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Common, Yo-Yo Ma, Arne Duncan promote ‘reimagining high school’

Musician and actor Common greets students from Phillips High School before performing in Grant Park after talking about how to re-imagine high school on Thursday, June 9, 2016. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

It was an unlikely trio that led a student roundtable convened in Chicago by XQ: The Super School Project on Thursday at the Mikva Challenge Foundation: actor/rapper Common, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

So what did they have in common? They’re avid supporters of a “reimagining high school” project launched last year by the XQ Institute, which is chaired by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Jobs put up $50 million for the Super School Project that is seeking the five best proposals to transform high-school learning — which XQ calls an archaic model based on institutional, factory-like learning environments. The program is funded by the Emerson Collective, a reform group Jobs founded.

“I don’t have the answers, but I’m still asking the questions,” Yo-Yo Ma, long known for his arts education philanthropy, said after hearing 25 Chicago Public Schools students complain for two hours about underfunded schools, lack of learning resources, teachers who don’t care, boring curriculum, etc.

“There’s a difference between critical thinking and empathetic thinking. I’m hearing a lack of empathetic thinking. If I were teaching high school, I’d need to know how to imagine being in someone else’s shoes,” Yo-Yo Ma said.

XQ received 700 proposals after it launched the grant challenge on Sept. 11, and by April whittled those to half that number. A multi-city national bus tour was launched. Tour members meet with “school builders” nationwide before winners are announced in August.

“We are awed by the enthusiasm, optimism and renewed respect for public education reflected in so many of the applications. Everyone involved in the XQ movement believes that high school education is fundamental to a vital nation,” said XQ CEO Russlynn Ali, who was at the roundtable. “This challenge is only a vehicle for teams and communities to do it themselves.”

Chicago was the ninth stop in the tour of the customized school bus, which the public can visit on Friday and Saturday, interactively exploring innovative solutions to high school challenges and share ideas in a recording booth.

At the roundtable, many students shared a need for social-emotional support.

Common listens as students talk about how to re-imagine high school. “Emotional development has to be part of the education, because you’ll need it to get through life,” he said. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times
Common listens as students talk about how to re-imagine high school. “Emotional development has to be part of the education, because you’ll need it to get through life,” he said. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

“That emotional development has to be part of the education, because you’ll need it to get through life,” Common said. “My mother’s a teacher, but I learned certain things from the streets. Thank God I had some smart people around me in the streets too. But if you can go to school and be able to get some of those things you’re not getting at home, it might be a helpful addition.”

Several Chicago-area schools are among finalists in the grant challenge, XQ officials said. It has declined to name the finalists but says the pool is so promising that it likely will reward more than five proposals.

There are at least two area proposals. One comes from Sullivan High School, which partnered with Thrive Chicago, a collective-impact organization that leads citywide collaboration on high-impact youth initiatives. The mayor, CPS and more than 20 education nonprofits assisted. The submitted concept is based on offering every student a unique path informed by academic and career interests, with rigorous coursework and experiential and work-based learning.

The other proposal from several north and northwest suburban school districts is a finalist. It includes Maine Township High School District 207, Grayslake Community High School District 127, Leyden High School District 212 and High School District 128, which includes Libertyville and Vernon Hills. Their concept of a GAIN Academy calls for more project-based, individualized learning for students and networking among nine high schools.

Common prepares to perform in Grant Park after the session with students. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times
Common prepares to perform in Grant Park after the session with students. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Duncan, responding to the pain students expressed about navigating urban ills of poverty, homelessness and violence — in and out of the home — reminded them they could surmount all odds with passion and hard work.

“People’s failures, and frankly, their pain, can either break them, or it’s fuel. Me myself, I’ve had lots of failures. I’ve had lots of pain,” Duncan said. “And I think what you’ve heard here is that people have pushed through those failures and pushed through that pain.”