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Memphis high school doesn’t win $10 million XQ prize, but backers still want to ‘rethink high school’

Russlynn Ali, executive director of the XQ Institute, meets with contest applicants from Crosstown High during the institute's bus tour, which stopped in Memphis in June.
Russlynn Ali, executive director of the XQ Institute, meets with contest applicants from Crosstown High during the institute's bus tour, which stopped in Memphis in June.
Caroline Bauman

A new high school planned for midtown Memphis didn’t win a $10 million national prize for reimagining American high schools, but its supporters say the application process was well worth their efforts.

Crosstown High, set to open in 2018 with 125 ninth-grade students, was a finalist in the XQ Super School Challenge, backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The competition announced its winners Wednesday during a star-studded ceremony in Washington, D.C., featuring former U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and musician MC Hammer, along with video messages from President Barack Obama and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Crosstown High was among 50 finalists, pared down from the original pool of about 700 applications from across the nation. The competition named 10 winners, twice as many as originally planned due to the strength of the applications, organizers said.

Leaders of the Crosstown project said their participation in the Super School Challenge was not in vain.

“Some of the ideas generated during the curriculum and educational space design phases of the XQ process will come to fruition at Crosstown High,” said board member Justin Jamerson. “It is the openness to new ways of thinking about education and the implementation of those ideas that will make Crosstown a high school unique to Memphis.”

Among lessons learned are the importance of incorporating project-based learning into the new school, in addition to listening to students about what inspires them to learn. Crosstown leaders plan to keep Memphis students involved by hosting a series of workshops beginning in October to get more input.

“These students are the experts,” said project director Ginger Spickler. “We learned during the application process how rare it is that students get a say in what makes them excited about education.”

An applicant team of about 70 community members aim for Crosstown to be a diverse public college prep school that can help the city’s public schools regain middle-class students who have left for private schools, as well as attract students from nearby neighborhoods. Authorized as a charter school through Shelby County Schools, Crosstown is designed to grow to 500 students and will be located in Crosstown Concourse, an urban village in the middle of Memphis.

The potential $10 million prize wasn’t factored into Crosstown’s official budget, Spickler said.

The 10 national winners announced Wednesday are:

  • New Harmony High School; Venice, La.
  • Furr High School, Houston, Texas
  • Grand Rapids Public Museum High School, Grand Rapids, Mich.
  • Rise High School, Los Angeles
  • Powerhouse Studios, Somerville, Mass.
  • Brooklyn Lab High School, New York City
  • Design-Lab High, Newark, Del.
  • Vista Challenge High, Vista, Ca.
  • Washington Leadership Academy , Washington, D.C.
  • Summit Elevate, Oakland, California

President Obama commended the winners for showing “what a 21st-century high school looks like” at a time when U.S. students are “not just competing with students the next town over, but from all over the world.”

Disclosure: A nonprofit news organization, Chalkbeat is supported by the Emerson Collective, which launched the XQ Super School Challenge. You can see our list of supporters here.

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