Wednesday, September 14, 2016

TN: (Not) Mrs. Jobs' Mall Charter [Update]

You may recall that last fall we were talking about Laurene Powell Jobs' (Wharton Business School, Goldman Sachs) entry into the world of Rich Amateurs Fixing Schools-- the XQ project, a grant competition to design America's next super-school.

Well, the super-schools are here. Almost here. And Memphis, Tennessee gets one of them. (Well-- almost*)

Among the charter schools approved by the Shelby County School Board this fall (though they also shot down three, including the infamous Green Dot), is Crosstown High, one of Jobs' new super-schools.

Not your father's mall

The charter is particularly unique for its setting, which is in a multi-million dollar real estate development. Crosstown Concourse (set in the abandoned Sears & Roebuck distribution warehouse) is going to be huge, and it embraces a mission that virtually floats on a cloud of overheated developer prose:

This is not just a building limited to the physical – the steel, the stone, and the tangible. This is a million square feet of opportunity, built on history and powered by renewal. It's a place to collaborate because our lives are lived better when we discover together. We believe in the search for intersections, designing paths of unexpected connections that lead to experiences filled with creative force. This is not just a building; this is a beautiful passage of people, who together... are Crosstown Concourse.

XTH's website describes the development as

a vibrant, “vertical urban village” that houses organizations focused on healthcare, wellness, education, the arts, technology, and economic development. Retail, restaurants, and residential apartments will also be part of the $200 million, 1.1 million square-foot redevelopment.

So basically, a really big mall. Or maybe a mall-shaped neighborhood. The development already has some founding member, including Teacher Town, which

seeks to promote Memphis as the place where the best teachers in America work to improve student achievement. The non-profit organization focuses particular attention on retaining, developing, and recruiting talented teachers to serve "priority schools," meaning those that rank in the bottom five percent in Tennessee in terms of student achievement.

So somewhere in here there's distant linkage to the Achievement School District lurking about. The Teacher Town initiative dates back a few years, another of those projects that Chris Barbic undertook before finally realizing that the ASD was not actually going to achieve any of its stated goals.  

XTH (which is partnering with Christian Brothers University, a Catholic-run university in Memphis) has set its sights high, saying it has set out to answer three questions:

What are the essentials for a thriving community? How do you repair a city fractured by injustice and inequality? And what does it mean to reimagine education for a changing world?

And boy have the designers of this school laid on the rhetorical flourishes. Here's more about the goals:

STRUCTURALLY, this will manifest in our adoption of a longer school year and day as learning bleeds out of the traditional academic calendar and into every facet of a student’s life. However, increased time “in school” will not feel burdensome, as there will be greater flexibility in how time is utilized by both teachers and young people, and in active and sustained partnerships with our fellow Concourse tenants, whose workplaces will provide rich and real-world learning opportunities for our students. 

CULTURALLY, this will manifest in our commitment to recruit a student body that is reflective of our city, and that allows us to embody the mantra of the entire Concourse: Better Together. 

PEDAGOGICALLY this will manifest in our adoption of competency-based progressions for students in each subject area, and in our commitment to have all students demonstrate mastery of higher-order thinking skills via project-based and portfolio assessments of their learning.

They are also big on personalized learning plans and project-based stuff. There's not a lot of beef here, and XTH (which opens in August 2018) is still looking to fill key administrative positions. I had a brief twitter-exchange with one of the designers (at WONDER, By Design-- a "multidisciplinary design studio that is unapologetically curious about the future of learning"-- which is great because you know how most of us are really apologetic about our interest in learning) and there was some talk about opening young minds, but not much specific. 

[Update: I missed this at first, but operators of XTH have apparently been pretty open-optiony about how exactly their governance model will work. Maybe straight-up charter. Maybe a contract model, which is a version that allows more control over who gets to be a student. Still got some time to decide, I guess. ]

So who knows how this super-school is actually going to work. Maybe they're just going to build a really cool space, plug in some computers, and license some nifty competency-based-education computer software. 

In many ways this appears to be just one more high-vision amateur charter school, but I am curious about one unique aspect of it.

What happens if your charter school's fate is directly tied to the fate of a commercial development? Granted, the charter is itself a commercial development, so sticking it in a mall makes a certain kind of sense. Bu what happens to the charter school if your ambitious mall plans fall flat? What do you do if your charter school ends up as a lonely storefront in a big empty building? What do the charter operators do if the developers fail to really launch this ambitious development plan?

