I wrote this piece about Lab Atlanta’s school model in January and February, well before we were closing schools and dealing with triage. As schools move from the triage phase to adaptation to resilience, Lab Atlanta has been preparing for resilience since its formation. (Visit Greg Bamford’s recent piece for more on these three phases for schools.)

I spend a lot of time these days pondering the purpose of school. For the first time in years, I sit “outside” of any one school — no longer an engaged stakeholder of a particular brand: public, charter, independent, homeschool. From this vantage point, I’m reflecting upon my recent experiences and considering what education and school could be. It’s invaluable, particularly as I and the board of directors of Lab Atlanta 2.0 design its next iteration(s).  

Lab Atlanta “1.0,” launched by The Lovett School in January 2017, was an honors-level semester school for Atlanta-area 10th-graders, immersing students much like college semester-abroad programs do. The concept was spurred by The Edward E. Ford Foundation’s challenge to disrupt the high school model with a civically engaged public/private partnership — and our own interest in finding ways to engage our students with the city more authentically. As the school’s director of strategic innovation, I wrote the grant, helped secure funding, and managed the startup. After five semesters of running the pilot, we hit “pause” and moved the concept into its own nonprofit.

Operating a new standalone entity, we can more naturally engage with any number of schools — public and private — and develop a sustainable financial model that ensures students without financial resources have equitable access and representation.  

The list of learnings from the “1.0” model is long. However, there are three I keep pondering and are guiding my thinking as we consider the purpose of school — and of Lab Atlanta — going forward.

Slow Down

While I and the faculty were in overdrive building and running Lab 1.0, our student fellows shared that for the first time ever they were off the incessant rat wheel. They described following fully-scripted days at their home schools — in lockstep and in competition with their peers. At Lab, they relished the small community of no more than 20, the college-like schedule, and the expectation to reflect, to struggle, to challenge, to think, to be. You could almost hear the exhales when they opened up about how much more deeply they were learning. 

This year, my learning mirrors theirs, with less production and more time for relationships and ideas to grow, more time to build knowledge and understanding. It is as if I am learning to breathe. I am certainly learning more deeply again. 

 It’s led me to ponder these questions: 

  • How much do we have to fit into a school day? 
  • Should a purpose of school be to help us all learn how to breathe — to create margin in our lives? 
  • Does more oxygen = stronger minds and bodies?

See Me, Hear Me, Understand Me

A significant challenge for Lab 1.0: bringing together such a diverse group of students. Over five semesters, we served 53 students from nearly a dozen high schools and twice as many zip codes. Early in the design process, we uncovered that high schoolers yearn for experiences that help them better understand themselves. Students show up at school — no matter the zip code — carrying a lot of life unrelated to school. And for the vast majority, school does not help them make sense of any of that. The need to be supported as human beings resounded, prompting us to hire a dean of admissions and student life with a counseling background. 

As a cohort in morning meetings and in the classrooms, we were challenged to bring our own lived experiences, and connect them to what we were reading, hearing, and seeing as we explored city issues. Imagine tackling the issue of homelessness with a group of students who experienced it firsthand. The perspectives shared brought such humanity to an abstract problem. It was hard work, and I know we have a long way to go to really do it well, but how important it is to ensure we all “see.” 

“I feel safe and loved,” AB shared when I checked in with her one day. On another day, she told us she had learned to cover up her true self — including a history of family homelessness — after being shamed in elementary school. Once she felt safe enough to open up about her experience, we watched her engagement, her relationships with peers, and her newly-earned respect catapult her into leadership within the cohort — something none of us saw coming based on the shy, withdrawn student who showed up on the first day.

I, too, recognize this ongoing human need to be seen, heard, and understood. As I think about my work life over the years, I know I have felt most comfortable and effective with this validation. Each stakeholder in a system is a human being first, who needs to feel valued and have opportunities to make meaning for themselves. 

It has led me to think: How might we design schools as holistic learning communities, such that each person can uncover who they are and feel seen, heard, and understood?

