Thirteen students from seven high schools spent their fall semester meeting for one afternoon a week at an incubator space for entrepreneurs in downtown Wilmington, each one working independently to find solutions to a business or social problem that they found intriguing.
A second group of students will take up a new set of challenges in the second semester at 1313 Innovation at Hercules Plaza, and so will a separate group at William Penn High School in New Castle.
Could this be a first glimpse of how Delaware high school students will be learning a decade from now?
The pilot project, called Dual School, is gaining support from officials at the schools whose students are participating, and the students are already gaining surprising recognition. One of them, Charter School of Wilmington senior Miracle Olatunji, was profiled earlier this month on a Forbes magazine website.
The project’s funder, Wilmington real estate entrepreneur Paul McConnell, and its cofounder, education innovator Catherine Lindroth, hope to refine the Dual School concept as they build it into what’s known as a “plug-in” program – an academic component created by an outside entity that can plug in to the established curriculum at any high school that wants to use it.
“It’s fundamentally transforming, an extremely powerful tool that districts and schools can use to bring their curriculum and student experiences into the 21st century,” says Lindroth, a former manager in the Delaware office of Teach For America who has spent the last four years building the Summer Learning Collaborative, an award-winning program designed to combat summer learning loss among low-income students.
McConnell believes that connecting economic development and education is essential to helping Wilmington, and Delaware, flourish.
Through their projects, the students at the Dual School “are trying to solve what I would call ‘the adults’ problems,’” McConnell says. While many schools are failing to meet students’ needs, “they’re trying to solve our problems. I find that fascinating,” he says.
For example, Salesianum School senior Michael Wiciak read about a toddler who lost an eye in November 2015 when his retina was sliced by a drone’s propeller blades. He has spent the semester trying to build a rotorless drone that uses indirect propulsion, hiding the motors and propellers inside the frame to create a device that is safer for its users.
Having learned that many high school students want to know more about computer software coding but most schools lack the resources to offer such a course, Newark Charter School junior Noah Rossi has been developing the curriculum for a computer coding class that could be offered after school or on weekends at libraries or community centers.
Similarly, Siawaa Antwi, a junior at Freire Charter School, recognizing the problems her mother and others in lower-income families had paying their bills, decided to attack the issue by developing a financial literacy class for low-income youth.
“This is something that affects everyone,” she says. “And there’s so much to learn – checking accounts, investing, bitcoins.” She intends to spend the rest of the year working on her project, making the classes less of a lecture and more of a conversation, “to teach students what they want to know.”
Miracle Olatunji, the student profiled in Forbes, has created OpportuniMe, a newsletter with 230 subscribers already, that identifies meaningful summer experiences, scholarships and internships for high school students. She hopes to build it from a newsletter into a website, and from one focused on Wilmington, or Delaware, into something with a regional or national reach.
“I started small. Now I’m able to think bigger,” she says. She talks confidently about value propositions, efficiency, quality and accessibility. “I want to turn this into a mission-driven company,” she adds. “I still have to write up a business plan.”
The students aren’t earning any credit towards graduation for their work, but they consider the effort worth their time. “It really gives us the opportunity to step up and take charge,” says Ursuline sophomore Katie Carrig. “I have learned how to do proper research and how to reach out to people who know more than me for help.”
The Dual School came together rapidly last summer, when McConnell decided he wanted to expand on the concept of the Diamond Challenge for high school entrepreneurs, a project funded by the Paul and Linda McConnell Education Initiative and run through the University of Delaware’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship. He turned to Lindroth and her business partner, Meghan Wallace, to pull it together. They built a planning team that included Julie Frieswyk, a Horn administrator, and Erin McNichol, an Ursuline Academy teacher who has been teaching innovation and creativity classes there in a program McConnell helped fund two years ago. That group called on a variety of resources, including staff members at High Tech High School in Chula Vista, California, whose curriculum model emphasizes individual and group project work.
