An Innovative K-8 Human-Centered Approach at Design39

a brightly colored mural at design39campus

Design39Campus, the 39th school in the Poway Unified School District, is one of the most remarkable schools we have seen to date. Opening it’s doors to students and families in 2015, the facility is state-of-the-art and was designed for student-centered learning by then-Principal Sonya Wrisley, students and a team of Learning Experience Designers (LEDs at Design39 are what most people refer to as teachers).

While the Design39 facility renders many speechless, the teaching and learning that take place at “D39” leave you feeling inspired and more motivated than ever to create empowering learning experiences for students.

The Learning

Design39 is a student-centered, design-focused, project-based school. Students here are thriving in this environment. The school is based off of the following eight Guiding Principles:

From the Design39Campus website.

Watch a video about the D39 Campus Design Principles:

We saw evidence of these Guiding Principles throughout the campus. Students working on their own, with pairs, in groups or in big teams on projects and problems. Huge open classrooms where students were tackling challenging math problems in mixed-aged guided groups and then transitioning to personalized stations to continue working on solutions. We witnessed a 3, 4, 5 classroom addressing the guiding question: How might we define ourselves in the world we live?

Every corner we turned there was new energy and excitement. We saw everything ranging from students testing code that they used to program a robot, to a team working to produce a weekly news show in a design studio. As you transition from classroom to classroom, you see students joyfully skipping to their next destination, taking responsibility and ownership everywhere they went. The agency and empowerment on this campus were beyond refreshing.

5 students in front of a green screen working on a movie at design39campus

The Leadership

How do teachers and students have such autonomy, choice and agency? An exceptional leader is at the helm. We were fortunate to hear from current Design39 Principal, Joseph Erpelding. Humble and at times soft-spoken, Joseph’s leadership looks a bit different than what you see in most K-8 school environments. While he doesn’t demand or cry for teachers’ attention, when he talks–you listen. His words are eloquent and genuine. He cares about this place and these people.

He doesn’t have an office, nor does he spend most of his day managing or mandating. He believes that at the center of this work is the learning. He thinks there are three core outcomes we should all be helping students to work towards: “It’s about helping students to be life ready thought leaders and to elevate humanity.”

Design39 is the 9th school that Joseph has worked at. He shared that making about 30 school visits with two other administrators was his most valuable preparation experience. “But now,” said Erpelding, “it’s visiting business.” He says listening is energizing and that he finds fuel from his LEDs.

Listen to Joseph share a bit about leadership at Design39:

He left us with parting advice about what he thinks the greatest gift is that we all have to learn to take advantage of and also described Design Time staff have every morning to collaborate, share ideas, explore, play and learn together. Listen to learn:

After our visit, Tom and I almost simultaneously asked each other, “How can we help more schools have leaders like Joseph and LEDs like those we saw on that campus?” We’ll be sharing more from Joseph and others on the Poway Unified School District team soon. For now, you can read more about school visits in the following blogs in Professional Learning: The Power of School Visits.

School visits can be a powerful part of a professional learning plan and a critical part of a school transformation effort, as they expands your sense of what’s possible and inform the path forward.

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

Milton Chen

Have also visited Design39, last year, and impressed to see how it has continued to develop and innovate

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