Daniela says: “At Lab Atlanta I learned I have a voice, and when I use it wisely, it can move mountains.” All photos courtesy of Laura Deisley/Lab Atlanta.

Teach Me How to Connect and Build Networks

We must work to overcome segregation and its effects. While the city of Atlanta’s African American population is just above 50% now, African Americans reside South, East, and West of downtown, in neighborhoods that are more than 90% African American. The North is home mostly to whites; in fact, more than 80% of residents in Buckhead and North Atlanta are white. Students in metro Atlanta attend the public high school that falls into their zip code, although more local and state charter school options are available now. Atlanta Public Schools (APS) enrolls roughly 50,000 students in grades K–12.

Lab 1.0 partnered with APS to identify students in the district with the mindsets, behaviors, interests, and intellect needed to succeed and encouraged them to apply for either the fall or spring semester of their 10th-grade year. As we recruited students, the racial segregation and socioeconomic inequity became clear. In 2018-19, there were 3,000 10th-graders across the 14 high schools in APS — 400 identified as white and were enrolled almost exclusively at two schools…on the north side of the city. Acknowledging the white flight to private schools and schools beyond the city limits was and continues to be paramount as we work to build a diverse cohort. 

In all our schools, but especially our independent schools, we talk about the need for more integrated studies and the desire for authentic community connections. What troubled me during my 12 years in an independent school was that service learning and community service initiatives, while well-intentioned, created a false power dynamic for all involved. In these experiences, mostly affluent children were brought into spaces with others to “do good for others” rather than learn how much everyone has to give and receive by sharing their lived experiences. However, when students have opportunities to learn alongside others in a safe space, the way opens to raise everyone up and reduce this privileged mindset at the same time.

Building a rich variety of connections has been the lifeblood of Lab. In interviews, we learned students and parents valued exploring unfamiliar parts of Atlanta as well as interacting with adults and peers across the city. With the cohort size under 20, there was no place for a student to hide — all voices had to be heard. In the design capstone, students were required to explore their chosen issue area using design thinking, i.e. understanding an issue from a human perspective before settling on a problem to solve. 

Hence, students participated in the community via interviews with experts and residents most at risk or affected by the issue at hand. Students and parents reported that their conversations at the dinner table and in the car went beyond “what did you do today silence,” and students were surprised that adults in the community did engage with them — listening to their questions, connecting them with others, showing them around. 

I could spend many words and days sharing stories of the impact of students learning from one another and from their community. Yet I most want us to recognize that a gap exists for both suburban/independent school students and urban public school students in this area. Students reported that the emphasis on self-direction and the expectation to bring questions and build networks beyond their schools and zip codes were not abilities they learned in their home schools. So often in our independent schools, faculty or parents do this work for students by arranging a curriculum, internships, and service learning. Conversely, in the most under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, access to curriculum opportunities and networks of people and learning is nonexistent. 

It’s made me consider: How might we create less structured experiences of school so we can explore the rich diversity of the cities — not zip codes — to which we belong?

Abdullah says: “Steve Jobs once said ‘think different’ and that’s how LAB cultivated me.”

During this spring semester, the Lab Atlanta 2.0 board and I are working with a design and strategy firm, Three Five Two, to unpack these and many other learnings. The firm has interviewed a range of stakeholders so far. Then, we will establish and test some small prototypes toward a sustainable model.

The great opportunity now is to birth Lab’s next iteration with heightened attention to these needs and infuse them into the purpose of school. What’s at stake: building school so that students don’t just survive it — they learn to thrive.  

Postscript: It’s a privilege at this unusual time to help with the triage around our city. Recently, the Lab Atlanta board donated our student laptops through PowerMyLearning to help insure digital access for students in Atlanta Public Schools. And many of us are leading by responding to the urgent basic needs of food and housing. At the right time, we will continue on our path by sharing our learnings and exploring opportunities for Lab to help schools create new models and more resilient systems. Lab is a flag-bearer for the even more critical work of moving out of our silos by building networks and bridging the divides. Sight lines raised, becoming proximate, we are all better together.