Zach Jones, a recent graduate of UD’s Horn Program, came on board as interim director and organizers pitched the idea to officials at numerous high schools in the Wilmington area. They recruited students from Salesianum, Ursuline, Freire, William Penn, Newark Charter, Charter School of Wilmington and Cab Calloway School of the Arts.
That enrollment mix is helps make the project unique, McConnell says. “It’s public, private, Catholic, charter. Everyone is in the same room. We want to be a solution that’s available to everyone.”
To get things moving, McConnell says he has budgeted $50,000 per semester for the project. As the program grows, he expects Lindroth and her team to seek funding from foundations and area businesses.
He also wants the project to enroll higher proportions of low-income students. According to Wallace and Lindroth, the short time frame for startup limited their outreach opportunities, so they focused recruiting on schools where team members already had contacts.
Lindroth takes credit for giving Dual School its name, saying she wanted to convey that the program runs parallel to the area’s high schools, and that it’s not in competition. And, she says, “it’s an idea that should not be relegated to an after-school or summer program. That would make it exclusive.”
The program’s “secret sauce,” Jones says, consists of three ingredients: students work on projects they really care about; students make connections with professionals who are experts in their project area; and students learn how to rapidly make prototypes, and revise them on the fly, as they move forward with their projects.
Dual School’s approach provides motivation -- by letting students pick their projects – and challenge – by giving them control over how the work gets done.
“It was a learning process because at the beginning, I basically had no clue how to tackle such a major issue,” says Salesianum sophomore Andres Samson, who studied the mistreatment and exclusion of immigrants. “Contrary to school, where teachers are constantly looking over your shoulder leading you every step of the way, I was able to get out of my comfort zone and come up with different ways to achieve my goals.”
For his research, Samson reached out to organizations that provide immigrant and refugee services and relied heavily on Jewish Family Services of Delaware, meeting with families that the agency had assisted with resettlement in Delaware.
Similarly, for her financial literacy project, Antwi met with former Gov. Jack Markell, who helped establish the Delaware Financial Literacy Institute and the Delaware Money School when he was state treasurer, and Rossi, for his coding project, used contacts and High Tech High to reach out to people familiar with similar programs on the West Coast.
Officials at schools from which participants were drawn are pleased with what they’ve seen of the Dual School so far.
“Dual School is an add-on, a complement to what we have currently,” Ursuline’s McNichol says. “Kids need to get outside the classroom.”
“Our kids have had an overwhelmingly positive experience,” says Eric Anderson, vice president (the equivalent of principal) at the Charter School of Wilmington.
Structurally, “it might not work for all schools,” he says, “but every school has a population” of students who would benefit from it.
Ryan Mitchell, director of college guidance at Newark Charter School, said he wondered at first whether the approach would work because it would take participants out of at least one regular class period per week. But he quickly realized that the program’s merits go beyond the value of grades earned in a traditional classroom.
“They connect to visionary thinkers and gain new levels of insights. They learn how to get big-time projects off the ground,” he says. And, as it turned out, the students were responsible enough to make up any missed classwork with no negative impact on their grades.
With the project entering its second semester, countless questions remain about how the Dual School might evolve.
Will groups of students from different schools descend on 1313 Innovation every day to share ideas and work on their projects? Or will the concept become school-based, perhaps with the Dual School supplying personnel, on a contract basis, to schools like William Penn, Ursuline and Newark Charter?
Can an independent, collaborative program, running parallel to existing public and private schools, be scaled up to have meaningful impact?
Will schools, whether public or private, decide to award academic credit for students working on these entrepreneurial projects?
How would the concept be funded over the long haul? Would public schools, given the restrictions of the state’s unit funding system, divert limited resources from traditional and mandated curriculum areas into an elective program that might not offer college credit?
It will take time to answer those questions.
Right now, it’s a great deal for the students, and the schools. “This hasn’t cost us a penny,” says Anderson, the Charter School of Wilmington administrator.
“We want to act as an ally and as a partner to schools and districts to ensure that all kids have the opportunity to become agents of their own learning,” Lindroth says.
Noah Rossi, the Newark Charter School student, is already seeing that happen. “I learned about a part of me that I didn’t know existed,” he says.