valued.”

Dr. Nicole Assisi, Founder of Thrive

“We work to embrace the community and we want parents inside classrooms.”

Shelli Kurth, School Director of Thrive

“Sometimes our biggest challenges have been incredible gifts.”

Jamie Little, Associate Director of Thrive


Design39. Where to even begin? We are in love with Design39 and the students and educators on this campus. Design39 is a pre-K-8 school in the Poway Unified School District. It is the 39th school in the district (hence the name). At Design39Campus, learning experiences are designed with the individual learner in mind.

As a collaborative community, Design39 “nurtures creative confidence, design thinking, learning through inquiry, connecting globally, using technology and real world tools, and promoting the courage and growth mindset necessary to change the world” (taken from the Design39 website).


  • Humanity
  • Life-Ready
  • Design Thinking
  • Learning Spaces
  • Autonomy
  • Agency


“It is about helping students to be life ready, thought leaders and elevate humanity.”

“Connect before you correct.”

-Joseph Erpelding, Principal of Design39

e3 Civic High School. The e3 Civic High School is located inside the San Diego Public Library. E3’s students have access to more than 1.2 million books in the library, its auditorium, art gallery and reading rooms. The school’s classrooms are also unique, with furniture on wheels (to allow for various configurations) and walls that students can write on to chart ideas, problems and solutions. 77% of its students are below the poverty level, said Helen Griffith, the school’s Executive Director. High schoolers are exposed to classes that include medical biology, biotech and bioengineering.


  • Connections
  • College- and Career-Competitive
  • Engage
  • Educate
  • Empower


“We are also a culture that believes in giving back. Our 3 C’s that we stand on and want for all of our students: civic leaders, college competitive and career competitive.”

“We want students to find their passion and once they get there to continue to thrive.”

-Dr. Helen Griffith, Founder and e3 Principal

High Tech High. Many know what High Tech High (HTH) is now, but few realize that it started with small beginnings on an abandoned naval yard. Each visit to HTH reveals another layer of awesome. From the Staircase to Nowhere Project to the overflowing amount of art, it is truly an inspiring place. Developed by a coalition of San Diego leaders and educators, High Tech High opened in September 2000 as a small public charter school with plans to serve approximately 450 students.

HTH has evolved into an integrated network of thirteen schools serving approximately 5,300 students in grades K-12 across three campuses. The HTH organization also includes a comprehensive adult learning environment including the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, offering professional development opportunities for educators. High Tech High is guided by four connected design principles—equity, personalization, authentic work and collaborative design (from the High Tech High website and High Tech High: Student Engagement Leads to Deeper Learning).


  • Student Ambassadors
  • Flexibility
  • Projects, projects, Projects
  • Pride and Passion
  • Citizens
  • Community


“The city IS the text [for the school]. Every student knows, or wants to know, about their city.”

-Larry Rosenstock, Founder of HTH

“Where do you start this work? Love the heck out of people and make connections.”

-Dr. Kaleb Rashad, Director of High Tech High

There are many schools and districts in the San Diego area that we did not visit, but also know are doing great things for students and teachers. In addition to visiting these schools, we talked with local leaders about the work going on in San Diego. Alec Barron (@alecbarron) from Escondido Union High School District shared how he is working on a project to bring more competency-based learning to students. Katie Martin (@KatieMTLC) from University of San Diego Mobile Teaching and Learning Center shared how districts like Cajon Valley Union School District are providing opportunities for students to use technology daily to code, create and collaborate.

We witnessed that great teaching & learning isn’t just happening in pockets – San Diego is an example of widespread innovation and positive change.

These visits were in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation. Almost 300 community members from Kansas City have visited schools around the country thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation as part of the Kansas City Great Schools initiative (check out #KCGreatSchools and also see their blog), which was designed to expose “community members to cities with concentrations of high-performing public schools serving a similar population of students as those in Kansas City’s public schools.” Participants got a chance to see design-built schools and those still on a journey–each with their own unique structure, culture and curriculum.

School visits can be a powerful part of a professional learning plan and a critical part of a school transformation effort. It expands your sense of what’s possible and informs the path forward. We’re planning fall school visits—contact [email protected] if you’re interested.

For more, see:

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Emily Liebtag

Emily Liebtag, Ed.D., is Education Reimagined's Senior Partner for Systems Transformation. Formerly, Emily served as the Vice President of Advocacy at Getting Smart.

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1 Comment

Morgan M

Hi Emily!
I am wondering what the other schools are in San Diego that are on your visit list!


Emily Liebtag

Hi Morgan,
There are so many! One school that isn't on this list is VIDA. VIDA is just a bit north of downtown San Diego.

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