There have certainly been charters that rented space in malls before, but this is part of the whole development package from the ground up. This is charter schooling as real estate development, which raises all sorts of questions about educational ethics and the proper role of a school, but it also raises questions about viability and sustainability. The developers of XTH don't appear to be ready to answer questions about their instructional programs or curriculum, but I wonder if they have answers about how to navigate their symbiotic relationship with a new not-yet-fully-developed mall. Mrs. Jobs will be cutting them a big fat check, but I don't know that that will be enough.  

*UPDATE: Man, some days it just doesn't pay to write posts at 4 AM. XTH's press was so positive that I missed that they were only finalists for some Jobs money-- and news came yesterday that they did not in fact win. They're calling that a positive and moving forward with their many awesome ideas, but the money is going to have to come from somewhere else.


  1. All these new fangled enterprises have such confidence in nebulous business principles which don't apply to the phenomenon of learning. They also seem to have an apparent disregard or even disdain for the past.

    You know, Reformster Peeps, lots of incredible things were achieved in the past without any computers or even electricity. Speaking of literacy, consider my grandmother who was born in a village in Ukraine outside of a medium sized town. No electricity, no running water, dirt floors. By the time she was a young girl she was literate in two languages with different alphabets. Then two more languages before coming to the US as an adult as a displaced person (with my father and the rest of the family) and learned English in night school to which she walked after working a full day in a factory. Sounds dramatic and I suppose it is. She died only five years ago. She lived through two world wars where they were taking place. She is not alone in this example.

    This post reflects the same problem I keep seeing over and over: detachment. People are detached from each other and detached from basic comorehension about what it means to create a nurturing environment.

    Treat children like human beings and they will learn. Intersecting spaces? Give me a break. Nonsense, nonsense and more nonsense. "Enjoy this intersecting space where we can be together while being tested into oblivion."

    1. Yes, detachment. I think electronic devices are fostering this, and people don't even know how to talk to people face to face any more. From what I've read about CBE, they want computers to tell you how children feel because computers will have made it so that people don't know how to tell how people feel any more.

  2. Sounds like Laurene Jobs is trying to go Zuckerberg one better than Newark. Is this the kind of competition charters are supposed to foster?

    "When construction’s done in 2016, Teachers Village will consist of eight, low-rise buildings housing three charter schools and a daycare facility, 65,000 square feet of retail, and 205 residential units designed by the world-renowned Richard Meier, Newark’s native son and architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art in Spain."

    Christine Langhoff

  3. 9.15.2016

    Dear Mr. Greene and Commentistas:

    I am writing to express my support for Ms. Jobs and her mall. For years now people on this site and others have criticized the Education Reform Movement for not making charters a place of innovation, with the idea that they should innovate and then everyone will benefit from their exploration of new ideas. With the exception of computer academies, it's true that charters have not come up with any new ideas, until now. (Well, OK, those charters that are non-profit on paper, but the management company makes a profit off of everything connected with the school-the building, the books , the food, the uniforms, etc., etc., well, that's pretty ingenious, but it's not something they want people to know about so I guess it doesn't count.)

    So this is an innovative idea, OK? Or, at least a re-thinking of an idea. I am particularly impressed that this is something a prominent Catholic university, Christian Brothers University, is involved with. Catholic institutions are generally pretty cautious about getting involved with anything that does not ultimately benefit them, but I can see, though, that this could simply be an iteration on an idea that worked for them for hundreds of years and brought the ignorant masses to God.

    See that tower on the warehouse? Imagine that “opened up” on all sides, and imagine a large bell installed. In the future, if electricity is no longer reliable (Catholics, no doubt , are deep into plans as to how they will weather extreme climate change and the decline of civilization which will follow.) So if electricity is no longer reliable, this bell will call the children to school, and the mall workers to work. In times of trouble, the bell will call all the folks from their little community gardens to assemble inside the mall for protection. Or religious instruction. Whatever.

    So I see this a a plan, definitely a plan,where the Catholic church reaches back into their history and heritage to make a safe spaces for people in troubled times to come. I hail Ms. Jobs! Good Luck to ya, Teacher Town!


  4. Here is the announcement for the Jobs initiative in Vista, Ca a suburb of San Diego. This appears to be one more big push for kids at computers reducing the need for teachers. However, it is terrible education, so maybe the magical market place will eventually stop harm to children and America's future.