Anatomy of a failure: How an XQ Super School flopped
August 7, 2019 12:18 PM   Subscribe

An ambitious new high school, concentrating on practical application. A $10 million grant from Steve Jobs' widow. A mayor and school district that had bought in. So what went wrong?
posted by Etrigan (10 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
We've lived a stone's throw from the Powderhouse site for 7 years and this is the first I've heard of this. I don't recall ever seeing plans for a school when the neighborhood was involved in approving the development work.

At the same time, however, the city approved a massive bond initiative to renovate and modernize the existing high school. That was passed a year or two ago; I have to imagine the approval of that work (and the huge cost to go along with it) must have played a part in changing the attitudes towards putting in this secondary high school.

I am also deeply wary of people that come from tech backgrounds thinking they know best how to educate people, but I honestly have no idea how effective this particular plan would have been.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:43 PM on August 7, 2019 [6 favorites]

Both sides of this story (for and against the Powderhouse school) make a lot of sense. I do often wonder, as the child of a teacher, how equipped non-educators are in trying to build an entirely new way of teaching from scratch. So many different ideas are built up as the grand new plan of how to run a school in a non-school way, but it's either a single school in a struggling district or private/charter schools that wind up dividing the district by wealth, or (often) good intentions that go nowhere or scams (and it's hard to tell the latter two apart, at least from articles or new stories about them).

I think there's something to be said about making significant updates in the way our schools in the US are run, and funded, and what can be done to make improvements, but the shining light of a single school in a district always seems like a risky bet at best.
posted by xingcat at 12:44 PM on August 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Short answer: the funding model of existing public schools depends on students in the seats, and a new public school taking people out of the seats of another existing public school, and extremely underfunded from a private funding perspective, was a no-go. If that $10m had been $100m, then maybe the opposition would have only been political.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:48 PM on August 7, 2019 [5 favorites]

“It’s not failure,” Curtatone said. “It’s all steps in innovation.”

Boy, I'm filing that one away for future usage. That grilled cheese sandwich I burned to a crisp? Just a step in innovation!
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:00 PM on August 7, 2019 [14 favorites]

xingcat: I do often wonder, as the child of a teacher, how equipped non-educators are in trying to build an entirely new way of teaching from scratch.

ObDisc: I am not a teacher myself, but I am friends with a bunch of teachers & school committee members in my small new England town, and my daughter is in college now to become a teacher.

It's clear to me that educators have lots of good ideas, with ample evidence, about how best to teach. What they don't have is the latitude to try new things, mostly due to being pinched between budget shortfalls and state-wide tests.

Trying something new means either not doing something else, or finding extra money/time to cover the costs of added staff & materials. But our budget just does't have that elasticity, like the Somerville budget, and there isn't extra time in the day for additional classroom time.

I would not be at all surprised if folks in Sommerville expected the XQ prize to cover all the costs. Ten million bucks is a lot of money! Yet for some reason, the town pulled the rug out from under them. Too bad, this might have been really cool.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:02 PM on August 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think superintendent Skipper should be expelled from public office. Forcefully and at the first opportunity.
posted by jamjam at 1:21 PM on August 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I live here. I'm still mad about this. I know some of the kids this school was intended to serve, who have fallen out of the public school system and are unlikely to ever come back. This was a catastrophic failure of leadership on the part of the mayor and superintendent, and you better freaking believe I'm remembering that come next election. The proposal should never have reached this stage if they never intended to fund it.

BTW we're in the midst of tearing down and rebuilding the most expensive high school in Massachusetts history, to the tune of $257 million.
posted by xthlc at 3:12 PM on August 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

Fail fast is a great motto if you're trying to get products to market rapidly.

Not so great when applied to the education of someone's child.
posted by chromecow at 3:51 PM on August 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

My family has done some Sprout & Co. stuff, their other, earlier, venture. It is legit, straight up brilliance - well thought out - very out of the box thinking, but 100% the true implementation of every STEAM startup.

It benefited from an affluence for pressure cooker children and grants / subsidization for students that were extremely engaged but couldn't afford it. It is/was everything one would hope a STEAM program would be. I mean that 100%.

But, there are realities for building a school in a city that still has to come to terms with it's simultaneous affluence and poverty. There are plenty of troubled kids, violence, educational disenfranchisement, and structural challenges - which Somerville has made strides to address. But, it has been a constant and ongoing thing. (Note: at this point, I haven't lived in Somerville for a decade) What I am saying is: there are a lot of really great, but really 'real' aspects of Somerville. (Note: I now live in a city outside Boston which has many direct parallels to Somerville and this experience as well - with snowflake differences).

Point being, if a duo from their backgrounds was going to be successful in this endeavor was going to be successful - I think that these two were the best possible folks to make this happen. But, life, reversion to the mean, the combination of city and school politics, as well as the ever changing tide of conventional wisdom, and ultimately some likely cold truths that never made it to fruition has scuttled this...
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:44 PM on August 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

Really interesting article, but did the district actually need a new school to meet projected enrollment?
Moving 160 students and associated per pupil funding out of other schools, without replacement enrollments, would put the financial squeeze on them.
The implication is no from the vote, but if they spent 7 years planning surely that came up. Maybe enrollment changed over the years?
posted by fruit sandwich at 5:32 PM on August 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

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