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A Million-Dollar Idea

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The school district’s vision for a high-school curriculum based on real-world problem-solving earns SCPS a $1 million award

You can solve a lot of problems with a million bucks, and a team of students and district leaders with Seminole County Public Schools hopes to do just that with a recent $1 million award from the XQ National Super School Project.

XQ is a movement committed to a new model of learning that unites educators, students, and businesses. The organization recently challenged school districts throughout the country to submit concept proposals for a new kind of high-school curriculum and handed out major grants to the best proposals of the bunch. More than 700 teams participated in this year’s competition, and SCPS was the only school district in Florida to bring home a reward.

The SCPS team submitted a proposal for Problem Solving Incubator High School, or PSI High. At this conceptual school, students would earn high-school credit for solving real-world problems by partnering with businesses, nonprofits, and government organizations in the community. 

The idea was borne from the hard work and dedication of Seminole County students, teachers, and district officials who worked hand-in-hand with Derek Jensen, the manager of digital and blended curriculum for SCPS.

Derek is quick to point out that the longevity and stamina of the proposal project was largely driven by the students. In fact, development of the proposal was scheduled to take up only a few afternoons, but the students sunk their teeth into the project, which eventually spanned nearly eight months. 

“Working with the students was by far the best part of this process for me,” says Derek. 

PSI High and its innovative approach to education in the 21st century is a bold idea, but it’s not unlike the existing curriculum already in place in some SCPS schools. This makes PSI High more likely to eventually become a real school in the district.
“Dr. Walt Griffin [the SCPS superintendent] is interested in injecting more authenticity in the student’s’ experiences and giving them more choice,” says Derek. 

Lake Mary High School is already home to an Advanced Manufacturing Program of Emphasis in which students create prototypes and fabricate parts for NASA and other local companies. Many of the ideas integrated into PSI High are based on the LMHS program and what students and administrators have learned since the Advanced Manufacturing & Innovation Academy came online.

The proposal’s authors believe a school like PSI High could help students who prefer a more hands-on, interactive experience in the classroom. Proposed features of PSI High include group work rooms, mixed-used spaces (including a café with organic, donated goods from local businesses), and a technology hub for students to rent out computers, tablets, smartphones, and other tools.

“This will be the heart of the collaborative experience at PSI High,” says Derek. 

Due to the non-traditional nature of the program, success at the hypothetical PSI High will be measured differently. Students would still be required to take standardized tests and perform well on benchmark exams, but they will also be expected to make a difference in the community.

“It will still be a public school,” Derek acknowledges, “but we are more interested in more processed-based problems and social justice projects, and we will gauge the impact on student engagement and the impact on the community.”

By the time students graduate from PSI High, they would have a portfolio of experience demonstrating their ability to solve social problems, business problems, and personal problems, giving them a real-world advantage as they enter the workforce.

All of the prize money is earmarked to bring the PSI High concepts to life, either in existing schools or in a real-life PSI High. While there’s no time frame for such a school to be built, Derek says the experience of preparing the proposal was rewarding on its own.

“Having the opportunity to see students be recognized for their hard work has been really powerful for all of us on the team,” he says. “It shows the students that they can make a difference and that we’re moving in the right direction. It’s thrilling.”

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