New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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Getting Smart's Tom Vander Ark shares insights from a recent visit to seven next gen learning elementary and secondary schools in the Bay Area.

This blog post originally appeared on

Earlier this month we visited seven Bay Area schools from our elementary and secondary schools worth visiting lists. When it comes to innovation, the Bay Area is a great place to see a wide range of schools doing great things. From public options for montessori to design thinking models that challenge traditional school, we were inspired to see the options that are available for students in the Bay Area.

1. Urban Montessori combines the traditional student-centered strengths of Montessori with design thinking and integrated arts. Near Mills College in southeast Oakland, Urban is an intentionally diverse school. It is the first (and only) public montessori option in Oakland. After several years struggling through an unsupportive charter school authorization process, Urban benefited from a planning grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges in Oakland (@NGLCinOakland) operated by the Rogers Family Foundation, one of seven regional grant programs advancing next generation learning (see paper describing the NGLC program).

2. Blanca Alvarado Middle School. Alpha Public Schools operates two middle schools and a high school. Founded by John Glover in San Jose in 2011, Alpha schools prepare students in low-income communities with the knowledge, skills and character traits they will need to succeed in college and career. We visited with Jin-Soo Huh, Personalized Learning Manager, he notes five areas of focus:

  • Strong relationships: Students develop strong ongoing relationships with their teacher who work closely with parents to educate and engage them as advocates for their child’s education.
  • Personalized learning training: Quality development and leadership opportunities
  • Smart technology: Alpha leverages iXL, Newsela, Khan Academy, Discovery, BrainPop, and Reading Smart ESL and MAPS.
  • Family college readiness: Students and teachers create, monitor and accomplish individualized learning goals.
  • Computer science & design: Computer science is not just an elective, students all have the opportunity to engage in at least one CS course.
  • Career preparation: High expectation, opportunities for collaboration and job awareness are embedded in the school experience.

3. Design Tech High School: If traditional schools answered the needs of the industrial revolution, then d.Tech is working on the solution for the technology revolution we are in now. Design Tech High School, or “d.Tech” is using design prinicples to personalize the learning experience for high school students in San Mateo, California.

Design Tech HS

4. Summit Prep: Summit Prep opened in 2003 as the result of a group of Redwood City parents seeking a better high school option. Prep is flagship of Summit Public Schools, nine intentionally diverse schools (with two more approved). Summit continues to be a lead innovation in personalized learning.

5. Rocketship Spark Academy: A pioneer in blended learning, Rocketship Education was founded by John Danner and Preston Smith in 2007. The San Jose-based network supports ten Bay Area elementary schools as well as two in Nashville and one in Milwaukee. Rocketship will open a school in Washington DC and more in the Bay Area in 2016. In southeast San Jose, Rocketship Spark serves 620 students transitional k through fifth grade, 78% qualify for free or reduced price meals. Almost 60% of students are new to English.

6. Katherine Smith Elementary: Located in a low income neighborhood behind a strip center in the Evergreen School District in East San Jose, Katherine Smith is a great example of what happens when you have a dedication to community, a drive for excellence and an innovation mindset. They are now one of the few elementary schools that are part of the New Tech Network—a national network of Project-Based Learning schools—and projects are at the heart of how students learn as well as how the school connects to the community.

Katherine Smith Elementary

7. Epic Middle School: Epic is an innovative blended middle school with a game-based UI. Students embark on their own “Hero’s Journey” (in the Joseph Campbell tradition) using points, badges, and levels to mark progress. In the tough Fruitvale neighborhood of south Oakland, Epic features personalized STEAM learning in a modern space. Curriculum includes design thinking workshops where students propose innovative solutions to complex problems. There is a clean makerspace and a place to make a mess.

Related NGLC Resources

Tom Vander Ark headshot

Tom Vander Ark

CEO + Partner, Getting Smart

Tom Vander Ark is an advocate for innovations in learning. As CEO of Getting Smart, he advises school districts and networks, education foundations and funders and impact organizations on the path forward. A prolific writer and speaker, Tom is author of Getting Smart; Smart Cities That Work for Everyone; Smart Parents; and Better Together. Previously, Tom served as the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He also served as a public school superintendent in Washington state and has extensive private sector experience. Tom co-founded the first education venture fund, Learn Capital.