Creating a New School

Designing a Public School From Scratch

Initially, the offer sounded too good to refuse: a paid year off from teaching to establish a new public school with a mission to “transform the way we do education.” In the eyes of Tom Downs, a 26-year teaching veteran, and the other applicants, the sabbatical promised the chance to work with educators who shared a commitment to innovation to build the school of their dreams.

In retrospect, Downs believes that if she had continued doing what she was doing, she would have lasted much longer as a teacher. “I need to believe that I’m doing something different, that I’m striving to make a difference of some kind,” she says.

Five teachers, including Downs, were selected to serve on a task force that will design and build the 39th school in the Poway Unified School District from the ground up, drawing on insights from other schools across the country, guidance from industry leaders, and input from a diverse range of residents.

Using a design-thinking approach to gather insight and ideas from all stakeholders, Downs explained how the group got started right away by involving the community. “We started involving the community right away.” Poway residents and business owners participated in forums where they answered fill-in-the-blank questions such as: “If school were a place where…?” and “If school were a time when…”. Afterward, we’d require teachers, who…? Who are the students…? “Who are your parents?” Everyone was inspired by the questions to dream big.

As a result of this collaboration, architects designed and then constructed the structure to match the teaching and learning that educators and parents hoped to foster inside: glass walls to facilitate openness and transparency; flexible seating and writable surfaces to encourage student collaboration, and easily-moved furniture to allow for the space’s adaptability as the school grew in size over time.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by George Lucas.
The school’s official opening in 2014 was a difficult undertaking. Early on, school leaders determined that Design 39 Campus would be a public school for grades K–8, rather than a charter school, which presented a challenge to the task force in terms of working within district constraints.

I’m not even kidding when I say this table here took over six months of work, including three phone calls a week to get approval—I’m not even kidding.” Downs placed his hand on one of the school’s whiteboard tables, which are now being used to encourage students to work collaboratively, take risks, and share their ideas. However, he stressed the importance of perseverance. The importance of the structure of the school itself in dictating what happens inside cannot be overstated, says the author.


As students hurry—or dawdle—to their first classes of the day, early morning sunlight filters through the patchwork panes of blue and orange glass covering the walls of Design 39, casting a rainbow-like reflection across the sidewalk. Some people talk with their friends while lugging heavy instruments, passing around a basketball, or showing off their most recent art project. Several others are alone in the hallway, engrossed in an iPad application or game.

“One of the first things a new substitute will notice is the tremendous amount of trust that exists on our campus,” said Stacey Lamb, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher who works with the students. “Students walk everywhere—from the earliest ages, we have confidence in their ability to get to where they need to go.”

Newcomers are also quick to pick up on the school’s nomenclature: Design 39 is referred to as a campus rather than a school; teachers are referred to as learning experience designers (LEDs); the front desk is referred to as the Welcome Center; classrooms are referred to as studios, and the library is referred to as the Loft.

SCHOOL SNAPSHOT DESIGN 39 Campus Grades K-8 | San Diego, CA Enrollment 1011 | Public, Suburban Per Pupil Expenditures Design 39 Campus Grades K-8 | San Diego, CA
Free and Reduced Lunch Programs: $11,495 State; $10,208 District
DEMOGRAPHICS: 11% of the population
46 percent are white, 36 percent are Asian, 9 percent are Hispanic, 6 percent are multiracial, 1 percent are black, 1 percent are Pacific Islander, and 1 percent are Native American. 46 percent are white, 36 percent are Asian, 9 percent are Hispanic, 6 percent are multiracial, and 1 percent are Native American.
The information comes from the 2016–17 academic year.
“We renamed everything on campus to distinguish ourselves from traditional education and to serve as a daily reminder of our commitment to reimagining school,” explained Lamb.

It should come as no surprise that there is no principal’s office: Mr. Joe Erperling moves casually through the school, reinforcing a flat leadership structure in which teachers are encouraged to make decisions for themselves and to solve problems on their own. With the help of a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union, it is now possible for teachers who co-teach grades and collaborate with teams of their grade-level peers to use the dedicated time to collaborate with their colleagues instead of the traditional morning prep period.

Students and faculty members are both encouraged to pursue their special interests.


Maker labs, a music program in which students learn how to read and compose their music, and Minds in Motion—a new version of physical education in which students design their activities—are all available to students at the school. Explorations, which are four- to six-week electives designed and approved by students, delve deeply into topics that interest both students and teachers, such as photography or foreign languages, and provide a hands-on experience.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by George Lucas.
According to Bret Fitzpatrick, a middle school teacher, “the majority of what takes place on our campus is grassroots, bottom-up, and student-driven.”


It didn’t take long for families who had relocated in large numbers to the area to take notice of the school’s promise of innovative and student-centered education. They were attracted to the area by good jobs at tech corporations such as HP, Sony, and Broadcom—as well as by good schools, many of which are now overcrowded.

Parent Maria Simpson recalls the sense of hope she felt when she attended the first Design 39 meetings before the bulldozers even started moving dirt. She applied through Design 39’s lottery system to secure spots for her two sons, who are now both students at the school.

While Simpson’s children “thrive” at Design 39, she acknowledges that the transition from a traditional public school to the school’s emphasis on 21st-century learning was not always a smooth one for all families. Simpson serves on the Parent Collaborative, which is a joint PTA and fundraising organization. By the end of the school’s first year, approximately 100 families had abandoned the institution.

“I remember thinking to myself during the first year, ‘Did we make the right decision for our children by coming here?’ Parent Christine Paik, who also serves as the district’s communications director, explained that she was perplexed by the terminology, the homework policy, and the absence of progress reports.

At the elementary level, students are not assigned nightly homework; instead, they are encouraged to read a book or participate in academically aligned activities of their choosing. Due to the nature of the curriculum, grades are paired, and students are frequently divided into smaller mixed-grade groups based on their strengths and weaknesses. Instead of assigning traditional letter grades or scores, teachers assess students’ skills and competencies and provide feedback.

It was a lot for many families to take in at one time.

To alleviate parents’ concerns, the school established regular Parent Workshops, during which parents and caregivers visit classrooms to see firsthand what their children are learning and how they can best support that learning at home. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to attend. Parents discussed digital citizenship during a recent session, which was part of a series designed to teach parents how to help their children become both content creators and consumers on the internet, among other things.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by George Lucas.
“Staff were aware of the difficulties and have worked to improve communication between the school and the home,” says Paik. After being asked to speak at a staff appreciation event recently, I reflected on the transformation that has occurred in my children and realized that we had made the right decision in bringing them here.


Fourth-grade teacher Shshawna Rader says that learning how to communicate the important learning taking place at Design 39 to adults whose “anchor is still a traditional score” is an important part of the relationship-building process. She notes that while developing a Shark Tank business pitch, budgeting for a school field trip, or designing a water purification device may appear to be “fun,” these standards-aligned lessons teach students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers, preparing them to live and work in a globalized world, according to her.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by George Lucas.
Other people are taking notice as well, as the school has received accolades on a local and even national level. As of 2017, Design 39 Campus outperformed all other district schools in terms of school climate and student well-being indicators, and the middle school was ranked as the best in the district for the second consecutive year in 2018. The Design 39 model was recognized as an exemplary model by the United States Department of Education the following year.

Even though parents and faculty were waiting with bated breath to see how their first graduating class would fare in high school this year, it appears that they had little to be concerned about. Based on their academic performance, Design 39’s entering freshmen were on par with their peers in terms of grades, and they were reportedly superior in areas such as creativity, collaboration, and leadership, according to the high school’s principal.

The news served as a timely reminder for teachers, who, according to Rader, are still learning when to step forward and when to step back to allow students to direct their own educational experiences.

When Rader was in previous schools, he would have his lesson plan, his monthly plan, and a textbook that would tell him, “You’ll be finished by October.” Every child learns at a different pace, and we recognize this at our school. Let them drive, but we will assist them in navigating the road ahead.”